Ron DeSantis Is Not a Fascist
But then what is he? Maybe just a champion of illiberal democracy
Many things about my NYT op-ed antagonized readers, but perhaps none more so than my insistence that liberals shouldn’t call Ron DeSantis a fascist. My case wasn’t just a function of the fact that, in terms of electoral tactics, hurling hyperbolic epithets could backfire on liberals. Beyond that, I really don’t think DeSantis is a fascist, even after last week’s flood of news about numerous flagrantly illiberal bills being introduced by members of the Republican majority in the Florida legislature.
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How to Spot a Fascist When You See One
Colloquially, the word “fascist” is often used to describe any political actor or policy proposal that inspires fear that state power will be used to take away or limit individual rights. That’s certainly part of what makes someone a fascist. But there’s far more to it than that.
In his thoughtful post (mildly) criticizing my op-ed, John Ganz cogently lists some of the traits that make Donald Trump’s style of politics, if not outrightly fascist, at least fasc-ish in character:
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.
I very much agree that all of these are elements of what makes fascism distinctive as a form of right-wing political mobilization, and that they make Trump at least fascist-adjacent.
But then what is DeSantis? Ganz and I also agree that the governor of Florida isn’t a fascist, that his real-world model is Hungarian President Viktor Orbán, and that Orbán isn’t a fascist either. From there, Ganz moves on to suggest that DeSantis (and Orbán) might be practicing a “post-fascist” form of normalized authoritarian politics. I’m not convinced thinking about the phenomenon that way is especially illuminating. But I’m sure whatever Ganz writes next on the subject will be well worth reading and wrestling with. (I hope you’ll subscribe to his Substack, Unpopular Front.)
What Are Orbán and DeSantis Doing?
But if DeSantis isn’t a fascist, what exactly is distinctive about his style of politics? Is he an authoritarian? And if so, what kind of authoritarian?
It’s quite common today for critics of the right to presume everyone who supports Trump, DeSantis, or maybe any Republican at all is operating in bad faith. Given how much the post-Trump right marinates in conspiratorial bullshit and flagrant trolling, this is understandable. Yet I nevertheless believe it’s important to listen to what political actors say they are doing—what ideals they’re appealing to, what they’re fighting against, and how they hope to make gains over their opponents. We shouldn’t leave it there. But we should at least start there.
And if we listen closely to DeSantis and his many intellectual defenders, we hear something like the following story:
At the level of electoral politics, conservatives have done pretty well over the past several decades. Ronald Reagan was a very successful and popular president. In 1994, Newt Gingrich helped the GOP take the House for the first time in 40 years and Republicans have been competitive in the battle for control of Congress ever since. George W. Bush won re-election in 2004 with a majority of the popular vote. The 2010 midterm election was a massive landslide for a newly radicalized (Tea Party) right. Donald Trump showed that Republicans could compete for the presidency in states long assumed to be Democratic strongholds. Throughout this period Republicans have outperformed Democrats at the state and local level around the country.
At the level of electoral politics, in other words, the U.S. is close to a draw between conservatives and progressives.
But at the level of culture, progressives utterly dominate, especially at the elite level. They control most of the media, the public schools, the universities, law schools and (until recently) the courts, the medical establishment, the arts (including Hollywood, the music business, and book publishing), the civil service at all levels of government, and the corporate sector (including high-innovation, high-growth, and high-profit technology companies).
This cultural leverage gives the left an enormous advantage in the competition to define what it means to be an American in the 21st century. Progressives consistently teach Americans in general and young Americans in particular that they should be progressive, too—not least because progressives will defend their rights while conservatives will try to take them away, which is something that should be considered morally and politically illegitimate.
But most of these rights were only established or asserted to exist within the past half century or so, by progressives. Their approach to politics therefore amounts to them using every cultural advantage they can, including asserting the existence of rights that turn numerous constituencies in the American electorate into permanent stakeholders in progressive governance, in order to assure political victory. And they seek to consolidate these victories by claiming they are the only morally and politically legitimate outcome of democratic contestation in a liberal democracy.
But Orbán has shown that conservatives don’t need to accept this progressive construal of democratic legitimacy. Instead, the right can deploy political power to halt and even reverse the left’s seemingly inexorable cultural gains. How? By using political power to launch an aggressive attack against cultural institutions that are dominated by progressives and give them their political leverage. Orbán has done this with the media in Hungary, which used to lean center-left but now favors the right-wing ruling party; he’s done it by kicking the liberal Central European University out of the country; he’s done it by imposing restrictions on teaching progressive ideas about gender in schools; and so forth.
These and other moves have shown the American right a whole new path to possible electoral gains for the Republican Party and cultural gains for conservatives. DeSantis has so far gone further than anyone in implementing this new approach in the state of Florida, and his landslide re-election victory last November demonstrates its popularity.
Soft Authoritarianism or Illiberal Democracy?
Now, I want to be absolutely clear: This interpolation of what the right is up to in its rising enthusiasm for DeSantis’s Orbánist project should not be taken as any kind of endorsement from me. I’m a registered Democrat living in Pennsylvania, so I won’t have a say in the Republican primaries, but if DeSantis makes it to the general election in 2024, I will not vote for him. I think it would be bad for the country, not to mention bad for members of the groups he targets in his campaign and eventual policies, for him to win the White House. His style of politics is cruelly bullying. He shows indifference to the constitutionality of the policies he proposes. And a politics that aims to roll back rights that have been granted to millions of people is horribly divisive.
Put in more positive terms, I am a liberal (despite what many of my critics think about me) who wants to live in a country where freedom (the sphere of life protected by rights) stays constant or expands over time, where the government’s power to interfere with civil society is limited, and where politicians of all parties are committed to the view that cultural battles (including battles over “woke” trends) should be fought out in the cultural sphere of civil society, not using the blunt force of raw political power and coercion.
But note: Those are pragmatic objections to DeSantis. I think he would be a bad president doing bad things. I’d prefer a more moderate Republican to DeSantis, and a moderate Democrat over any Republican at all when it comes to casting ballots for president.
My case against DeSantis doesn’t involve claiming he’s an aspiring fascist. I sometimes describe him, like his mentor Viktor Orbán, as a soft authoritarian. But the adjective is important. I’ve noted in my past writing that Orbán and his party place their thumbs on the scales of political coverage in the Hungarian media in order to give themselves an advantage in elections. That advantage is real. But how decisive is it? More decisive than the informal boost the center-left enjoyed in American politics during the heyday of the mainstream media’s monopoly on news through much of the 20th century? Maybe. Probably. I really don’t know.
What I do know is that Orbán and his party participate in elections, and they win, not by the comically lopsided margins one sees in outright authoritarian regimes, but by comfortable, plausible margins. Just as DeSantis went from winning the Florida governor’s race in 2018 by 0.4 percentage points to winning his bid for re-election four years later by 19 points. Critics claim this doesn’t matter because fascists and authoritarians often gain power by winning elections. That’s true. But making that point presumes rather than demonstrates that DeSantis is a fascist or authoritarian.
It's also possible that DeSantis’ style of governance is just plain popular in Florida, just as Orbán’s is in Hungary. That’s a very troubling thought, because, if true, it would mean that the most accurate way to describe Orbán might be the way he’s long described himself, which is not as a fascist or even as an outright authoritarian (soft or hard) but as a champion of illiberal democracy. Which is to say he’s someone who seeks to win democratic majorities by actively opposing ideological liberalism.
Democracy Without Liberalism
Against this interpretation stand all those who insist that the very act of trying to reverse liberalism—to push back on cultural progressivism and curtail individual rights in various spheres—is invariably an expression of authoritarianism or fascism, even when it’s backed up by democratic majorities. But this would imply that cultural modes of politics in democratic polities can be judged democratically legitimate only when they move in a leftward direction over time. Any attempt to change or reverse course would have to be seen as an automatic and inevitable expression of hostility to democracy itself.
Is this a coherent position? I’m not sure it is, whether we’re talking about Orbán in Hungary, present-day DeSantis in Florida, or a potential future DeSantis in the White House. A country that holds elections in which the cultural right prevails and seeks to use political power to achieve its ends is an expression of democracy, albeit an illiberal one, provided the opposition retains the capacity to organize and compete in future elections.
Do we have reason to worry that a figure or party elected to advance illiberalism will feel emboldened to gut democratic proceduralism and rig future elections in its own favor to such an extent that the progressive opposition loses the capacity to organize and compete? Absolutely. In fact, this (the actual advent of authoritarianism) is the most ominous eventuality facing every contemporary liberal democracy in which right-leaning parties have lurched toward illiberalism while remaining electorally competitive.
Such an outcome isn’t at all certain and may even be unlikely. Yet it remains a risk and a worry that arises from within the horizon of democratic politics. It’s not some imposition from outside it. Tens of millions of our fellow citizens don’t like where they think our country is headed, and they’re expressing that dislike at the ballot box. The response to them shouldn’t be you’re not allowed to dislike and attempt to change the country’s direction. The response should be here are reasons why you should be less hostile to recent trends and more fearful that the illiberal reforms you favor will end up making you less free in the long run, too.
Will that be enough to ensure the antiliberal right loses fair and square in 2024 and beyond? We don’t yet know. But we really have no democratically legitimate option but to attempt it.
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