“It’s the little things that kill”—at least, according to the 90s British band Bush. Those post-grunge opening guitar chords always pop into my head whenever someone mentions the debate swirling around how to pronounce Ron DeSantis’ last name.
With so many big things going on in the world, this story feels small and petty. On the other hand, not knowing how to pronounce one’s own name is obviously weird, and may serve as a metaphor for deeper concerns about DeSantis. Indeed, Donald Trump is already weaponizing it as I write this.
In case you missed it, we are currently engaged in a great national debate over whether it’s pronounced “Dee-Santis” or “Deh-Santis.” Ron DeSantis can’t even seem to make up his mind about it, choosing to oscillate between the two pronunciations.
What is more, he won’t provide any guidance. “It is odd, I have to say, that the DeSantis campaign won’t confirm one way or another, how to say his name,” MSNBC host Willie Geist said Thursday on Morning Joe. Most recently, DeSantis sought to sidestep the question entirely, saying that the way to pronounce his last name is, “Winner.” Cute.
This has been going on for years. And while it’s not uncommon for the descendants of immigrants to Americanize names (often, members of the same family insist on different pronunciations or even spellings), it is unusual for a 44-year-old man in a public-facing role not to have settled on a version.
A confession: When I first heard about this controversy a few months ago, I happened to be in Miami with my wife, Erin, whose last name is DeLullo (her first cousin is puzzle influencer Samantha DeLullo). As we walked on the boardwalk, I proceeded to list all the reasons this makes DeSantis look like a phony. Then, I smugly said, “Your name is DeLullo, and everyone knows it’s pronounced ‘Deh-Lullo.’”
Her response? “I say, “Dee-Lullo.”
Keep in mind, we’ve been married for seventeen years. I suddenly developed some newfound compassion for the DeSantises’ conundrum.
But for those who doubt whether this silly controversy might actually have legs, I would cite the fact that no-less an expert and putdowns, Donald Trump, has zeroed-in on it.
“Say what you will about Trump, but he has a knack for sniffing out people’s fundamental flaws and insecurities—and exploiting them to the hilt.”
“You don’t change your name in the middle of a[n] election,” Trump said recently. “[DeSantis] changed his name in the middle of the election! You don’t do that.”
Say what you will about Trump, but he has a knack for sniffing out people’s fundamental flaws and insecurities—and exploiting them to the hilt.
This is the same guy, after all, who single-handedly destroyed a large 2016 GOP primary field that many observers thought was quite strong. And he did so with (you guessed it!) a bevy of silly attacks (just ask “Lil Marco,” “Low-energy Jeb” or Ted Cruz’s wife and father).
“Have you heard that ‘Rob’ DeSanctimonious wants to change his name, again. He is demanding that people call him DeeeSantis, rather than DaSantis,” Trump continued on the social media platform Truth Social. (Trump’s ‘Da’ is interchangeable with my ‘Deh.’) “Actually, I like ‘Da’ better, a nicer flow, so I am happy he is changing it. He gets very upset when people, including reporters, don’t pronounce it correctly. Therefore, he shouldn’t mind, DeSanctimonious?”
When it comes to mockery, I defer to Trump’s expertise. The fact that he is spending time on DeSantis’ last name suggests that he senses there is hay to be made. But what might that be? I have a few theories.
As stated above, not knowing how to pronounce your own name at least seems super weird. And considering that DeSantis’ awkward interactions (including his laugh) have already become something of an internet meme, anything that contributes to this narrative—that invites mockery—is presumably harmful.
And there’s more: DeSantis’ wife, Casey, consistently pronounces it Deh-Santis while Ron seems to have previously preferred Duh-Santis, which suggests the politically incorrect conclusion that his wife wears the pants in the family.
Considering that Trump fetishizes toughness and masculine dominance, this narrative threatens to undermine DeSantis’s Alpha male status.
Relatedly, Casey is (fair or not) garnering a reputation for being something of a Svengali or Lady Macbeth. “She’s the power behind the throne,” a Republican lobbyist told Politico. This wrinkle suggests that the pronunciation is about more than merely Casey’s preference—that it’s a political calculation. This, of course, advances the narrative that DeSantis is calculating and overly ambitious.
It also speaks to a lack of authenticity, a contrast that clearly favors Trump (say what you will about Trump, but he’s off-the-charts when it comes to authenticity).
Remember those videos showing Hillary Rodham Clinton speaking with an Arkansas dialect? I always thought they were devastating. Clinton was, after all, from Illinois. The fact that she would obviously affect a southern drawl suggested she was either duplicitous and manipulative, or utterly lacking a set identity.
Either option speaks to character.
“Ron DeSantis is a phony who can’t decide how to pronounce his name. If you can’t get your name right, how can you lead a country?”
— Steven Cheung
Now, maybe that’s not fair to impute motives to something akin to code switching. Maybe we should be allowed to drop our Gs casually, the way someone might dress differently when they move down south.
Regardless, many Americans will interpret DeSantis’ multiple pronunciations as either weird or (worse) telling—like Hillary’s fake Arkansas accent that was symbolic of so much more.
Indeed, that seems to be exactly what Team Trump is getting at. “Ron DeSantis is a phony who can’t decide how to pronounce his name,” Trump spokesperson Steven Cheung told Axios. “If you can’t get your name right, how can you lead a country?”
Put another way: If DeSantis is willing to pander for votes and flip-flop on something as fundamental as his own identity, what isn’t he willing to change his mind about?
So what could DeSantis do to put this past him? Simple. Pick a pronunciation today, and stick with it. No need to explain. No need to make an announcement about it. Just make sure everyone on Team DeSantis gets the memo, and keep it consistent, going forward. Otherwise, this will drag on.
What’s in a name? It turns out, a lot.
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