Warning: Don’t feed the narrative!
Ron DeSantis could be Trump all over again if Democrats keep repeating a past mistake
Last week Ron DeSantis, governor of Florida and one of the two Republicans with the best shot at being the next president, said this about Anthony Fauci, who had just announced that, at age 81, after decades of public service, he is leaving the government: "Someone needs to grab that little elf and chuck him across the Potomac."
On the same day, DeSantis’s opponent in this fall’s gubernatorial race, Rep. Charlie Crist, said this: "Those who support the governor should stay with him. I don't want your vote. If you have that hate in your heart, keep it there."
In these two quotes can be found: (1) the ingredients of my worst nightmare about how the next chapter in American politics will unfold; (2) an opportunity for me to deliver my boilerplate sermon about how to prevent my nightmare from becoming reality.
The nightmare has two basic elements:
(1) In 29 months the reign of Trumpism returns; the White House is occupied by either Trump or DeSantis. And DeSantis, by the way, is in some ways the more unsettling prospect. He combines some of Trump’s creepiest features—including a juvenile delight in crude insults and macho posturing, as reflected in that Fauci line—with actual competence. Depending on how exactly his belligerence and self-certainty played out in the Oval Office, he could wind up doing a more effective job of degrading American democracy than Trump did, hard as that is to imagine.
(2) The reason the reign of Trumpism returns is that Democrats repeat a mistake they made in dealing with Trump, a mistake that helped him get elected and came harrowingly close to helping him get re-elected. That mistake is embodied in what Crist said about DeSantis.
The problem isn’t Crist’s suggestion that DeSantis traffics in hatred. In fact, I’d say the Fauci quote alone is a kind of evidence of such trafficking. Though I can imagine DeSantis supporters who don’t hate Fauci chuckling appreciatively at that line, what gives the line its red meat quality—what guarantees it a roaring response—is that some DeSantis supporters do hate Fauci.
Crist’s mistake is in suggesting that all supporters of DeSantis are drawn to him because he appeals to hatred. In addition to being factually wrong, this kind of disparaging overgeneralization is, I think, a tactical blunder. Labeling Trump supporters or DeSantis supporters broadly as haters—or as racists, or fascists, or the various other things Trump supporters have been called—has two unfortunate consequences.
First, it inclines Democrats to write off every supporter of Trump or DeSantis as a lost cause—as somebody who could never be persuaded to vote Democratic. And this in turn keeps Democrats from doing the hard work of assessing and addressing the deep forces that got Trump elected. Globalization, trade, immigration, and technological change have had complex economic and social effects and have fostered politically momentous grievances. Sizing up the impact of these forces, and figuring out which grievances deserve to be addressed, and how to address them without buying into Trump’s xenophobia, is a pre-requisite for coming up with policies and policy framings that could lure some would-be Trumpists away from Trump or DeSantis.
I published most of the preceding paragraph almost word for word five years ago, nine months into Trump’s presidency, in a Vox piece advocating “mindful resistance” (a term that, as some readers may recall, was the name of NZN’s precursor newsletter). I wouldn’t say Democrats have done none of the reconsideration of policy and rhetoric that I recommended in the piece, but they haven’t done enough to keep me from recycling that part of my sermon.
Here’s the rest of my sermon—the more important part, for present purposes:
The second unfortunate consequence of broadly disparaging Trump or DeSantis supporters is something I also mentioned in that Vox piece. Such disparagement feeds the narrative that energizes the Trumpist base. Namely: that ordinary working-class Americans are held in contempt by Democratic elites.
Now, Crist’s “hate in your heart” riff may not be the most obvious fuel for this narrative. For one thing, you have to study his phrasing a bit to conclude that he’s saying that all DeSantis supports are haters.
But studying the phrasing of Democrats—and then repackaging it in explosive form—is something that Trumpist messaging experts are happy to do! Within hours of Crist’s riff, Tucker Carlson was on TV telling his viewers, “He doesn’t want your vote. You’re morally beneath him!” Sitting next to Carlson was Ron DeSantis, looking pretty contented.
Such is the craftsmanship of Trumpist messaging experts that Crist’s comments soon became a strand in a larger narrative tapestry, interwoven with mildly infelicitous comments made by New York governor Kathy Hochul and very infelicitous comments made by Joe Biden. Watching the weaving of this tapestry is a valuably disturbing experience: