The unequal treatment of Trump v. DeSantis: Who gets the advantage?

Why in the world isn't the media taking Donald Trump's plans both seriously and literally this time? 

By Heather Digby Parton


Published April 24, 2023 9:00AM (EDT)

Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis is crumbling under a mountain of criticism for his sinking campaign. Right now he's traveling all over the country giving speeches and selling his book proclaiming he's the greatest anti-woke warrior on the planet. This week he's jetting off overseas, presumably to prove that he can meet with foreign leaders as an equal. Meanwhile, back in Florida, Ft. Lauderdale is drowning and he hasn't bothered to change his busy schedule to appear (even belatedly asking for an emergency federal emergency declaration from the road.) And he was terribly embarrassed by all but one of the Florida congressional delegations, some of whom are his former colleagues in the House, endorsing Donald Trump in a carefully choreographed roll-out over the course of a week.

The New York Times' Maggie Haberman notes that while all of this is true, it's also true that DeSantis is being judged by the party and the press as a normal politician while Trump still gets graded on a curve. What she means by that is DeSantis is taken at his word while Trump still benefits from the 2016 trope that the news media takes him "literally but not seriously," while his supporters take him "seriously but not literally." This does appear to be true, however. DeSantis is being closely scrutinized for his agenda while, even after all this time, people are still dismissing Trump's outlandish statements.

This is not to say that DeSantis doesn't deserve it.

In fashioning himself as woke's most energetic antagonist, he's made himself into a uniquely malevolent political figure. His assaults on education, by banning books and the teaching of the real history of America, and attacks on LGBTQ kids are grotesque. Stunts such as his rendition of migrants from Texas to Martha's Vineyard and his inane battle with Disney deserve to be thoroughly investigated and exposed. His recent signing of a draconian 6-week abortion ban, mere months after signing a 15-week ban, is basically just a doubling down on massively unpopular government overreach. DeSantis' authoritarian agenda is barbaric so it deserves all the attention it is getting.

You will notice that most of the Republicans backbiting DeSantis have been doing so in highly personal terms. This article in Rolling Stone revealed that there is a rather large group of defectors from the governor's staff who have gone to work for Trump and who are pledged to destroy their former boss. They really do not like the guy. Here's just one quote from a former associate:

"The nature of the conversations among the people who used to work for Ron is just so frequently: 'OK, how can we destroy this guy?' It is not at all at a level that is normal for people who hold the usual grudges against horrible bosses. It's a pure hatred that is much, much purer than that … People who were traveling with Ron everyday, who worked with him very closely over the years, to this day joke about how it was always an open question whether or not Ron knew their names … And that's just the start of it."

That's brutal.

DeSantis is being closely scrutinized for his agenda while, even after all this time, people are still dismissing Trump's outlandish statements.

And Florida Republicans are even starting to get impatient with his "woke" agenda. According to Politico, "they're frustrated by a grinding session where legislators have pushed through bill after bill — and chewed up hours of contentious debate — that's considered integral to DeSantis' expected presidential campaign." They had their own priorities and DeSantis is spending his time picking fights with the state's biggest employer:

"People are deeply frustrated," said former state Sen. Jeff Brandes, a St. Petersburg Republican who has been talking to his former GOP colleagues frequently this session. "They are not spending any time on the right problems ... Most legislators believe that the balance of power has shifted too far and the Legislature needs to re-establish itself as a coequal branch of government."

This is the first we've seen of Republicans criticizing DeSantis' agenda and not just his obviously unpleasant personality. One even said, "We are not the party of cancel culture." (You could have fooled me — and all the librarians and teachers dealing with the banned books.)

Want a daily wrap-up of all the news and commentary Salon has to offer? Subscribe to our morning newsletter, Crash Course.

Trump, on the other hand, is putting out an agenda that will make your hair stand on end and nobody is saying a word.

Back in 2016, Trump had a list of proposals that shocked the nation. He was going to build a wall on the southern border and make Mexico pay for it. He said he would ban all Muslims from coming into the country. He said he would pay off the national debt in four years and would deport thousands of refugees, even children. But mostly he whined about how stupid all the other leaders are and complained about how the country has gone to hell in a handbasket while promising to make America great again. His demagogic blather made a lot of people happy.

It's a mistake to assume that Trump's the same loudmouthed gadfly that he was back in 2016.

But this time, seeking revenge on his enemies, he has compiled a list of policies that show a much more systematic authoritarian agenda than he had before. Yes he, like DeSantis, is attacking Critical Race Theory and transgender people of all ages. He's got the bigoted proposals like mass deportation and as I mentioned the other day, he's now proposing to arrest the homeless and offer them to option of jail or concentration camps somewhere away from people (where he says their needs will be met.) That's crazy talk, but it's the kind of thing Trump has always had an ear for by tuning in to the right-wing jungle drums.

But Trump has another agenda that's downright terrifying. He is determined to expand executive power beyond anything even Dick Cheney or Bill Barr could have imagined.

I'm sure you can see the theme there. Donald Trump is prepared to completely upend the civil service and executive branch to fill it with Republican toadies. Do I think he can accomplish that? I don't know. But I think it's a mistake to assume that he's the same loudmouthed gadfly that he was back in 2016. He's seen the power of the presidency and he is driven by a thirst for revenge. He says it clearly: "I am your warrior. I am your justice. And for those who have been wronged and betrayed, I am your retribution."

Ron DeSantis is rightly being subjected to critical scrutiny for his deviation from our understanding of how the American system is supposed to work. Even Republicans are queasy about his expansion of executive power. But Trump is no longer just an eccentric TV star who got lucky, he's a former president who attempted a coup to stay in power and is now the frontrunner for the Republican nomination. Why in the world isn't the media taking Donald Trump's plans both seriously and literally this time? 

By Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

MORE FROM Heather Digby Parton

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Commentary Media Criticism