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An authoritarianism scholar on DeSantis as "the ultimate agent for the normalization of extremism"
"He seems to have learned the lessons of Trump the best, absorbed them, and made clear he wants to surpass the master" — Ruth Ben-Ghiat.
Early polling indicates Donald Trump remains the frontrunner for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, but Ron DeSantis is clearly the second-strongest contender and has recently gained some momentum. It’s unlikely a cult member could best the cult leader in a primary, but there’s a possibility DeSantis could end up representing a post-Trump brand of Trumpism.
Trump seems to recognize this. He went out of his way a few months ago to attack the Florida governor as “gutless” for refusing to say whether he’d received a Covid booster — a comment I described as the opening salvo of the 2024 GOP primary. Around that same time, New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman wrote that DeSantis was “under [Trump’s] skin” in part because he wouldn’t “say ‘the magic words,’ meaning won’t tell him he won’t run against him in 2024.” While he wouldn’t acknowledge it publicly, Trump understands that DeSantis is a threat.
DeSantis rode the Trump cult of personality to the Florida governor’s mansion in 2018, but he’s since forged his own brand of right-wing demagoguery. Last Friday, he was on Fox & Friends, which has celebrated him for the stands he’s taken against public health regulations to combat Covid, against the LGBT community, and against liberalism in general. These have won him some passionate adherents, including the Van Zant brothers, who wrote a bizarre DeSantis propaganda anthem that was played on the show.
More importantly, DeSantis’s Fox & Friends appearance gave him a platform to rail against Disney, Florida’s largest employer, for publicly speaking out against “Don’t Say Gay” legislation he signed into law that allows parents to sue teachers who bring up gender or sexual orientation in K-3 classrooms.
“This wokeness will destroy our country,” DeSantis declared.
Florida has a large LGBT population and Disney is a major economic driver for the state, so from one standpoint DeSantis picking a fight with Mickey Mouse doesn’t seem to make much sense. But he has his reasons. To better understand them, I reached out to Ruth Ben-Ghiat, an expert on authoritarianism and professor of history and Italian studies at NYU.
Ben-Ghiat has written about how DeSantis is following in Trump’s authoritarian footsteps for both CNN and MSNBC. Last month, she wrote on her blog (“Lucid”) about how he’s turning Florida “into his own mini-autocracy.”
“DeSantis is a particularly dangerous individual,” she wrote. “He may be up for re-election as governor in Florida, but he has designs on the White House as soon as two years from now. It's not hard to see what he is doing in Florida as a rehearsal for illiberalism on a national scale.”
A transcript of our conversation, lightly edited for clarity, follows.
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Why do you think DeSantis warrants so much attention right now?
He seems to have learned the lessons of Trump the best, absorbed them, and made clear he wants to surpass the master. DeSantis is somebody who at first was this kind of Reaganite, and then he had an epiphany under Trump and became what he called a “pitbull Trump defender.”
For me, he's an example of how when somebody like Trump is in office, the political system ends up populating with these imitators. What we see now is Trump's gone, but DeSantis is using all of his agendas and lessons and making them his own and making Florida into this illiberal state.
I know this is a really big question, but when you mentions the “lessons of Trump,” what do you mean?
It's a combination of ideological agendas, such as anti-LGBTQ sentiment, and also slogans that worked for Trump and then became slogans of the whole GOP, such as the claims of election fraud.
DeSantis himself always tried to be a bit cagey when he was asked whether Trump won the election or not. He’s the ultimate cynical opportunist, because he clearly assessed what worked for Trump and what was working for the GOP and he decided to double down on those points. You could say that's what a good politician should do, but it's creating a state, Florida, that is investing in Trump’s election fraud lies. He has this new office of election security. So it gets elevated into policy.
Also, with a lot of these measures, the point is to turn Americans against each other. He has a voter fraud hotline so you can report people. So it’s a combination of talking points that become policy that work to radicalize people, and work to keep you in power using questionable methods, but also personal style. And here his bullying authoritarian personal style is very important. I'm sure he was always somewhat like this, but this is someone who made a video of himself, as a campaign video, that showed his whole house decked out like it's a Trump altar.
DeSantis clearly has this very bullying style. You can see that not only in this episode where he told high school students not to wear masks, but in how he speaks to people and how he doesn't work brook any dissent.
That's very Trumpian. But again, he sees that this is what makes politicians popular on the right now and he goes full in on it. That's why I think he's worth focusing on.
During the Trump years there was obviously lot of concern about and attention to the national drift towards authoritarianism and what Trump represented in that respect. But do you think that the state-level drift toward authoritarianism in Republican-controlled states like Florida is an underrated threat?
I do think that it's an underrated threat. Trump was able to do certain things, what I call autocratic capture — like remaking federal agencies and hiring corrupt people. And then the model is in a sense being continued and perfected at the state level. And certain states stand out.
Obviously Florida stands out because it has a very dedicated ideological governor. And Texas as well, and there are some others. I really think in DeSantis's case, because he's also very clear about seeking national office, it's like a rehearsal for things that could be then funneled back at the national level. So it would be a completion of what Trump started.
But DeSantis is also dangerous because when you have somebody who's very toxic like Trump, who's very extreme in his personal style and has so much baggage, other people who are less unscrupulous seem better. So DeSantis seems palatable in a way that perhaps Trump isn't. DeSantis doesn't have the same baggage. For that reason, too, what he's doing in Florida, we really need to look very closely at it because in the future he could indeed have a chance at the national level, unlike somebody like [Texas governor] Greg Abbott.
Right now Florida’s “Don't Say Gay” bill is getting a lot of attention, especially because of the fight DeSantis has picked with Disney over Disney coming out publicly against it.
From one standpoint, embracing that sort of homophobia in a state with a very large LGBTQ population seems like bad politics. But I'm guessing it might make more sense kind of within the logic of authoritarianism. Can you help us understand why DeSantis is picking this fight?
It's true that if you follow a democratic logic, with a small d, it doesn't make any sense. Who would pick a fight with Disney? It's a huge money maker for the state. There's ripple effects, and tourism. But if you think in terms of the authoritarian logic, it's exactly the kind of battle you want to take on. It's a battle of titans.
An authoritarian-minded person doesn't allow other fiefdoms in their state. Just like Mussolini actually went after mafia less because they were criminals — he ended up appropriating their methods — but because he couldn't stand the independence of the mafiosi. So it was very interesting to me that what the GOP in Florida is going after at DeSantis' behest is that Disney has this kind of special status that allows it to act like a municipality. DeSantis, as an authoritarian, can't stand that. That's part of it. It's a power move.
It's also ideology. He is showing that will go to the mat on certain ideological issues that he thinks are going to be key for the GOP constituency, for the base. And he's the tough guy, and he won't take hostages — all of that kind of personal doggedness. He thinks that's the way to go, even with Disney.
Trump and DeSantis are pretty clearly the most popular national figures in the Republican Party. What you think that says about the state of the GOP right now, and do you think there's any basis for realistic hope it’s capable of turning away from authoritarianism anytime soon?
What I said before about DeSantis seeming more palatable — that's bad news for any idea that the party would turn more centrist. Because if it were just Trump, again, with all of his baggage — some people think he still might be indicted, for instance — there might be a rethinking. Now, that rethinking should have come on January 7 , and it didn't. That's already a measure of how extreme they are. But someone like DeSantis who seems more "normal" than Trump, who is much more guarded in his speech, seems less extremist to the casual observer — he would be able to normalize extremism further.
That's what the GOP wants. I truly see the GOP as an authoritarian party. Not only in its political positions, its agendas, but its methods. It's not interested in playing the game of democracy anymore and it shows that in myriad ways.
It's still pretty widely assumed that the 2024 Republican nomination is Trump's if he wants it, and it seems like he does. But do you think there's any chance that DeSantis could beat him in a primary? And if so, what do you think that campaign might look like?
Right now it seems like Trump has a lot of control and the ability to harm people who are rivals, so it may not go anywhere. There were polls showing earlier that DeSantis was right there with Trump, but now I think Trump has corrected that situation.
I don't have a good answer to what that would look like, except DeSantis would have to distinguish himself as a more palatable mainstream figure. But I don't think he would succeed in getting the nomination if Trump really wants it right now.
Do you think there's anything especially dangerous about DeSantis putting this veneer of respectability on Trumpism? DeSantis is still quite crude in many respects — he surrounded himself with kids when he signed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, for instance, and basically used them as political props — but there’s a certain crudeness to Trump he doesn't have. Does his type of persona make authoritarianism more palatable to the masses?
DeSantis has this veneer of respectability and he has less baggage in terms of the criminal past — the suspected money laundering, the Putin ties — and so there’s the danger that he would be the ultimate agent for the normalization of extremism. And people could look at him and say, "Well, he's not a far-right extremist." Whereas Trump has more of this bluster and he goes off the cuff and he's preached violence openly, DeSantis is more careful. I mean, he's a Harvard-trained lawyer. He's more careful with his speech. So many people who might find Trump distasteful could get behind him.