Ron DeSantis, a likely contender for the Republican presidential nomination, must court far-right voters who consider him a tool of the Deep State.
To some, he is “Ron DeSoros,” a puppet of the Democratic megadonor George Soros. To others, he is “Ron DeSatan,” a vaccine-supporting evildoer. And to still others, he is “Ron DePLANTis,” a “plant” of the so-called Deep State.
As the governor of Florida — real name Ron DeSantis — explores a bid for the Republican presidential nomination, he has made overtures to supporters of former President Donald J. Trump. But he is finding that the conspiracy theories and outlandish attacks that Mr. Trump and his allies have aimed at rivals for years are coming for him as well.
The attacks often nod to one of the many unfounded conspiracy theories floating around in far-right circles: election fraud, vaccine dangers, Mr. Soros and even QAnon, the online conspiracy movement that believes, among other things, in the existence of a fictional cult that preys on children.
The attacks underscore the power that conspiracy theories continue to hold over Republican politics heading into the 2024 presidential election. To win the party’s nomination, Mr. DeSantis would probably need support from a Republican base that has produced many of theattacks against him. And while Mr. DeSantis enjoys broad support among Republicans, soaring to re-election victory just six months ago, the latest primary polls show Mr. Trump gaining a sizable lead.
“It’s a tug of war over who is going to grab the all-important conspiracy constituency,” said Bond Benton, an associate professor at Montclair State University who has studied QAnon.
The demeaning nicknames for Mr. DeSantis have spread widely on conservative social media, growing this year as Mr. Trump’s attacks increased. There were more than 12,000 mentions of “DeSoros” on social media and news sites since January, according to Zignal Labs, a media insights company. “DeathSantis,” a term progressives used when the governor began relaxing Florida’s Covid-19 restrictions that has since been adopted by some conservatives, received 1.6 million mentions over the past two years.
In recent months, Mr. DeSantis has responded by adopting some themes popular among the conspiratorial set, opposing vaccines he once endorsed and raising doubts about the 2020 election even though Mr. Trump handily won Florida in that year’s vote.
Mr. DeSantis’s office did not respond to requests for comment.
Mike Lindell, the MyPillow executive and an election denier, said, falsely, that Florida was spared from widespread voter fraud in the 2020 election because Mr. DeSantis had a close relationship with Dominion Voting Systems.Credit…Haiyun Jiang/The New York Times
The attacks have come from some of the loudest voices in Mr. Trump’s corner.
Mike Lindell, the MyPillow executive and an election denier, quickly found a role for Mr. DeSantis in his elaborate election fraud narrative. Mr. Lindell said, falsely, that Florida was spared from widespread voter fraud in the 2020 election because Mr. DeSantis had a close relationship with Dominion Voting Systems, an election software company targeted by election deniers.
“Ron DeSantis is a Trojan horse,” Mr. Lindell said in a recent interview with The New York Times.
Mr. Lindell pointed to an appearance Mr. DeSantis had had with a Dominion lawyer shortly after the election as a sign that the governor had conflicting loyalties.
The lawyer, Elizabeth Locke, was speaking with Mr. DeSantis on a panel about the dangers of defamation by mainstream media. She has also represented Sarah Palin, the former Republican vice-presidential candidate.
There is no evidence of widespread voter fraud anywhere in the 2020 election and no evidence that Mr. DeSantis had any special relationship with Dominion.
In an email, Ms. Locke pointed to a podcast appearance where she called the claims “silly” and said that she had known Mr. DeSantis since before he entered politics.
Kari Lake, a Republican who lost her campaign for governor of Arizona last year, once praised Mr. DeSantis on the campaign trail. But she turned on him in February, as Mr. Trump’s attacks grew.Credit…Rebecca Noble for The New York Times
Kari Lake, a Republican who lost her campaign for governor of Arizona last year, once praised Mr. DeSantis on the campaign trail. But in February, as Mr. Trump’s attacks grew, she shared a story claiming Mr. DeSantis was endorsed by Mr. Soros, calling it “the kiss of death.” (Mr. Soros had only said that Mr. DeSantis was likely to become the nominee.)
“The broader narrative is that he is connected to the shadowy forces that seek to bring down Trump,” said Mr. Bond, the Montclair professor.
Mr. DeSantis was forced to play catch-up, making broad appeals to conspiratorial groups within the Republican Party.
Last year, he announced a crackdown on voter fraud, arresting 17 people for charges of casting illegal ballots in 2020. Many of the voters had received voter registration cards from the government.
Mr. DeSantis had once endorsed Covid-19 vaccines and celebrated as Floridians were rapidly vaccinated. By late last year, though, he had impaneled a statewide grand jury to investigate vaccine makers for potentially misleading Floridians, reflecting a false belief among Trump supporters that the vaccine is dangerous.
Believers of the QAnon conspiracy theory do not seem swayed by Mr. DeSantis’s appeals, said Josephine Lukito, a media professor at the University of Texas who studies the relationship between disinformation and violence. “For them, that is more indicative of what a faker they perceive DeSantis to be.”