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DeSantis Derangement Syndrome and the Return of Mass Panic
The fascism debate is back. It will never go away, because people need it.
It had been a merciful few months. I had forgotten that there were a substantial number of liberals who were obsessed with using the word “fascist” as a catch-all epithet. I wasn’t online as much, and I generally try to avoid following the news, for reasonshelpfully explains here. It was nice to not be attacked (except that one time I went viral for gently criticizing grown adults for wearing Eagles jerseys).
But, of course, it couldn’t last.
To my surprise, I saw myself going viral the other day after a series of tweets about Florida governor Ron DeSantis. It’s good to be back, I suppose. It is, however, a minor tragedy that the thing perpetually online left-leaning folks get most exercised about is whether or not a particular Republican is a “fascist.” We all have finite time and attention, so the thought that this is what untold thousands of otherwise intelligent people find worthwhile to focus on is dispiriting. It’s, in a quite literal sense, a pointless position to hold—putting aside the matter of whether it is factually accurate (it is not).
With all that said, a disclaimer before I go any further: I think Ron DeSantis is bad. I find the prospect of his presidency to be pretty damn frightening, in part because I think he’s the GOP’s best chance to become a majority party again, instead of a party that narrowly ekes out narrow Electoral College wins.
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But competence and the prospect of majority support does not make one a fascist. Asnotes, DeSantis—at least as it relates to culture warring—can be viewed as a sort of American analogue to Hungary’s Viktor Orban. Viktor Orban is indisputably bad, in my opinion, but “mere” badness is not equivalent to fascism. Luckily, we have other words for describing authoritarian behavior. One of them is “authoritarian.” As Linker puts it:
Using a landslide victory in his re-election bid as leverage to impose a conservative clampdown on publicly funded universities is not fascism. It’s a power grab from the right that liberals should be fighting hard.
Is DeSantis “deeply illiberal”? His efforts to restrict academic freedom in Florida make this as clear as anything, and I haven’t yet come across a principled defense of these actions—unless the principle, here, is simply that “wokeness” must be fought by any means necessary, even if it means replicating the very sins one is ostensibly fighting. But, as readers of my book on democracy will well know, small-d “democracy” and small-l “liberalism” aren’t the same thing, and the fact that we continue carelessly conflating them fuels political illiteracy.
Elsewhere, I’ve posed the question as straightforwardly as I can: what in God’s good name does attaching “fascist” to DeSantis accomplish? I suppose it accomplishes something: It establishes a baseline comparison with which to argue that all Republicans are in one sense or another beyond the pale. It is a way to de-exceptionalize Donald Trump and to state, in effect, that the Republican Party—as an institution—is fascist. Relatedly, all popular Republicans, however mainstream, are fascists or will become fascists at some unspecified point in the future. This is the argument. It’s not complicated, and it’s the sort of unapologetically lazy and uncreative claim that seems to get traction for some reason.
But I wonder if there’s something more going on here. Sometimes, I get the sense that DeSantis’ critics on the left want him to be a fascist. Because if they are fighting something as horrible as fascism, then it must mean they are doing God’s work. They are the benighted ones. They are on the right side of history. Having a cause to fight for requires, first, believing that the cause is actually worth fighting for. And, for that, the stakes must be sufficiently high.
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