Ron DeSantis’ campaign may be done, but his brand of MAGA petulance will continue to plague us

Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida finally pulled the plug on his mortally wounded bid to be the Republican nominee for president. In a typical fashion for the man who drew speculation about what fingers he uses to eat pudding, DeSantis went out trying to act tough but only ended up highlighting his servility to bigger bullies. He described himself as “leading with conviction, championing an agenda marked by bold colors.” In reality, however, DeSantis bent the knee to Donald Trump, a man who routinely called him names like “Meatball Ron” and “DeSanctimonious.” 

No one will be sad to see DeSantis go. But in clomping back to Florida in his (alleged) heel lifts, DeSantis leaves one major question unanswered: Why so mad, Ron? 

DeSantis still matters because he represents a type that’s increasingly prevalent in our political landscape: The petulant MAGA nerd.

On paper, DeSantis has everything a man should hope for: power, money, status, and yes, even love. His seems like a charmed life. He has degrees from Yale and Harvard, and a distinguished legal and military career. He’s been a congressman and the governor of a massive state. He married a beautiful, fashionable woman and they have three lovely children. He’s a millionaire. Even going back to his Little League career, DeSantis was a success. He should be glowing with gratitude for the unbelievable number of blessings in his life. 

And yet, every day on the DeSantis campaign trail started from the wrong side of the bed. No matter the subject, DeSantis sounded perpetually aggrieved. Sometimes he was snappish, and sometimes just whiny, but always bristling. Even when he was trying to sound upbeat, the river of resentment would burble up in his mannerisms and his peevish voice. Reporters got used to the way he seemed to always have sand in his underwear, but stepping back, it’s just plain weird that DeSantis was so irritable all the time.

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Now that the Grinch Who Stole Disney (or wanted to, anyway) has dropped out, his anger issues may not seem relevant any longer. But DeSantis still matters because he represents a type that’s increasingly prevalent in our political landscape: The petulant MAGA nerd.

Trump himself is barely literate, and his rise accelerated the exodus of college-educated voters from the GOP. Subsequently, most coverage of MAGA has focused on supporters not known for remembering what they scored on the SATs: Fox News-addled Boomers eating bacon in a rural diner. Proud Boys with more “drunk and disorderly” arrests than diplomas. Christian fundamentalists who believe Jesus rode a dinosaur. Bug-eyed conspiracy theorists raving about QAnon. What they share is whiteness and a distaste for reading anything longer than a bad meme. 

But there is one strain of MAGA loyalist that rejects the identity of the proud ignoramus, instead imagining himself a man of letters. Indeed, such types don’t just think they’re smart, they fancy themselves towering giants of intellect. But they also believe they are belittled by a small-minded “establishment” of academics, creatives, and professionals who are too allegedly addled by liberal pretensions to recognize the brilliance of their right-wing betters. 

This type has always been with us. Ask anyone who shared a high school debate team with a kid who wore pocket squares in his ill-fitting suit jacket. They’re the dudes who actually read Ayn Rand and William Buckley. What they share is whiteness and a baseless belief they are smarter than everyone else — but they reserve special disdain for the cognitive capacities of women and people of color. 

Despite Trump’s struggles with basic literacy, his rise has somehow caused a proliferation of smarmy pseudo-intellectuals like DeSantis on the national radar. In Silicon Valley, you have the Elon Musk and Peter Thiel breed, who have made billions of dollars yet spend most of their time pouting because middle class journalists on Twitter think they’re dumb. Then there’s Christopher Rufo and his army of white men on a mission of vengeance against universities like Harvard and New College for the alleged sin of gifting “their” degrees to minorities and women instead. There are also religious ones, like Leonard Leo of the Federalist Society or Sohrab Ahmari of Compact Magazine, who hope five-dollar words and thick eyeglasses will decimate the snake-handling image of fundamentalism. 

MAGA nerds, as a whole, are a small fraction of the movement — they just have an outsized presence. That’s because they’re heavily overrepresented online and in the media, which is true of college-educated people generally. DeSantis initially looked like a contender against Trump because he had the backing of the corduroy jacket conservatives at places like the National Review and the Wall Street Journal. It wasn’t just that DeSantis was “Trump without the baggage,” either. In him, they saw one of their own.

DeSantis often speaks in incomprehensible acronyms like “ESG” or “DEI,” revealing that he was so immersed in the world of elite right-wing discourse that he lost the ability to speak plain English. Or witness the contemptuous way he dismissed criticism from actual historians when he passed a law forcing public schools to scrub lessons about the full extent of racism in America’s past. “These are the most robust standards in African-American history probably anywhere in the country,” he groused. It’s all there: The insistence he knows more than the experts, and the bitterness towards those who disagree. He often subjects medical experts to the same treatment, sneeringly dismissing the science behind COVID-19 prevention, as if decades of research on the biology of immunity has no more validity than a Tarot card reading. 

Of course, like DeSantis himself, the faux-intellectuals of the far-right will line up behind Trump, just like they did in past elections. That’s because, as erudite as they imagine themselves to be, they share important qualities with the diner-dwellers DeSantis could barely pretend to like. Whiteness, of course. But also an ever-present fury at the so-called “liberal elite” for looking down their noses at them. 

It’s always wild hearing MAGA millionaires and billionaires curse the “elite,” a group that is mostly composed of people who make a lot less money than they do: adjunct college professors, freelance writers, creative professionals, and progressive activists. But it makes more sense when viewed in light of the intellectual insecurities of people like DeSantis. “Liberal elite” is just a gussied-up way of complaining about being rejected by the Cool Kids. It’s channeling rage at people who think you can’t be that smart if you got beat by a guy who keeps forgetting Barack Obama is not the president. 

That’s the great irony in this: DeSantis and his ilk imagine they are fierce warriors sticking it to a “liberal elite” who shunned them. In reality, though, they are just submitting to Trump, an imbecilic bully who responds to self-important book-readers by shoving their heads in toilets. Petty authoritarians like DeSantis and Musk set out to show those liberals who’s boss, by running for president or buying Twitter. All too often, however, their efforts end in even more pointing and laughing from the same people who already make them feel inadequate. 

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