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The Debate Continues: Who Would Be More Destructive To Our Country— Trump Or DeSantis?

Yesterday, writing about CPAC for MSNBC, conservative #NeverTrumper Charlie Sykes declared that in the annual far right event that started on Wednesday, “we’re seeing signs of a growing split between the extremists and the normies. What is not yet clear is whether this is a divorce— or merely a trial separation. But as we head into 2024, the battle lines are clearly being drawn.” Oh, really? And who exactly are “the normies?”

In Sykes' conservative Republican, anti-Trump universe, “the normies” are what actual normies consider a gaggle of very extreme right-wing sociopaths— Ron DeSantis, Glenn Youngkin, Ronna McDaniel, Mike Pence…

The extremists, in his telling all certainly all extremists, from Trumpanzee and his damaged son down the evolutionary spiral to Marjorie Traitor Greene, Scott Perry, Kimberly Guilfoyle, Lauren Boebert, Jair Bolsonaro, Matt Gaetz, Gym Jordan, Kari Lake, Ronny Jackson, Elise Stefanik and, finally to the severely crack brain-damaged My Pillow Guy.

Jessica Anderson is a progressive candidate for the Virginia House of Delegates this year. She told me that "We are seeing a trend among these so-called 'normies' on the right, of separating themselves from Trump, but ensuring they push policies and rhetoric that still show allegiance to both him, and the MAGA movement. We cannot allow them to spin the narrative and distract from how dangerous these people truly are. And Youngkin is NO exception! He has tried to come off as a 'Traditional Republican,' but he's nothing more than another culture war fearmonger. So far he's lied about CRT in order to rewrite US history in VA schools, lost $202 million of public education funds for the Commonwealth, while showing zero concern over that deficit, and recently instructed House Republicans to allow our menstrual data to be used in a court of law in retaliation for his arbitrary abortion bans being blocked. He was smart enough to keep his distance from Trump during his campaign, but he's continued to placate the extreme right base, regardless, and is trying to take Virginia down with him in the process. We can NOT let him gain any semblance of power in the General Assembly this November or ALL of our progress will be lost!"

Sykes and the #NeverTrumpers are 100% correct to point out this crew is much up of extremists. He’s 100% wrong to insinuate the others aren’t. Let’s not be dragged into a GOP civil war with no good guys— only reprehensible fascists, some of whom are savvy enough to stay away from “a carnival of cranks, crackpots and crazies.”

It doesn’t make DeSantis any less of an extremist that he’s now ducking, for example, his voting record on dismantling Social Security— something Mike Pence (also “a normie”) is still all gung ho on doing.

Yesterday, Jonathan Chait jumped into the argument about who’s a graver danger to America, Trump or DeSantis. He began by discussing DeSantis’ moves against major Florida GOP campaign donor, the Disney company. Last year after they opposed one of DeSantis’ sick fascist moves in the legislature, he punished them by removing the company’s self-governing status, justifying “the maneuver as a removal of unjustified privileges, but he had not previously opposed Disney’s status and made little attempt to disguise its nakedly retaliatory nature. On Monday, he took matters much further. DeSantis appointed a board to oversee Disney. The Central Florida Tourism Oversight District is stacked with DeSantis cronies, including Bridget Ziegler, a proponent of his education policies; Ron Peri, who heads the Christian ministry the Gathering USA; and Michael Sasso, president of the Federalist Society’s Orlando chapter. While the board handles infrastructure and maintenance, DeSantis boasted that it could use its leverage to force Disney to stop ‘trying to inject woke ideology’ on children. ‘When you lose your way, you’ve got to have people that are going to tell you the truth,’ DeSantis proclaimed. ‘So we hope they can get back on. But I think all of these board members very much would like to see the type of entertainment that all families can appreciate.’”

It is worth pausing a moment to grasp the full breadth of what is going on here. First, DeSantis established the principle that he can and will use the power of the state to punish private firms that exercise their First Amendment right to criticize his positions. Now he is promising to continue exerting state power to pressure the firm to produce content that comports with his own ideological agenda.
Whether he is successful remains to be seen. But a few things ought to be clear. First, DeSantis’s treatment of Disney is not a one-off but a centerpiece of his legacy in Florida. He has repeatedly invoked the episode in his speeches, and his allies have held it up as evidence of his strength and dominance. The Murdoch media empire, which is functionally an arm of the DeSantis campaign, highlighted the Disney conquest in a New York Post front page and a Fox & Friends segment and DeSantis touted his move in a Wall Street Journal op-ed.
Second, DeSantis’s authoritarian methods have met with vanishingly little resistance within his party. The only detectable Republican pushback has come from New Hampshire governor Chris Sununu, who warned, “Look, Ron’s a very good governor. But I’m just trying to remind folks what we are at our core. And if we’re trying to beat the Democrats at being big-government authoritarians, remember what’s going to happen. Eventually, they’ll have power… and then they’ll start penalizing conservative businesses and conservative nonprofits and conservative ideas.” (Of course, this warning holds only if Republicans believe they will have to relinquish power. If DeSantis can truly follow the example of Viktor Orbán, losing power becomes only a theoretical risk.)
And third, DeSantis has been very explicit about his belief that he sees his methods in Florida as a blueprint for a national agenda. So there is every reason to believe that, if elected president, DeSantis would use government power to force both public and private institutions to toe his line. Speaking out against him, or even producing content he disapproves of, would become a financially risky proposition.
Part of what makes DeSantis so dangerous is that Donald Trump created a very defined idea of authoritarianism in the minds of his critics. His refusal to accept the 2020 presidential-election results was indeed a dangerous attack on democratic legitimacy— but this especially notorious episode has overshadowed his other efforts to abuse state power. Trump wielded federal regulations to punish the owners of the Washington Post and CNN for coverage he disapproved of and used diplomatic leverage to extort Ukraine into smearing his political rival. Republicans either supported or ignored these abuses of power.
To whatever extent they have principled objections to authoritarianism, those objections are limited almost entirely to fomenting a violent mob to overturn an election. And while inciting an insurrection is extremely dangerous, it hardly exhausts the scope of illiberal tools available to a sufficiently ruthless executive.
Damon Linker recently criticized liberals for unfairly calling DeSantis as bad as Trump. Linker’s prediction that a second Trump administration would be more dangerous than a first DeSantis administration might be correct. But it’s hard for me to understand how he can state this so confidently when he acknowledges DeSantis’s illiberal intentions and lack of democratic scruples. Comparing the relative evils of two authoritarian-minded leaders seems to be mainly an exercise in guesswork.
A year ago, I wrote a long profile of DeSantis, in which his deep-rooted distrust of liberal democracy was a major theme. Last fall, I attended the National Conservatism Conference, where the attendees laid out rather plainly their ambition to turn DeSantis into a model for a ruthless, illiberal party that would use the organs of the state to crush its enemies. Since those pieces appeared, DeSantis’s actions have made me more, not less, concerned.
Whether DeSantis would actually do more damage to American democracy in office than Trump could remains hard to say. Perhaps, perhaps not. But we should recognize that he is not putting himself forward as a critic of Trump’s authoritarianism. He is promising, on the contrary, to exceed it.

When I asked former Orlando congressman, Alan Grayson which of the two Floridians is worse, he responded "That’s a meaningless question. Cyanide vs. Strychnine. Ebola vs. Marburg. Scylla vs. Charybdis." True, but DeSantis' henchmen seem to be going even further into fascism than Trump and his henchmen dared. Yesterday WFLA reported that a neo-Nazi state senator from Lake Mary, Jason Brodeur introduced a bill that would require any blogger writing about government officials to register with the Florida Office of Legislative Services or the Commission on Ethics.

In the bill, Brodeur wrote that those who write “an article, a story, or a series of stories,” about “the Governor, the Lieutenant Governor, a Cabinet officer, or any member of the Legislature,” and receives or will receive payment for doing so, must register with state offices within five days after the publication of an article that mentions an elected state official.
...Failure to file these disclosures or register with state officials, if the bill passes, would lead to daily fines for the bloggers, with a maximum amount per report, not per writer, of $2,500. The per-day fine is $25 per report for each day it’s late.
The bill also requires that bloggers file notices of failure to file a timely report the same way that lobbyists file their disclosures and reports on assessed fines. Fines must be paid within 30 days of payment notice, unless an appeal is filed with the appropriate office. Fine payments must be deposited into the Legislative Lobbyist Registration Trust Fund if it concerns an elected member of the legislature.

Alan Minsky is the executive director of PDA-- Progressive Democrats of America and I asked him yesterday how he's navigating this argument. "I think they are both equally and massively dangerous," told me. "The re-election of Trump would send a clear message around the country and the world normalizing direct frontal assaults on democracy. While the election of DeSantis would signify that ultra-divisive proto-fascist MAGA politics were not an aberration due to the popularity of an anti-establishment popular culture icon (Trump), but a brand of politics here to stay for the foreseeable future. Both must be defeated. In fact, I vehemently disagree with Democrats who root for Trump or DeSantis to win the GOP nomination because they think they will be easier to defeat in a general election. Indeed, we will be much better served by a GOP nominee that respects the constitution and fully embraces neo-liberal 'centrism.' The return of the GOP to the so-called center, embracing economics that have clearly failed the American people-- as opposed to the MAGA movement, which pretends to offer a contrasting option-- will open up more space for the only political economics that can revive the promise of America and strengthen democracy, the politics of the progressive left."

1 Comment

DeSantis would be far more dangerous. It's not a close call. I don't have the time now to detail the reasons why. Plus, I have my doubts about the donkey's ability, in a GE campaign, to take advantage of DeSantis' obvious vulnerabilities on things like SS/Medicare and a national sales tax. Trump likely will be able to do more harm to DeSantis than the Dems will.

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