If you remember the 2016 presidential election — and I’m very sorry if you do — then you recall how essential Donald Trump’s online fandom was in his rise to power. The alt-right trolls of 4chan delighted campaign strategists like Steve Bannon by pumping out MAGA memes and pushing the political conversation wherever they wanted it to go. On Reddit, r/The_Donald served a similar function, becoming a juggernaut of ultranationalist fervor that would be banned in June 2020 after years of hosting hate speech and spreading conspiracy theories.
Looking ahead to 2024, many Republicans see Florida Governor Ron DeSantis as the natural heir to Trump, even though the former president is eligible to run for a second term. DeSantis has largely deflected speculation on this matter, wary of the potential for a bitter primary battle against a sometime ally, but his massive 2022 reelection fundraising haul from Trump’s own donors has marked him as a contender for the White House in the near future. And, in addition to those wealthy backers, not a few regular voters have hopped on the DeSantis bandwagon.
Although r/DeSantis, a subreddit that boasts a “DeSantis for President” banner, is somewhat older, r/TheDesantisZone, created this past November, looks to be picking up momentum and is more active of late. It also has a more clearly defined cult of personality, packaged with an openly authoritarian ideology: “TheDesantisZone is a strictly partisan subreddit for pro-DeSantis supporters to engage in sharing media, information and discussion in support of the 46th Governor of Florida Ron DeSantis,” the page reads. Users of “all political backgrounds” are supposedly welcome to participate, but must “remain pro-DeSantis in … comments and posts.”
With only a couple thousand members so far, the DeSantis Zone is far from the anarchic melee and meme-fest that Trump’s early digital war rooms were — which is perhaps by design. The users focus on what they see as DeSantis’ proven track record in Florida (whether that means signing anti-LGBTQ legislation or attacking Biden on border issues) where Trump supporters once reveled in spectacle, image and frenzy. They paint him as the sober, sane alternative to Trump, who doesn’t clown around and actually gets stuff done. Some of those reluctant to see him run for president in 2024 aren’t worried that he’s not ready, but live in Florida and don’t want to lose their governor that soon. Others think he would make a fine vice president for Trump, climbing to the top of the GOP ticket in 2028. In any case, he’s the obvious future of the party.
If these talking points from DeSantis’ online machine as it rumbles to life are clues to where it’s headed, his base will probably sell him as a more traditional politician, though with the extreme right-wing agenda that has animated Republicans since Trump obliterated the social niceties of governance. Clearly, they hope that a veneer of competence and air of stability can advance the causes that the last guy mostly just riffed on. But this safe, even boring approach of synthesizing culture war outrage and a polished conventional candidate may come at the cost of the enthusiasm that made Trump a viral phenomenon in the first place. Reddit and 4chan embraced him first and foremost as one of their own — a naturally gifted shitposter, basically indifferent to the consequences of his words or actions. While this demographic may enjoy watching DeSantis “trigger the libs,” they’re unlikely to extract entertainment value from the man himself.
Well, at any rate, they’re trying. And we’re a long way out from 2024. The DeSantis Squad has time to marshal their forces and hone their style. Soon enough, they could expand from a minor fan club to a national headache. After 2016, we’ll have no excuse for being surprised.