Donald Trump was initially treated by the media as a largely harmless curiosity, then a compelling and fascinating public figure who was viewed as an "insurgent" and "unconventional." That is when the media began to normalize Trump. He would show himself to be a pathological liar but the news media waited several years to state that obvious fact. As Trump's fascist and demagogic tendencies (and plan) became even more obvious, the mainstream news media largely continued to treat him as a normal political candidate who in the end would be constrained by the country's democratic institutions and norms. After he won the 2016 election, the mainstream news media continued to insist, years into the disaster, that Trump at some point "would rise to the occasion" and make a "presidential" pivot.
Of course, that never happened.
Trump, empowered by the news media's normalization of him, would then lead the greatest political crime spree in American history. 7 years later, the mainstream news media is repeating that pattern of behavior with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Through his policies, speech, and other actions, DeSantis has proven himself to be a neofascist and an authoritarian who treats real democracy and pluralism with contempt. Instead of foregrounding those facts in their coverage of DeSantis and his imminent 2024 presidential run, the mainstream news media is consistently describing him with euphemisms and other complementary language designed to make him sound exciting and compelling: "Rockstar." "Culture warrior." "Brawler."
As the truism observes, bad habits die hard. For institutions like the news media, bad habits die again and again and again ad infinitum until the lesson is learned too late.
As I explained in a previous essay here at Salon, DeSantis is no friend of democracy; he is a friendly fascist who is in many ways more dangerous than Trump. Ultimately, there are few if any substantive differences between Trump and DeSantis except in how their fascism and other antidemocracy beliefs and policies are packaged and presented.
In a recent story that is representative of a larger pattern among the country's leading media outlets, the New York Times profiled DeSantis and his attempts to connect with the Republican Party's base voters. The result was predictable. In a mostly flattering and humanizing profile, the Times emphasized DeSantis and his personality and the political horse race instead of the man's values and policies and how they will hurt American people en masse if he becomes president. The headline, "A Glimpse of DeSantis in Iowa: Awkward, but Still Winning the Crowd," is a perfect fit for the story and its tale of the big city fancy school-educated Floridian trying to connect with the commoners in Trumplandia and other parts of "real America":
Suzy Barker, a native Iowan dressed in an orange-and-blue University of Florida hoodie, waited in a crowd of fellow Republicans on Friday morning to meet Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida.
She smiled widely and pointed to her hoodie as she told the governor that her son attended college in his home state. Mr. DeSantis — dressed in a dark blue suit with a light blue, open-collar shirt and black boots — stood on the opposite side of 10 metal bike racks separating him from the crowd. He gave a slight nod to Ms. Barker and told her about his state's new "grandparent waiver" that gives tuition breaks to out-of-state students whose grandparents are Florida residents.
But Ms. Barker, a 50-year-old teacher who had driven about an hour to see the Florida governor in Davenport, does not have any other family in the Sunshine State, and she narrowed her eyes in confusion at his response. Here she was at an event promoting Mr. DeSantis's new book, shoulder to shoulder with a crush of Iowans eager for face time with the anti-"woke" darling of right-wing America, and he was talking waivers.
Mr. DeSantis quickly scribbled his name with a black Sharpie in her book and smiled. "Go Gators," he told her as he moved on to the next person awaiting his signature.
The interaction underscored both the promise and the potential pitfall of a presidential bid for Mr. DeSantis. His preference for policy over personality can make him seem awkward and arrogant or otherwise astonishing in person, depending on the voter and the success or failure of his one-on-one exchanges. Many Republicans view his style as an antidote to the character attacks and volatility that have underscored Republican politics during the Trump era.
As Mr. DeSantis decides whether to seek the Republican presidential nomination in 2024, one of the biggest questions facing the 44-year-old Floridian is his ability to connect with voters who have had little exposure to him outside his home state.
The Times continued:
Mr. DeSantis seemed determined to sign every book and smile for every selfie the crowd wanted.
On Twitter, Mark Jacob, a former editor at the Chicago Tribune turned media critic, summarized the Times piece: "The Washington media crowd keeps covering the rise of fascism from a marketing angle."
As author and journalist Jeff Sharlet highlighted, also in a series of posts on Twitter, "Any media spending time in Trump vs. DeSantis isn't just playing horse race; it's actively ignoring the real story, which is that Trumpism—the American strain of fascism—has so thoroughly consumed US politics that only fascists can really contend."
Like the mainstream news media, the right-wing kingmakers in the Republican Party and "conservative" movement such as the Koch Network, Murdoch, and others in that orbit are desperately trying to normalize and present DeSantis as a significantly different (and by implication preferable) option as compared to Donald Trump.
It would be a great error to conclude that they are doing this because of a love of democracy. The Republican Party and "conservative" movement's elites used Trump and his MAGA movement as a type of berserker or blitzkrieg force to smash America's democratic norms and institutions. DeSantis will be used to consolidate their gains as he rules over a more institutional and permanent version of a new American fascist order that transforms the country into a White Christofascist plutocratic version of Vladimir Putin's Russia or Viktor Orban's Hungary.
In a new essay at the New Republic, Ana Marie Cox makes this intervention:
Don't get me wrong, it is highly amusing to see the Republican donor/pundit class make the same error they did in 2016, projecting their chattering-class concerns onto an electorate as unconcerned with "crassness" as it is with "baggage" and, for that matter, potential criminal charges. If conservative voters were really looking for politicians that supported Trump policies but were just more covertly racist and less embarrassingly fascistic, then Liz Cheney would still be representing Wyoming in Congress today.*
As others have observed, the choice between Ron DeSantis and Donald Trump is the equivalent of choosing between being stabbed or shot to death – or perhaps being blown up by a grenade. In a recent press release, the pro-democracy advocacy group The Lincoln Project summarized this false dichotomy perfectly:
Don't be fooled by any conservative who tries to tell you that DeSantis is a more moderate version of Trump. DeSantis, far from being moderate, is trying to appeal to the same culture-war focused MAGA base that Trump currently controls. To win the hearts and minds of MAGA, to get them to move away from Trump, DeSantis will have to be an even more extreme version of Trump. And therein lies the danger of a DeSantis nomination: in order for him to be successful, he has to be extreme.
By normalizing and laundering DeSantis, the mainstream news media is presenting neofascism and authoritarianism, and all of the human harm such policies have already and will cause to the American people on an even greater scale, as something palatable.
In the end, there is no real choice between DeSantis and Trump. To borrow from the end of the classic 1984 movie Ghostbusters, the American people are being asked to choose the form of their Destructor.