Ron DeSantis laughed like a maniac with Iowa voters. It matters more than you think
Last week, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis went viral for an “unhinged laugh” during an exchange with voters in Iowa. Yet, despite a brief stir on social media, the moment seems to have faded from the collective consciousness within days. It didn't diminish DeSantis’s outlook for 2024, nor did it instigate a media frenzy. However, if we rewind nearly two decades ago to a similar event in Iowa, the scenario played out quite differently.
The now-infamous “I Have a Scream Speech” involved leading Democratic candidate, then-Vermont Gov. Howard Dean releasing an extended yelp that many believe tanked his presidential bid. This seemingly unremarkable display of passion during a politically charged speech was seized upon by media outlets and spun into a narrative of instability. Non-stop replays, remixes and late-night TV parodies of the incident painted Dean as “unpresidential,” a caricature that eventually led to the end of his campaign. It’s a striking contrast to DeSantis's recent misstep.
These two episodes highlight not only the drastic shift in our political and media landscapes over two decades but also signal a more recent development — our modern desensitization to the political gaffe.
In the past, gaffes had the power to change electoral stakes in an instant, render candidates unelectable, and, some argue, even change the course of history. The power of the political gaffe rested on its purported ability to reveal something deeper about the true nature of a candidate.
Dukakis’s photo-op with a tank, an attempt to look pro-military, famously backfired, making him look inauthentic. Al Gore’s on-stage smooch with his wife Tipper at the 2000 Democratic National Convention drove news cycles that perpetuated a narrative of the candidate as awkward. Hillary Clinton welling up during the 2008 New Hampshire primary set off weeks of (gendered and problematic) debate on her fitness for office. In 2012, Mitt Romney dismissed Americans who do not pay federal income tax, earning headlines such as “Mitt Romney's 47% gaffe makes him 100% unsuitable to be president.”
But what was the biggest gaffe of the 2020 election cycle? It’s hard to call one standalone image or soundbite to mind.
Trump's presidency, characterized by its extreme rhetoric, constant controversies and the blurring of lines between politics and spectacle has fundamentally altered our collective perception of what is deemed outrageous or disqualifying. In the years following the Trump era, even something as peculiar as DeSantis's maniacal laughter barely registers on our collective radar. As global politics professor Brian Klaas explained in year three of Trump’s presidency:
Any of those despicable behaviors would have shocked the American public in any other presidency. They would have unleashed endless coverage and defined the president’s term in office. Now they’re just another Monday.
As a voter under 30, watching the “Dean scream” moment now, it’s unbelievable to imagine a time in American politics when that overzealous moment was considered a scandal. In 2023, we have a twice impeached criminally indicted former president as the current frontrunner for the Republican nomination.
As a voter under 30, watching the “Dean scream” moment now, it’s unbelievable to imagine a time in American politics where that overzealous moment was considered a scandal.
Every day Trump engages in behaviors or makes statements that reveal him to be entirely unsuitable for any office. As Republicans capitulate to Trumpism, other erratic and antisocial characters have risen in the political ranks, from Rep. Jim Jordan to Rep. Matt Gaetz to Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene. The daily barrage of outrageous behaviors from these politicians who beat us over the head with their obnoxious personalities has fed into the meme-ification of our politics. There is no one-off moment that will reveal some great nuance about Rep. Lauren Boebert’s character.
And yes, Biden’s tenure has also contributed to our post-gaffe environment: some dub the 46th president a gaffe-machine. In fairness to Biden, he grew up with a serious speech impediment that may explain some of his muddled utterances. Still, while Biden’s flubs may serve as fodder to those who attack his mental agility or age, Biden’s decades in public leadership have earned him a reputation for decency. The gaffes don’t stick to him.
While some may write-off the classic political gaffe as superficial, the recent viral moment of DeSantis’s seemingly inauthentic cackle is an example of the insight an unscripted political moment can offer. DeSantis seems to consistently miss the ability to connect on a human level. Recent reporting revealed that advisors had even instructed him to write “LIKABLE” across his notepad during debate prep sessions. This is a candidate who just launched his 2024 bid.
While we may be desensitized to the daily temper tantrums of the MAGA cabal, we shouldn’t give up on trying to read into interpersonal moments or missteps that reveal deeper truths about those who seek to lead us. Our collective inability to take note of the moment in any meaningful or lasting way seems like a loss — and the consequences will last longer than a news cycle.