Trumpism without Donald Trump has long been a fantasy of the GOP donor class. Plenty of things about the Trump presidency generally delighted Republicans, like the tax breaks for the wealthy, the desire to shrink the government and drown it in a bathtub. Hell, they may have even enjoyed the cruelty. But the sloppiness, the endless unforced errors—like attacking mail-in-voting and helping Republicans lose Georgia Senate seats in consecutive elections—well, no one likes that.
So now Ron DeSantis has emerged as not only the choice of the donor class, but also the favorite pet of Fox News and Turning Point USA. Yes, it turns out that being slightly less disgusting, a good bit more coherent, than Trump, is a viable GOP lane. DeSantis is like Shakespeare compared to the former president. He doesn’t talk about grabbing people by their genitals or dating his daughter. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that these days Trump is the poor man’s DeSantis, which is pretty ironic because DeSantis created himself in the image of Trump.
But most pressing is that both of these men are cut from the same autocratic cloth. They are not the kind of leaders that we’re accustomed to seeing in a democracy. And yet some mainstream media outlets are pushing the narrative that DeSantis is a kinder, gentler version of Trump, who I’ve already argued should not be covered like a normal presidential contender. (DeSantis has yet to officially enter the 2024 fray, but could in the coming months.) There’s a fair bit of evidence to suggest DeSantis is as dangerous as Trump—if not more.
Before Trump was elected, in 2016, he behaved, at times, like a would-be autocrat, and some even warned of fascism coming to America. But the former reality star had not actually put his authoritarian tendencies into action, and some may have believed Trump would moderate his behavior if he made it to the White House. Four years of chaos, and one attempted coup later, it’s clear the nation’s highest office wouldn’t tone down Trump. But we know, heading into 2024, what a DeSantis presidency might look like given that he’s already governed the Sunshine State like a banana republic.
To call DeSantis a culture warrior dangerously understates what the man is capable of. He is the Genghis Khan of social issues, using every opportunity to target and demonize groups that have already been targeted and demonized throughout history. Marginalizing vulnerable groups is a classic authoritarian trope, which DeSantis seems to have down pat.
Over the past four-plus years, DeSantis has used the governorship as a sort of audition for the role of MAGA heir. He has relentlessly attacked the LGBTQ+ community, urged the Florida medical board to outlaw transgender therapy for minors, and passed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. When not targeting school boards and transgender athletes, he’s fighting with the College Board about AP African American studies or trying to turn the small progressive New College into “a Hillsdale of the South.” Trump may have sounded like an autocrat when running for president, but DeSantis has already acted like one before officially getting in the 2024 race.
DeSantis has his media cheerleaders on the right. Over at Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post, columnists have gushed over DeSantis, with one last week dubbing him “the sane choice to revive the US.” Some mainstream news outlets, meanwhile, though not heralding DeSantis, seem to be normalizing his authoritarianism. The New York Times is not alone in this department, but as the paper that most sets the nation’s news agenda, its framing of DeSantis certainly warrants scrutiny.
In one recent problematic headline, the Times, summed up DeSantis’s right-wing assault on education on in Florida, where book bans are on the rise, as the governor building “his brand.” Another recent Times article touted DeSantis’s “preparation and the way it allows him to control his political narrative.” (Sure, you’re able to control the political narrative when you rule like a despot and shut out the press!) That Times piece, as NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen put it, was “almost pure horse race,” with a focus on “either strategy decisions, or the management of postures and appearances.”
A third recent Times article described DeSantis, along with South Dakota’s Kristi Noem and Virginia’s Glenn Youngkin as having “emphasized making their states family-friendly.” As New York magazine’s Rebecca Traister responded, “Stopped dead reading Times story this am by repetition of claim that DeSantis, Noem & Youngkin want ‘family-friendly’ states w/o acknowledgment of how they define ‘family-friendly:’ anti-trans, forced pregnancy, book bans, curtailed education. Why regurgitate their false frame?”
Meanwhile, over on the Times’ Opinion page, Pamela Paul called DeSantis a “maverick” with a “knack for action” and noted the “appeal to Floridians tired of racial and ethnic divisiveness and the overt politicization of what’s taught in the classroom.” As if DeSantis isn’t politicizing what is—or isn’t—being taught in the classroom! And yet, Paul argues that liberals “can learn from Ron DeSantis.”
That same free press that normalizes DeSantis? DeSantis seems to have little use for it—and even wants to make it easier to successfully sue the news organizations, potentially chilling the press. In early February, DeSantis hosted a fake TV show with the words “Speak Truth” behind him. There he argued that the Supreme Court revisit the landmark New York Times Company v. Sullivan ruling, which maintains a high bar for defamation. An otherwise solid Times report on the matter framed DeSantis in a headline as “aiming at a favorite foil,” a more playful way of describing a very serious attack on the constitution. Maybe Trump normalized the demonization of the press, but we should not cover it as normal.
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