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Boris Johnson didn’t start the fire. It was Theresa May, his predecessor as UK prime minister, who embarked on a harder Brexit than a close referendum result seemed to warrant. It was May who gave some bellicose advisers the run of Downing Street. It was May who equivocated when High Court judges were under tabloid siege. Much of the civic and economic rot in the UK can be traced back to a prime minister who now plays the elder stateswoman, forever tutting at her errant successors.

Some Conservatives have a theory about this. Having voted Remain, and scolded “nasty” Tories in the past, May was always straining to show the right that she was one of them. The result was textbook overcompensation. A fervent Leaver, with nothing to prove, might have been milder on the status of UK-resident EU citizens, for instance. And slower to invoke Article 50, the formal process of Brexit, when there was no plan.

An ocean away, US Republicans won’t remember her from among the rabble of recent UK premiers. But, as Ron DeSantis courts them, the parable of May is something to keep in mind as a warning. The idea has taken hold that Florida’s governor is a much safer alternative to Donald Trump: a populist, no doubt, but a house-trained one. This is wrong, or at least rash, on two counts.

First, DeSantis is abler and more disciplined than Trump. Even if he believes in just three-quarters of the Maga creed, he can get a greater share of it enacted. Trump’s efforts to subvert the US system always hit against the limits of his own attention span and executive grip. That fail-safe won’t exist with DeSantis.

Second, there is something of May about DeSantis: something of the try-hard. Precisely because he arouses mistrust among Trump voters, he is always striving to prove his populist credentials. Perhaps he seriously believes, for example, that Ukraine does not rank among America’s “vital national interests”. (Which would be troubling enough.) As likely, he is pandering to a crowd that views him with suspicion as an establishment Republican. And this is in early 2023, before any showdown with Trump for the party’s presidential nomination has even begun.

There was always one benign feature of the Trump personality cult. Because millions of voters are unconditionally faithful to the 45th president, he doesn’t need to say or do anything in particular. His flock is there if he builds a wall against Mexico, and there if he doesn’t. It is there when he flatters the dictator of North Korea, and there when he threatens to crush him. It is there as he promises an infrastructure splurge, and there as his successor Joe Biden does much more to bring one about. It is even there when he recommends vaccines against Covid-19.

Trump doesn’t live or die by his policies. That is the point of a personality cult. He has no incentive to become ever more extreme (though also no incentive not to). I suspect he could turn into a pro-trade liberal and China dove and keep the greater share of his following.

DeSantis has no such license. What makes him so deceptively risky is that he must keep earning and retaining the trust of populist voters through his actions. His conventional Ivy League résumé, his photo-op with Biden during Hurricane Ian, even his personal stiffness: moderate Republicans hope that these are the marks of a pliable company man.

But these are also liabilities that he will have to counteract in a primary contest. So, expect more gestures in the vein of his Ukraine statement, or his call for a grand jury to look into vaccines, or his rolling war on woke. No US politician in recent years has been more resourceful in finding causes to fight. That owes something to imagination. It owes even more to insecurity about his place in his party.

The Goldilocks candidate, just rightwing enough, is how much of the Republican donor class views DeSantis. But there is another way of looking at this. He is sufficiently steeped in populism to spell trouble. (Unlike, say, Nikki Haley, who announced her 2024 presidential bid last month.) But not so steeped that he can sit back and let his reputation speak for itself with the Republican base. The ultimate effect of his being almost-Maga is not moderation, but a restless itch to belong. Perversely, Trump himself has more latitude to disappoint the extremists.

In the history of nations, there is nothing to suggest that damage is only done by true believers and obvious vandals. Beware them. But beware the pretenders no less. They have too much to prove, and to the wrong people.

janan.ganesh@ft.com

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