Trump’s clone?

By Dr Imran Khalid
May 31, 2023

Governor of Florida Ron DeSantis has finally declared his bid for the US presidency. Interestingly, while DeSantis might seem to be the GOP’s contingency plan in the event of Trump’s absence from the upcoming elections due to the mounting legal entanglements, his emergence as a presidential hopeful is being seen as the continuation of the Republican Party’s hardline approach to Sino-American relations.


DeSantis’s ideological alignment with Trump stems from a deep-rooted desire to uphold the Republican Party’s robust stance on China, ensuring continuity in America’s foreign policy trajectory. DeSantis, apparently a strategic ‘backup option’ of the Republican Party, possesses a demeanor that echoes the confrontational and uncompromising stance towards China, championed by his predecessor Donald Trump.

Among the aspiring Republican presidential hopefuls, Governor Ron DeSantis stands as an intriguing figure, armed with a vision for a belligerent foreign policy agenda that entirely revolves around countering “China’s ambitious global plan”. In a phase where Russia’s involvement in the Ukrainian conflict and China’s growing influence in international affairs have seized the global stage, the significance of DeSantis’s ambitions cannot be understated. While he may be primarily recognized for his fervent engagement in the domestic culture war, it would be remiss to disregard his prior biases against China.

DeSantis kicked off his presidential race with the following words: “I am running for president of the US to lead our great American comeback. But we know our country’s going in the wrong direction. We see it with our own eyes. And we feel it in our bones.” Nothing is different from Donald Trump’s populist melodrama to incite the conservative vote back. Governor Ron DeSantis, 44, stands as the second most popular contender within the Republican field, as per a recent Harvard University-Harris poll.

Similarly, the latest poll figures from the prominent analysis website ‘Five Thirty Eight’ also present almost the same picture. Donald Trump maintains his lead with 54.3 per cent, solidifying his position as the undisputed frontrunner, while DeSantis is trailing behind with 20.6 per cent in the second place. Former vice president Mike Pence holds a steady third position, garnering 5.3 per cent, while Nikki Haley, the former US ambassador to the UN during Trump’s tenure, trails behind with 4.2 per cent. These statistics offer a snapshot of the current dynamics within the Republican field, as each contender vies for prominence in this closely watched political race.

The recent survey highlights a puzzling aspect of the American political landscape, revealing that the recent federal jury’s ruling, which held former president Donald Trump accountable for alleged sexual misconduct against E Jean Carroll, has not significantly impacted his loyal base of supporters. Despite Trump’s unprecedented status as the first US president held liable for accusations of sexual assault, his followers remain steadfast. This reflects that the legal verdict and the subsequent compensatory and punitive damages awarded to Carroll have not substantially altered the perception of Trump among his devoted supporters.

It remains premature to fully ascertain the potential ramifications of DeSantis’s candidacy on the forthcoming Republican primaries and, ultimately, the presidential election. As the months unfold, should DeSantis successfully amass increased support and narrow the margin to less than 10 per cent, his emergence as a formidable contender cannot be discounted. But this will be a daunting task for DeSantis, who is being increasingly viewed as a ‘contingency plan or a stepney’ should former president Donald Trump face significant legal challenges in the lead-up to the upcoming election. DeSantis has emerged as the party’s most viable alternative to Trump, as a potential replacement candidate in the event of unforeseen circumstances surrounding the former president.

DeSantis, in line with many of his conservative counterparts, has adopted an extremely hawkish stance toward China. Recently, on May 8, DeSantis approved a series of legislation that aimed at curbing the influence of Chinese apps such as TikTok on school and government servers and imposing restrictions on land purchases by Chinese citizens. These three bills, which received bipartisan support from the Republican-controlled legislature, also encompassed measures to prohibit universities in Florida from accepting any financial contributions from China.

As the election season takes heat in the US, politicians from both major parties are likely to adopt a more confrontational approach towards China, vying to outdo one another in their hawkishness. This intensified rhetoric and competition could lead to a further deterioration of China-US relations, which are already marked by considerable tension. The current state of bilateral ties serves as a stark reminder of the challenges that lie ahead, leaving us to ponder the potential depths to which China-US relations may sink during the election period.

Donald Trump’s criminal case in Manhattan is slated for March 25, 2024. The timing of the trial – just before the election – raises the possibility that if Trump were to be convicted and receive a prison sentence, his ability to run for office would be thwarted, potentially opening the door for Governor Ron DeSantis to emerge as the Republicans’ alternative candidate.

This unfolding situation not only highlights the critical importance of the trial’s outcome in shaping the future course of the Republican Party but also underscores the consequential role that Governor Ron DeSantis may assume in such a scenario. The ramifications of these events extend beyond domestic politics, with potential implications for Sino-US relations as well.

The writer is a freelance contributor.