When Hurricane Ian punished Florida not long ago, Ron DeSantis, the state’s Republican governor, declared it a freakish, “500-year flood.” But if you’d been faithfully reading DeSantis Daily, the newsletter blasted out to his supporters, you could have been forgiven for thinking the flood had been devised by diabolical Democrats — and that DeSantis might turn it back all by himself.
Opinion | Dark Brandon, DeSantis Daily and the rise of the political avatar
DeSantis Daily makes sure to note it has “no official relationship” to the governor, and technically I’m sure that’s true. It’s part of the shadowy constellation of groups that pop up around a presidential aspirant these days, crafting a comic-book narrative that exists in its own separate reality, seen only by those in its orbit.
In DeSantis’s case, that comic book takes the form of a personal tabloid featuring his heroic exploits in pursuit of justice. Every day, in DeSantis Daily, our main character battles the hapless villains of Woke World, leaving them beaten and befuddled at every turn.
Even as Ian was bearing down on the Florida coast, for instance, the headline in DeSantis Daily screamed: “Ron DeSantis just put Democrats on notice about pushing the Left’s socialist agenda in Florida.”
“Ron DeSantis turned the sunshine state into an ‘oasis of freedom’ during the pandemic,” the story began. “But Democrats have declared war on freedom in America.” The undaunted DeSantis responded by denouncing “Marxism, Leninism, Communism,” and whatever other early industrial-age ideology he might have forgotten.
In another installment, DeSantis was “running circles around Joe Biden and the Democrats” by strongly implying that he had sent a planeload of migrants to Delaware, when in fact it was just a brilliant head fake to panic his adversaries. Mission accomplished.
In DeSantis Daily, what others are doing to DeSantis is often “jaw-dropping.” His enemies are always “losing their mind” at how he’s outmaneuvered them. “All hell” is constantly breaking loose.
“Ron DeSantis made one promise that has Democrats wetting their pants.” “One fact about Ron DeSantis will give Democrats nightmares every night.” And so on.
I didn’t sign up for DeSantis Daily; a longtime reader of mine has been forwarding the newsletter. Curiously, it claims to emanate from an address in Smithfield, Va., and its stories are signed by “DeSantis Daily staff,” which seems meant to conjure a roomful of Lois Lanes clacking away, rather than what I strongly suspect is a single sad intern in pajama pants.
Oh, and let’s not forget the ads that pay for this, which apparently aren’t vetted by a lawyer. There’s one for a “big, nasty, gorgeous” foot-long knife that may “show-up at your front door” if you hand over your email address RIGHT NOW. There’s a video advertising divine oil that will cure your diabetes or prostate issues. It all screams “presidential.”
What I find interesting about this newsletter is how a Yale- and Harvard-educated, Brooks Brothers-looking politician is consciously remade to inhabit the character of a video-game protagonist, repelling wave after wave of freedom-hating zombies.
By no means is this political phenomenon limited to DeSantis or Republicans. Witness the rise of “Dark Brandon,” President Biden’s mutant alter ego, who smites Republicans with lightning bolts while tossing off one liners like, “Your malarkey has been going on for long enough, kiddo.” The White House press office — which, don’t forget, operates with tax dollars for the solemn purpose of informing the public — has embraced and retweeted the meme.
(The nickname “Brandon” comes from a NASCAR driver who happened to win a race at which the crowd chanted profanities at the president, who wasn’t even there. Imagine the poor historians, 100 years from now, who will waste precious days trying to untangle this.)
What we’re seeing is the latest iteration of the perilous collision of politics and entertainment. Presidential contenders are now encouraging — or at least not discouraging — the creation of avatars that stand in for their actual selves, the same way a Clash of Clans gamer might play under the alias of “SheWolf33” or “Mattfury.” (I’m not saying that’s my screen name. I’m just not saying it isn’t.)
This is a problem, and not just for an electorate that really doesn’t need to have its politics any more trivialized than they already are. It’s a problem, too, for the candidates themselves, who don’t much resemble the supersized avatars their minions have created.
Unlike gamers, politicians inevitably have to step onto the stage and be seen for who they are. The larger the gap between avatar and reality, the more dramatic the letdown will be.
If and when Dark Brandon hits the reelection trail, voters will see an 80-year-old man who could pass, on a good day, for 78. And when DeSantis the Conqueror eventually emerges from Florida to seek out new enemies, his subscribers will see a 5-foot-9-inch former congressman who looks like he could be your real estate agent.
That’s not to diminish the considerable political skill of either man. It’s just to say that no candidate should be wishful enough to believe that he or she can replace their actual self, flaws and all, with a pixelated hero.
If they do, I’ve got a divine oil that’s definitely worth a look.