Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s plan to win the 2024 Republican presidential nomination is an unusual one. He is still the leading candidate whose name is not Donald Trump, but he didn’t gain any ground after formally entering the race a month ago. DeSantis is running as an alternative to the former president, not in the sense of contrasting his positions with Trump’s but, instead, in the sense of “if this guy gets hit by a meteor, here I am.”

Allies of DeSantis argue that there’s room to Trump’s right, which may be true in theory but doesn’t seem to be in practice. The governor’s embrace of culture war policies and jargon allows him to present himself as an anti-left warrior … but Trump speaks the language of partisan hostility much more authentically. DeSantis’s anger at the forces of “wokeness” and so on is palpable and probably sincere, but Trump’s is effortless and almost joyous. It’s an updated version of the old “who would you rather have a beer with” — who do you think would be more fun to pour beer on liberals with?

Trump’s gains in the polls over the past four months have come almost entirely at DeSantis’s expense.

On Wednesday, DeSantis appeared on Fox News to try, yet again, to entice Republican voters. And again, his plan was to try to out-Trump Trump by being angrier.

“Are you in favor of eliminating any agencies?” host Martha MacCallum asked DeSantis. “I know conservatives in the past have talked about closing the Department of Education. Would you do that?”

Would he ever!

“We would do Education. We would do Commerce, we’d do Energy, and we would do IRS,” DeSantis replied. “So if Congress would work with me on doing that, we’ll be able to reduce the size and scope of government.”

“Eliminate the IRS?” MacCallum responded, obviously nonplussed.

“What I’m also going to do, Martha, is be prepared, if Congress won’t go that far, I’m going to use those agencies to push back against woke ideology and against the leftism that we see creeping into all institutions of American life.”

He offered examples: reversing policies allowing transgender students to compete in sporting competitions that aligned with their gender identities, changing the accreditation process for colleges to block efforts to “foment more things like DEI and CRT.” Standard stuff for DeSantis.

But given that he wants to be president, it’s important to unpack this. There’s a reason that MacCallum balked at DeSantis’s mention of the IRS in particular: The role of that agency is extremely well-established and obviously important. Sure, no one likes paying taxes, but you get why someone needs to do it. It’s like leasing a car: You get the car but you are also signing up for a few years of payments for the privilege.

DeSantis and others would probably argue that what they’re getting for the IRS’s work isn’t worth the cost, like making monthly payments for an engineless 1977 Chevy Nova. That the government is so riddled with useless things that you might as well just shut off the tap. This was the rubric DeSantis was using in his conversation with MacCallum: Instead of draining the swamp, the swamp needed to be broken. (Take Trump, make it angrier. Done and done.)

In other words, his rhetoric depends on an enormously superficial understanding of what government does. People dislike the IRS so — poof! — bye, IRS! People (particularly people watching Fox News) think that the schools are riddled with critical race theory (CRT) so — poof! — bye, Education Department! See, if we get rid of those departments, we can “reduce the size and scope of government,” per DeSantis, and reducing the size of government in the abstract has been part of Republican politics for a very long time.

Of course, eliminating those departments wouldn’t really reduce the size of government much. Eliminate funding for the four agencies named by DeSantis, and government spending is reduced by less than 3 percent. Oh, and you lose most of the mechanism for collecting the revenue needed by the remaining 97 percent.

This slicing away of government bureaucracy also depends on a simplistic understanding of how government works. This is tens of thousands of jobs, of course, including jobs (such as teachers in local schools) supported by the agencies. It’s not like there’s a big machine sitting on New York Avenue where the Education Department simply takes dollar bills and converts them into Black Lives Matter flags. The spending results in programs that Americans use.

But again, DeSantis isn’t really being serious with all of this. While he certainly has not been shy about using the power granted to him as governor of Florida to reshape the state’s systems, he’s arguing for the elimination of these agencies because he has convinced himself that this is the way to peel away Trump support. He is telling Republicans and Fox News viewers that he’s mad as hell, and he’s not going to take it anymore, and then saying, you know, like in that movie. He is doing what he did when he first ran for governor: mimicking Trump.

Trump also proposed gutting the Education Department when he was running in 2016, along with the Environmental Protection Agency. At the time, the education agency’s sin was embracing a nationalized Common Core curriculum, which was to conservative-media consumers eight years ago what CRT is now (though at a lower temperature). Then Trump became president, and he didn’t do it because it was just something he said, like so many other things.

Republican 2024 primary voters don’t seem to mind.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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