Ron DeSantis shouldn’t be covered like just another Republican

By Molly Jong-Fast, Vanity Fair, February 16, 2023

Florida’s wannabe autocrat and possible 2024 contender isn’t Trump, but he’s as dangerous to democracy.

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.

Sometimes campaign coverage does more harm than good. We have certain tropes we fall into. We tend to think more of the calculus of getting elected than the results. Sure, the death match between DeSantis and Trump gets clicks and ratings, but that doesn’t mean we can’t talk about the threat both of them pose to democracy, or how their party embraces Hungarian strongman Viktor Orbán and fetishizes Vladimir Putin. A 2020 study from Democracy Institute at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden found that “since 2004, the Republican Party in America has adopted increasingly illiberal practices and moved closer to resembling authoritarian parties found in Turkey and Hungary.” Taking a page from Orbán, Matt Schlapp, the chairman of the American Conservative Union, which runs CPAC, recently told Steve Bannon he’s decided to get “a little bit Hungarian” on “the left-wing activists that like to think they’re media.”

This week Nikki Haley announced her campaign for president. It was like a delightful throwback to the time of Mitt Romney, when Republicans spoke of governing by American ideals. The war in Ukraine, she said Thursday on NBC’s Today show, “is not about Ukraine, it’s about freedom, and it’s a war we have to win.” But we already know Haley has almost no shot at the nomination. Why? Because she likely won’t take the autocratic posture that news organizations, straining to appear nonpartisan while covering an increasingly anti-democratic party, will chalk up as serving “red meat” for the Republican base. We need to be unflinching in our presidential campaign coverage, while we’re still allowed to cover them.

Molly Jong-Fast is a special correspondent for Vanity Fair. She is the host of the podcast Fast Politics. You can follow her on Twitter here.

 Image Credits: By Mark Peterson-Redux