Florida’s Republican Governor Ron DeSantis is the top rival to former President Donald Trump for the Republican presidential nomination despite a less-than-ideal start to his campaign.
Many American conservatives see Mr DeSantis as a natural successor to Mr Trump’s brash brand of populist politics, with the younger man staking out territory for himself as an anti-woke cultural warrior in recent years, pushing back against social restrictions during the Covid-19 pandemic, clamping down on LGBT+ rights in schools and even battling the mighty Walt Disney Company in Orlando.
No one has followed Mr DeSantis’s ascent over the last three years more closely than Mr Trump, who now resides in the same state.
The deposed president has increasingly ramped up his attacks on the Sunshine State’s governor in recent months, betraying jealousy and nicknaming him “Ron DeSanctimonious” in public and, allegedly, “Meatball Ron” and “Tiny D” in private.
He recently gloated on Truth Social that “Ron’s magic is GONE!” after two of his adversary’s endorsements for political office in Kentucky and Jacksonville fell short.
More seriously, Mr Trump has not shied from amplifying nastier, unfounded claims about Mr DeSantis on the same platform, including in relation to his short-lived career as a high school teacher in Georgia as a younger man.
Back in February, another user posted a grainy picture on the site showing a man with a passing resemblance to Mr DeSantis posing with a group of young women with blurred-out faces, one of whom is holding what appears to be a bottle of beer.
“Here is Ron DeSanctimonious grooming high school girls with alcohol as a teacher,” the caption alleged.
Mr Trump, gleefully reshared the image and unfounded claims several times, responding, “No way?”, and, “That’s not Ron, is it? He would never do such a thing!”
The photograph, posted by a user who described themselves as a “soldier for Trump ready to go on a battlefield and shed blood”, suggesting they were highly partisan, linked back to a hostile post on a blog known as Hill Reporter.
The article quoted an anonymous “whistleblower” with “close knowledge of the matter” who alleged that the future governor had a reputation for partying with seniors while teaching history at Darlington School in Rome during the 2001/02 academic year.
The image has not been verified, it is not even clear whether the man depicted is Mr DeSantis or whether the women featured are either underage or consuming alcohol.
Mr DeSantis has not addressed the matter publicly and his office did not respond when contacted by The Independent for comment when Mr Trump’s posts were first reported.
The current Republican governor arrived at the Darlington School aged 23 after graduating from Yale University.
He had been born in Jacksonville in September 1978 to working-class Italian-American parents, his father a TV engineer and his mother a nurse, going on to study at Yale and then Harvard Law School, after which he joined the US Navy in 2004, where he served as a legal advisor to SEAL Team One and was stationed at Guantanamo Bay and in Iraq before being discharged, thereafter working as a special assistant US attorney in Florida and then seeking election to Congress in 2012.
His year as an educator was chronicled by The New York Times last year in a report that investigated the allegation that he had partied with students.
One former student told the newspaper they remembered seeing him at one such event: “As an 18-year-old, I remember thinking, ‘What are you doing here, dude?’”
Asked how his presence at such events was received, another was dismissive: “It was his first job out of Yale, he was cute. We didn’t really think too much about it.”
Another student, Danielle Pompey, claimed Mr DeSantis had treated her unkindly as a student, alleging this was because she was Black.
“Mr Ron, Mr DeSantis, was mean to me and hostile toward me,” she told The NYT.
“Not aggressively, but passively, because I was Black.”
She also claimed that, during a history class on the American Civil War, he had made arguments for the justification of slavery, saying: “He was trying to play devil’s advocate that the South had good reason to fight the war, to kill other people, over owning people – Black people.
“He was trying to say ‘It’s not OK to own people, but they had property, businesses.’”
Another former student, who asked not be named, said Mr DeSantis’s views on the Civil War were so well known that they were made the subject of a parody video for the school’s video yearbook.
The NYT reports that the video contains a snippet of a student imitating Mr DeSantis and saying, “The Civil War was not about slavery! It was about two competing economic systems. One was in the North…,” before the clip cuts to a student dozing off at their desk.
Gates Minis, another graduate, remembered him as a “total jock” and said: “He was definitely proud that he graduated Ivy and thought he was very special.”
Speaking more fondly, Trip Barnes told The NYT: “He was definitely one of the cooler guys. There were other young teachers who tried to be everybody’s friend who didn’t have nearly his mystique.”
He said Mr DeSantis was “charismatic”, “very smart” and that “people liked him”.
The Independent reached out to Mr DeSantis and to Darlington School for comment on The New York Times’s story.
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