Understanding DeSantis and Trump
In the Monday New York Times, Damon Linker had a piece entitled “My Fellow Liberals Are Exaggerating the Dangers of Ron DeSantis.” In it, Linker contends that people on the left are hyperventilating about Florida governor Ron DeSantis and that Trump remains the more threatening figure. While conceding DeSantis’s generally illiberal cast and believing he would do bad things in office, he believes that Trump’s unstable temperament and violent inclinations make a material difference between the two:
So let’s stipulate that Mr. Trump and Mr. DeSantis would both try to do bad things in office. Mr. Trump still brings something distinctive and much more dangerous to the contest — or rather, several things. He’s flagrantly corrupt. He lies constantly. He’s impulsive and capricious. And he displays a lust for power combined with complete indifference to democratic laws and norms that constrain presidential power.
The way to summarize these various personal defects is to say that Mr. Trump is temperamentally unfit to be president. That was obvious to many of us before his surprise victory in 2016. It was confirmed on a daily (and sometimes hourly) basis throughout his presidency. And it became indisputable when he refused to accept the results of the 2020 election and helped spur efforts to disrupt the peaceful transfer of power.
That makes Mr. Trump categorically more dangerous than anyone else running or likely to run for president in 2024 — including Mr. DeSantis.
Linker goes on to write, “To make the unconvincing claim that a DeSantis presidency would be even worse than another four years of Mr. Trump isn’t necessary and could even undercut the liberal argument.”
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This piece caused a good deal of outrage and apparently Linker has had to deal with a lot of grief on Twitter. He followed up on his Substack:
I wrote the piece for a simple reason: Because I’ve already seen lots of liberals advancing the position that DeSantis would be just as bad as, or even worse than, Trump—and I think this is foolish, both in substantive terms, and as a matter of political tactics.
Trump wanted to do bad things as president, but he was also extremely dangerous at the personal level. The man attempted to overturn a free and fair election! He would have liked nothing more than to have himself installed as a dictator! I honestly don’t think DeSantis will try something like that. His badness is a function of relative competence at trying to do the same kinds of bad stuff Trump attempted but couldn’t. (Though Trump and his team could well prove much better at it the second time around, if they get the chance.)
Linker also objected to the tendency to label DeSantis and every Republican “fascist: “
That’s because DeSantis is clearly modeling some of his culture-war initiatives on things Orbán has done in office. Yet I don’t think it’s accurate to call Orbán a fascist. He’s some kind of soft authoritarian or illiberal democrat—both of which are very bad. I think, likewise, that much of what DeSantis is doing in Florida—for example, his moves to severely restrict academic freedom at public universities in the state—is atrocious. But using a landslide victory in his re-election bid as leverage to impose a conservative clampdown on publicly funded universities is not fascism. It’s a power grab from the right that liberals should be fighting hard. But reaching for the most hyperbolic epithet they can think of and hurling it at him and his supporters on social media isn’t fighting hard. It’s a panic attack.
Trump v. DeSantis
It may surprise you, but I kind of agree with parts of what Damon is saying. I think DeSantis’s politics are quite authoritarian, but not exactly fascist. Although I’ve got the reputation of being a brown-baiting f-labeler, I always tried to be as precise and rigorous as possible in my application of the term. For me, Trump’s rowdy populism, his “outsider” positioning in regards to the political establishment, his nationalism of decline and humiliation, his appeal to the ideas and sentiments of the mob in the form vulgar conspiratorialism and racism, his encouragement and cultivation of ties to paramilitaries, the lip-service to themes of social justice while doing the work of big business, his argument from personal charisma and presentation of himself as providential national savior, and the extreme, psychotic personality cult that grew up around him, are among the features that lead me to say that there was something at least partially fascist about Trump.
Trump’s politics were undoubtedly reactionary, but they also included a perverse sort of democratic demand and reflected a crisis of political representation. He attracted the support of those, without any particular prior ideological commitments, who felt left out of the system. Although he governed from the hard right and successfully courted its constituencies, he did not appear to be a doctrinaire conservative and departed from Republican orthodoxy when it suited him. In fact, Trump’s lack of ideology or ideological flexibility is what contributed to him seeming fascist to me. He represented a broad sense of wounded national pride, to be avenged through the force of his own sheer self assertion. He also offered a spectacular ride: he said to his followers, in effect, “with me, you are taking part in history.” And he offered lots of sadistic kicks, scorning and menacing the establishment with sarcasm and mockery. Enjoyment was a big part of the equation in the case of Trump.
As I joked on Twitter, in the sense that fascism requires a charismatic leader, I think we can safely say that the DeSantis phenomenon is not fascist. I don’t think he can generate the same excitement at Trump, but also clearly not the same amount of consternation. As has been widely noted, he’s more low-key, competent, and methodical. He certainly appeals to the wonkier types in the radical right and ideological conservatives. I think the best comparison to him, which Linker also made, is to Hungarian president Viktor Orbán:
…DeSantis is clearly modeling some of his culture-war initiatives on things Orbán has done in office. Yet I don’t think it’s accurate to call Orbán a fascist. He’s some kind of soft authoritarian or illiberal democrat—both of which are very bad. I think, likewise, that much of what DeSantis is doing in Florida—for example, his moves to severely restrict academic freedom at public universities in the state—is atrocious. But using a landslide victory in his re-election bid as leverage to impose a conservative clampdown on publicly funded universities is not fascism. It’s a power grab from the right that liberals should be fighting hard. But reaching for the most hyperbolic epithet they can think of and hurling it at him and his supporters on social media isn’t fighting hard. It’s a panic attack.
Zack Beauchamp also made this case last year and Michell Goldberg has made it more recently. (I think another parallel should be made here, too: the language of “protecting children” surrounding DeSantis’s anti-LGBT legislation echoes the “gay propaganda” law instituted in Russia in 2013, which began an expanding persecution of LGBT Russians.)
The Perils of Punditry
I actually often appreciate Linker’s writing, but I have to admit that this sort of punditry bugs me and I don’t think it’s very productive. I think one can seriously analyze important differences between Trump and DeSantis, but this need to scold or reprimand people for overheated rhetoric doesn’t really do much except piss them off more. Have you ever told someone who was upset to calm down? How does that usually go?
There are two classic tropes of centrist punditry here: one, the real problem is silly liberals, and two, the silly liberals are going to perversely hurt their own cause by being so silly. This is essentially a kind of social theater where the pundit sets themselves up in the role of a sensible man as opposed to the great mass of flip outs. Consciously done or not, this is often a form of baiting in the service of public exposure and controversy. I discussed this in my piece on Shadi Hamid, and you better believe he’s getting in on this action now.
I don’t include Linker in this, but I’ve said before a lot of the fascism debate is about appearing to be an intellectual: being someone who doesn’t call things fascist willy-nilly because it’s so gauche and low-brow, someone who knows better than the mob. From time to time, all of us writers perform this social role involving supposed intellectual, moral, and aesthetic superiority. In a certain way; it’s an indispensable pose: we must arrogate a little, we must have the pretension to higher knowledge or judgment, otherwise no one would listen, but it’s important to reflect and ask oneself, “Am I just doing this because I think that’s what what one does, or do I really think this is important and true?”
Is there a good deal of over-the-top cant and hyperbole in political life and writing? Of course, but you can’t really police it, just approach the questions in the way you think is appropriate. In fact, the rhetoric of “Calm down!” is the same as “You are not feeling the moral urgency of this enough!” — they are both kind of insufferable public poses: if you think it’s important to be calm and analytical, be calm and analytical, if you think it’s important to warn of imminent danger, then do so.
I’ll just point out again that the hysterics and flip outs have had somewhat of a better record in regards to predicting the politics of the past few years: they got it right when they said Trump would be elected, something many sensible people said was impossible and then they said he would make some kind of desperate, illegal and violent move to remain in power. A lot of the sensible folks said they were raving dummies. “The non-dupes err,” as Jacques Lacan once said. Again, being analytical and even-keeled is a disposition that helps with intellectual clarity, but being savvy is just a pose, it imparts no actual knowledge, only the appearance of being knowledgeable.
The Authoritarian Family
As for who is worse between Trump and DeSantis, as Stalin remarked when asked wether the Left or Right opposition was worse, I would say, “they are both worse.” Trump’s wild flouting of the rule of law is deeply troubling, but so is DeSantis institutional steamroller. Historically, most fascist movements failed and the states they did produce flamed out, but authoritarian conservative regimes lasted a good deal longer. I think the question of who is worse is not quite the right one. The fact of the matter is, as Linker admits, we now have at least two flavors of the authoritarian radical right in the U.S. I think we should think instead in terms of what the sociologist Michael Mann calls an “authoritarian right family,” of which fascism is just one branch: “Fascists were nurtured among the authoritarian rightists and continued to have close family relations with them. As in all families, their relationships could involve love or hatred.” This family often shares personnel and ideas, but also has seriously internal disputes over strategy, tactics, and philosophy. The emergence of distinctly fascist movements pushed more traditional authoritarian conservatives to radicalize their appeals in order to compete with and co-opt fascist energy.
While much is made of their rivalry, Trump and DeSantis should be viewed as part of single political process: Trump opens a wider political field for DeSantis, who now appears more normal and less alarming than Trump, and therefore an acceptable compromise. We can already see this happening with things like Linker’s column or John McWhorter’s recent column approving of some things he has done. This is not to cry bloody murder and accuse them of “normalization.” Let’s try to take an objective rather than moral stance here and view our roles as political writers as part of a larger social mechanism. We should take all this as evidence of an accomplished fact that we already know: DeSantis is already normalized and acceptable to sections of the conservative elite, even those who are ambivalent or opposed to the present state of the right — “Well, he’s bad but at least he’s not Trump. I can sleep at night.” This might tell us something about the maturity of right-authoritarian politics in America: they are no longer about throwing themselves headlong in desperate, insurrectionary gambles for power, but now are more methodically integrating themselves into the normal legitimating and ruling apparatus.
DeSantis is actually closer to “post-fascism” as conceptualized by the late Gáspár Miklós Tamas:
Post-fascism finds its niche easily in the new world of global capitalism without upsetting the dominant political forms of electoral democracy and representative government. It does what I consider to be central to all varieties of fascism, including the post-totalitarian version. Sans Führer, sans one-party rule, sans SA or SS, post-fascism reverses the Enlightenment tendency to assimilate citizenship to the human condition.
Tamas came to feel the rise of Orbán in his native Hungary was the vindication of his theory.
An American Volkish Movement?
In the next newsletter, I want to write about the larger cultural presence of the far right, how I think there is something like an American volkish movement, and how this forms the intellectual background of this growing authoritarian right family. As Mann writes, “Fascism was a movement of the lesser intelligentsia.” But, enough for now.
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Persuasive commentary. I get a lot from reading Linker, but I, too, thought his column directed astute analysis toward the wrong question. The thought exercise of "who would be worse" obscures the actual conditions of danger. Neither man is speaking or acting in a vacuum; they are both particles in an unstable atom. That is, they are both operating in a political field where they have to maneuver––primarily against each other––to get the GOP nomination, with knock-on effects for the general election. The fact that DeSantis has a less unstable personality is not just an isolated fact; it is a fact that his "fitness" could normalize the vicious reactionary appetites let loose by Trump, and already has, as this column claims.
«The man attempted to overturn a free and fair election! He would have liked nothing more than to have himself installed as a dictator! I honestly don’t think DeSantis will try something like that.»
Honesty aside, it would be interesting to know if, in 2016, Linker would've thought that about Trump (that he'd be capable of trying to overturn a free and fair election), because that sole belief is doing all of the heavy lifting in this argument.
I, like many non-Americans caught up in the schadenfreude of watching the politics the US fostered everywhere else coming home to roost, also downplayed the dangers of Trump back in the day. It was important to the development my personal politics to realize just how empirically wrong I had been.
Also, it is important to note that while maybe it is true that Trump is willing to break social norms that DeSantis isn't... once those norms were broken by Trump and taken in stride by Congress, it is safe to say that a lot of Trump's behavior is now within the accepted (and expected) normal for the GOP, so the point, in reality, is pretty much moot. All those unprecedented acts of corruption are now precedented political maneuvers.