Ron DeSantis is not moderate
Don't be fooled by Elon Musk and National Review.
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By Noah Berlatsky
A Ron DeSantis presidency would “represent a return to normality” after the “bizarre” fiasco of the Trump years, National Review’s Jim Geraghty wrote recently at the Washington Post.
Geraghty is part of a growing conservative Republican effort to push DeSantis as a reasonable Republican alternative to Trump in 2024. Billionaire Twitter owner Elon Musk said he wanted a “sensible and centrist” president in 2024 and agreed that Ron DeSantis was an example. Rich Lowry (again of National Review) said DeSantis could end the “ongoing state of political emergency” and that liberals should therefore welcome his candidacy. Republican columnist Matt Lewis at the Daily Beast said DeSantis could “unite the populists that Trump brought into the fold with us normies.” Fox News seems to be on this wavelength as well.
DeSantis doesn’t paint himself orange and is a professional politician rather than a reality TV star. That much is true. But in historical terms, and in relationship to the values and policy preferences of the American electorate, he is not normal or moderate. He’a a bigot and fascist who has devoted his political career to tormenting the marginalized, terrorizing people who don’t vote for him, and bullying corporations to align with reactionary politics.
The cruelty is still the point
The fact that DeSantis may run against Trump shouldn’t distract us from the fact that he is consciously dedicated to imitating and extending Trumpism. The people pushing DeSantis as normal don’t oppose Trump because they dislike his policies or his methods. They oppose Trump because he didn’t impose those policies and methods forcefully and successfully enough.
Since he was first elected governor of Florida in 2018 following a campaign where he ran on the Trump cult of personality — one of his ads, which you can see below, featured his son building Trump’s wall with toy blocks — DeSantis has made clear again and again that, like Trump, his chief priority in office is to harm marginalized people. He has particularly prided himself (again like Trump) on his rabid anti-immigrant stance, which he pushes through high-profile, punitive, irresponsible stunt policies.
This September, DeSantis spent some $1.7 million in taxpayer funds to trick 48 immigrants in Texas to fly to Martha’s Vineyard. His agents falsely promised the immigrants jobs and government cash support.
The maneuver was meant to show that liberal people in blue states hate migrants too — which it did not, as people in Martha’s Vineyard quickly rushed to provide aid and resources. It was also an exercise in vice signaling, meant to show GOP primary voters that DeSantis is unflinchingly cruel, eager to harm innocent people, and contemptuous of the law. There it succeeded; DeSantis may well have violated human trafficking statutes and is under investigation.
DeSantis wants everyone in the GOP to know he hates immigrants. Even more, he wants them to know he hates LGBT people. Homophobia has been the centerpiece of DeSantis’s administration. In March, he passed a “Don’t Say Gay” bill that effectively prevents discussion of LGBT people in public schools and allows parents to sue schools that violate the ban. LGBT teachers were immediately targeted by parents for daring to talk about their partners or acknowledge their identity; many quit. Books with LGBT content are being flagged as inappropriate in libraries, or outright banned.
DeSantis has also overseen a ban on gender-affirming care for trans youth, denying them hormones or surgery to treat gender dysphoria. This flies in the face of expert medical advice, and will cause immense suffering for trans children and their families. That’s the point. Harming immigrants, LGBT people, and trans people is popular with the GOP base. DeSantis wants that base to elect him. (And also, of course, he shares their prejudices and bigotries.)
This kind of flagrant, grotesque reveling in hatred and malevolence would have been considered a sign of disqualifying extremism in a Republican presidential candidate even a decade or two ago. Republicans have of course long been the party of hatred and the GOP is defined by its attacks on marginalized people. But presidential candidates in the past, attempting to attract independents and perhaps sway some Democratic voters, generally hedged or qualified.
Mitt Romney in 2012 called for undocumented immigrants to “self-deport.” It was a nonsensical and ugly policy prescription, but still a far cry from actually paying shady operators to round up and traffic legal immigrants halfway across the country so you can boast about your callousness.
George W. Bush adopted numerous homophobic policies. He backed an amendment to forbid same-sex marriage and as governor of Texas he even defended the state’s sodomy law. He also endorsed civil unions in 2004, though. And he generally made rhetorical gestures of tolerance. His vice president, Dick Cheney, said that the right to enter into a relationship with anyone you desire is an issue of “freedom.”
Again, DeSantis’s effort to stigmatize LGBT people and push them out of public life is a frightening escalation of GOP bigotry in national politics, not a display of moderation. He doesn’t sound or act like Bush or Romney. They were right-wing reactionaries with bigoted agendas who tried to couch even their worst excesses (like the invasion of Iraq) in bipartisan terms. Instead, DeSantis sounds like Trump — a reckless, violent authoritarian whose politics is based on dividing and conquering.
DeSantis’s oh-so-reasonable fans would no doubt balk here. Sure, they might agree, his political career is based on targeting marginalized people. And yes, he’s more anti-immigrant than Romney and more anti-LGBT than Bush. But he isn’t trying to undermine democracy as Trump did by attempting to stage a coup and overthrow the 2020 election. DeSantis may not be moderate exactly, but he’s normal in the sense that he respects the American experiment.
But does he? DeSantis, like many Republicans, kinda-sorta condemned the January 6 insurrection immediately after it happened. Since then, though, he’s notably avoided saying that the 2020 election was fair, or that Biden is the rightful president. This year he campaigned for candidates like would-be governor Doug Mastriano in Pennsylvania who enthusiastically embraced election denialism. DeSantis wouldn’t even condemn Trump for his dinner with open white supremacist and neo-Nazi Nick Fuentes. That’s presumably because he wants Qanon voters, election deniers, and white supremacists to feel comfortable pulling the lever for him when he runs against Trump in the primary.
DeSantis’s anti-democratic tendencies aren’t just latent, either. As governor of Florida, he’s used the state in an openly authoritarian and Trumpian manner against those he perceives as political rivals or foes.
When Disney, at the urging of its LGBT employees and fans, expressed mild reservations about DeSantis’s rabid homophobic effort to force gay people out of public life, he responded by successfully pushing through a bill that rescinded the company’s special decades-old tax district. DeSantis also, in an unprecedented move, suspended Tampa’s top prosecutor, an elected Democratic official who promised not to prosecute crimes related to the state’s abortion restrictions or bans on gender-affirming care.
DeSantis has also targeted voters. He created a task force whose remit was to prosecute “voter fraud.” What it actually did was arrest former felons who had been notified specifically by the state that they were eligible to vote, and had sent them voter registration cards. Those targeted were hauled out of their homes in handcuffs and vilified by the governor.
This was an effort to portray DeSantis as tough, but it was also an obvious instance of voter intimidation. Democratic (and especially Black) voters are on notice; vote at your own peril, because even if you’re registered, the state may just decide to come after you.
Elite Republicans aren’t souring on Trump over moral qualms
DeSantis has spent the last few years in Florida promising to harm and scapegoat marginalized people; that’s the Trump agenda. He’s promised to use the power of the state to intimidate and silence critics, be they corporations or other elected officials; that’s the Trump agenda too. He’s promised to use government resources to interfere in elections and disenfranchise the electorate — again, Trump would approve.
The truth is, the right doesn’t want “moderate” or “normal.” The base — and not just the base — likes the Trumpian style of rage and hate all the time. They like the idea of disenfranchising everyone who might oppose them — even the supposed high priest of Republican anti-fascist responsibility, Liz Cheney, doesn’t support voting rights legislation. From the perspective of the National Review, the big problem with Trump isn’t that he’s a bigot; they’re bigots too. It isn’t that he’s a fascist; they think fascism is fine. The problem is that he keeps losing.
Any reasonable presentation of DeSantis’s views would tip the electorate off that he’s a cruel man marinated in hate. It’s difficult to poll people nationally on a single state’s policy, but we know that support for LGBT rights in general has been increasing for decades. DeSantis’s decision to use extraordinary measures to remove a prosecutor who supports abortion rights is hardly in line with national sentiment; support for abortion rights, even in red states, was one of the big reasons for Democrats’ historic midterm performance. And whatever public opinion does or does not say, lying to people and relocating them in the hope that they will suffer horribly so you can prove a political point — we shouldn’t consider that “moderate” or “normal.”
Unfortunately, a lot of mainstream news outlets are desperate to find a Republican they can anoint as a reasonable alternative to Joe Biden. Trump is chaotic; the whole coup thing was obviously tacky. It’s hard to do the usual both-sides, view from nowhere, maybe-it’s-okay-to-deny-trans-children-care-who-can-say dance when you’ve got the Donald over there having dinner with Nazis.
All those wishy-washy, not-so-secretly reactionary mainstream outlets are almost beside themselves with glee at the thought of finally having a Republican candidate who doesn’t wear a belching mantel of uncouthness like one of his ill-fitting suits. DeSantis is a little more respectable, a little more polished. Republicans can be assured that he’ll torture marginalized people and assault democracy. And “moderates” can take comfort in the fact that he’ll do it with slightly less orange paste on his face than the other guy.
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