Slitting throats, capping knees: Where is DeSantis’ tough talk headed?

Violent imagery is a key part of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ verbal arsenal on the campaign trail.
Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during a fundraising event Aug. 6 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. DeSantis' presidential campaign appearances in Iowa have featured rhetoric some critics have denounced as overly harsh or violent.
Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during a fundraising event Aug. 6 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. DeSantis' presidential campaign appearances in Iowa have featured rhetoric some critics have denounced as overly harsh or violent. [ CHARLIE NEIBERGALL | AP ]
Published Aug. 18|Updated Aug. 18

Gov. Ron DeSantis minced no words when he told Iowans how he’d clean up Washington, D.C.’s “deep state” if elected president.

“We are going to start slitting throats on Day One,” he said July 30.

He held little back when discussing how Florida has targeted corporate environmental, social and governance programs.

“We have kneecapped ESG in Florida,” he posted on X, the site formerly known as Twitter, in July.

In May, shortly after launching his campaign, he told Fox News he’d like to wipe opposing political philosophies off the map.

“I will be able to destroy leftism in this country, and leave woke ideology on the dustbin of history,” he said.

Cutting throats, smashing kneecaps, “destroying” those who don’t share his agenda: It’s the tough talk DeSantis’ “Never Back Down” campaign was built on.

But there are limits, it seems, to how much tough talk GOP primary voters are willing to take. DeSantis’ straggling poll numbers and reported campaign financial woes suggest his aggressive tone hasn’t clicked with conservatives the way former President Donald Trump’s did in 2016.

Washington Post columnist George Will this month criticized DeSantis’ “evident decision to leapfrog the former president on the spectrum of loutishness.” Hotel entrepreneur Robert Bigelow, who’s given more than $20 million to DeSantis’ Never Back Down super PAC, told Reuters that he’s holding off until DeSantis changes course.

“Extremism isn’t going to get you elected,” Bigelow said.

“It seems as if strategically they felt that he needed to capture a segment of the electorate that responds to Donald Trump’s more extreme rhetoric,” said Mark Strama, director of the University of Texas’ Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life and a former Democratic Texas state legislator. “And I don’t think that’s worked for him at all.”

A DeSantis spokesperson did not respond to questions about the tone of his presidential campaign. This month, he’s seemingly taken a more moderate tenor, appearing gracious on social media and putting his family in the spotlight.

But with the first Republican primary debate set for Wednesday, the race is about to enter an even more combative phase. And it’s unclear if that softer tone will stick.

The value of tough talk

Whether DeSantis realizes it or not, a word like “kneecapping” can have a real effect on voters.

In 2018, Boise State University researcher Stephen Utych studied the impact of negative language in politics — say, calling something a “cancer” or Trump calling Sen. Marco Rubio a “choker.” Such language provokes strong emotions and recall, Utych wrote, as it forges “connections between the politician and ideas that individuals already have about things they do not like.”

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Tough-on-crime language could help DeSantis convince conservative voters he can turn that rhetoric into policy.

Related: DeSantis sharpens ‘law and order’ look as campaign falters

DeSantis has said the United States should use “deadly force” against border crossers trafficking illegal drugs; at an event Friday in Georgia, he said he’d “leave them stone-cold dead at the border.” He’s strengthened Florida’s death penalty by signing a law requiring only eight of 12 jurors to vote in favor of death, and another that would challenge U.S. Supreme Court precedent by allowing capital punishment for child rapists.

Even if such moves are eventually declared unconstitutional, for the purposes of campaign messaging it might not matter, said Robert Dunham, special counsel at the nonprofit law firm Phillips Black.

”There are no adverse political consequences for taking these extreme positions, at least at the primary level,” said Dunham, who is the former executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center.

It could be different in a general election.

In a statement, Everett Kelley, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, called DeSantis’ “slitting throats” comment “disgraceful and disqualifying,” saying: “No federal employee should face death threats from anyone, least of all from someone seeking to lead the U.S. government.”

It’s this image of DeSantis as a throat-slitter — and not a proponent of small government — that Utych suggests might be the lasting effect of his rhetoric. Trump’s attacks helped earn him the 2016 nomination, Utych wrote, but in the long run, they likely contributed to his “unprecedented unfavorability ratings.”

“If affective language creates a generalized negative mood,” he wrote, “it should lead to more negative evaluations of all politicians involved.”

A new approach

When the DeSantis campaign cut a third of its staff in July, among those let go was a speechwriter who had retweeted a pro-DeSantis video that included a common Nazi symbol known as a sonnenrad.

“A campaign reflects the candidate, and it’s hard to imagine a situation where it can on a persistent basis generate messaging that isn’t the candidate’s preferred messaging,” Strama said. “The candidate signals to staff what tone to take.”

A sampling of DeSantis’ posts on X from May to early August reveals a decidedly negative worldview.

Our country is going in the wrong direction. … The left is obsessed with controlling your behavior. … I will rip up Joe Biden’s failed liberal economic agenda. … We are going to run him ragged and hold him accountable. … Radical ideology being crammed down your throat. … We need a leader with the courage to fight back.

But over the last two weeks, DeSantis has struck a more balanced tone. His feed has leaned on photos from the Iowa campaign trail, often featuring his wife and children: attending church, greeting veterans, dishing out treats at the Iowa State Fair and so on.

Had a great day. … Great to be here. … Great to hear from voters. … Enjoyed serving ice cream this morning. … We appreciated the chance to meet so many freedom loving Iowans. … Thank you for the warm welcome!

The tonal shift might be temporary. This week, The New York Times reported on internal memos designed to prepare DeSantis for Wednesday’s primary debate. The memos suggested he should try “showing emotion” by telling stories about his family.

As for how to handle one of his biggest rivals?

“Take a sledgehammer to Vivek Ramaswamy,” it read.

Times/Herald Tallahassee bureau reporter Romy Ellenbogen contributed to this report.

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