Downplaying the Republican Party's attacks on democracy won't save us
You do not have to hand it to Viktor Orban -- or Ron DeSantis
This is long. I apologize for that; I thought about breaking it into three pieces but I’d rather just be done with it and not impose on your inbox three separate times. Feel free to take a break midway through, stretch your legs, put on a pot of coffee. Yell at me in the comments about the length if you must.
Last week, the New York Times published a Damon Linker op-ed misleadingly titled “My Fellow Liberals Are Exaggerating The Dangers of Ron DeSantis.” I have previously explained at some length why that piece was generally unworthy of publication. But it also represented some deeply flawed thinking about DeSantis, elections, and democracy that are worth spelling out. Because the truth is that downplaying the dangers of DeSantis (and other Republicans like him) is one of the most dangerous things we could do — and there are signs that’s exactly what the news media is doing.
“A DeSantis presidency would be bad in many ways … But Mr. DeSantis almost certainly would not be worse than Mr. Trump,” Linker wrote last week, adding “exaggerating the threat posed by the Florida governor could inadvertently increase Mr. Trump’s prospects in the Republican primaries.”
The fundamental mistake here is thinking we can assess the relative dangers of Trump and DeSantis with significant certainty — and failing to recognize that whatever difference in dangerousness exists between them is far less significant than the fact that both of them are so far into the Danger Zone that the ascension of either to the presidency could effectively end American democracy, in addition to direct personal harm they can be expected to inflict on millions of Americans. There’s a tipping point of tolerable dangerousness, and both of them are far past that tipping point.1
It’s an utterly trivial thing to come up with a compelling argument for why Trump is more dangerous than DeSantis or another Republican. His impulsiveness, irrationality, desperation to avoid the consequences of his own actions, and absolute lack of moral or ethical code are unique, and pose dangers unmatched by even the most malevolent of his Republican colleagues.
Case closed, right?
Well, not so fast.
It’s also utterly trivial thing to come up with a compelling argument for why a DeSantis is more dangerous than Trump: Donald Trump is simply not a competent human; he surrounds himself with unqualified buffoons and lickspittles; he is uniquely unpopular. All of this combines to limit Trump’s ability to accomplish his goals. A Republican who shares Trump’s authoritarian goals but not his incompetence is more likely to be able to actually accomplish their shared goals.
Which of those arguments is right? Or more likely right? Who is more dangerous, Trump or DeSantis? That’s a very difficult question. But I don’t think it’s worth spending much time on. That’s in part because we can’t be particularly confident in the answer, but also because whichever one of them is less dangerous is still intolerably dangerous to democracy, to a free society, and to the wellbeing of countless Americans, particularly women, people of color, and LGBTQ+ people.
Linker offers another objection to playing up the danger of DeSantis: “if Mr. DeSantis does get the nomination, progressive overreaction toward him in the primary contest could ultimately undermine the case against him in the general election.” Liberals, according to Linker, have a long history of exaggerating the dangers of their conservative opponents, and these exaggerations undermine their credibility and help their opponents win. So, Linker says, instead of portraying DeSantis or any other Republican as comparably dangerous to Trump — or even more dangerous — liberals should “build a case tailored to the distinctive defects of whichever candidate makes it to the general election.”
All of that is, I think, is pretty much exactly wrong.
First, it’s comically wrong to suggest that liberals are more prone to exaggerating the dangers of conservatives than vice versa. Recall that Barack Obama was widely portrayed by conservatives as a foreign-born socialist terrorist-fist-jabber. Or that both Clintons were regularly accused by conservatives of murder sprees that would’ve made Ted Bundy blush. Or the lies that John Kerry didn’t earn the Purple Hearts he was awarded for his service in Vietnam. Or the Willie Horton ad. Meanwhile, the Left has arguably undersold the danger of the Right over the past few decades, not oversold it.2
Second, Linker provides three examples of liberals (supposedly) exaggerating the dangers of conservative opponents — LBJ vs Goldwater, and Obama vs. McCain and Romney. Note that all three of those campaigns were successful, which doesn’t do much to support the premise that (supposedly) excessive criticism of conservatives will backfire.3
Most importantly, I think the best way to beat DeSantis in a general election would be to hammer away at how similarly dangerous he is to Trump. As Michael Podhorzer has demonstrated, “America is an anti-MAGA majority country when it knows that MAGA is on the ballot”:
I have consistently underscored that to the extent that Americans understood the stakes of the midterms to be about defeating MAGA, they would once again show up in sufficient numbers to bar the door. All that was needed to confound the usual midterm rout for the president’s party was making sure that 2020 voters understood that, just as they didn’t want Trump for President, they certainly didn’t want his criminal accomplices and MAGA fascists to take over Congress and their state capitals.
This midterm bore that out to a stunning degree. Where voters understood the stakes, they voted as they had in 2018 and 2020; where they did not, they met the pundits’ expectations about a Red Wave. [emphasis in original]
Telling voters, as Linker would have us do, that Ron DeSantis4 is not nearly as bad as Donald Trump would likely be a disastrous strategy that would encourage voters to view DeSantis as a relative moderate. This would not only be strategically wrong, it would be wrong: Ron DeSantis isn’t Glenn Youngkin. Glenn Youngkin isn’t even Glenn Youngkin. Youngkin won the governorship of Virginia just a year after Joe Biden carried the state by 10 points -- and not because liberals exaggerated his danger. He won in large part because the news media downplayed it, portraying him as a vest-wearing-moderate.5
I don’t think we can know with a high degree of confidence if Trump or DeSantis is more dangerous. But I am quite confident that the most dangerous thing would be a candidate with oppressive, authoritarian ambitions who is widely seen as a moderate.
That brings me to this week’s New York Times feature on Ron DeSantis’s legislative agenda.
Despite a healthy word count (1,691) the Times didn’t quote a single substantive criticism of DeSantis. Instead, the Times noted “the opposition to Mr. DeSantis has not been very effective.” Which may be true, but it would almost certainly be less true if news companies like the Times bothered to quote them.
The Times’ treatment of a DeSantis-backed gun bill is illustrative:
Under the concealed weapons bill, Floridians who do not have felony arrests or certain arrests related to substance abuse could carry a firearm without the current permit requirement. The state now requires anyone seeking a permit to undergo a background check, fingerprinting and a training course, and to fire a gun in front of an instructor.
The legislation has drawn opposition not only from gun-control advocates but also from pro-gun groups, who say it does not go far enough because it would not allow open carry — and would continue to allow for gun-free zones in places like schools and government buildings.
“We’re insulted by this bill,” Bob White, chairman of the Republican Liberty Caucus of Florida, said at a recent Senate criminal justice committee hearing.
Note that the Times tells readers the DeSantis bill is opposed by both “gun control advocates” and “pro-gun groups,” portraying DeSantis up as a moderate. Note, too, that the Times then quotes a right-wing “pro-gun” criticism of DeSantis. The gun control advocates who oppose the legislation? Not quoted.
Nearly 1,700 words, no substantive quotes from critics, two photos of DeSantis — one standing confidently next to an American flag, one surrounded by smiling schoolchildren.
If Ron DeSantis wins the presidency, it won’t be because liberals exaggerated his dangers. It will be because the news media — and pundits like Damon Linker — downplay the the dangers of an aspiring autocrat in the mold of Hungary’s Viktor Orban, and treat him as a normal conservative politician. Orban isn’t not my comparison, by the way: it’s Damon Linker’s: He has repeatedly compared the Florida governor to the Hungarian autocrat.
So let’s take a look at what Linker has to say about Orban.
Here’s Linker in 2018:
If you want to see what America might look like a decade from now if President Trump is permitted to follow through on his indisputably authoritarian instincts, you could do worse than examine what's happened to Hungary over the last eight years under Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.
Political scientists judge the legitimacy of elections using the criteria of whether a vote was “free and fair.” Evaluated by that standard, the Hungarian election was questionably legitimate, since it was free but far from fully fair. After another four years during which Fidesz will have the votes to change the constitution, the chances of the next election being even less legitimate are high — at least based on the way things have been moving over the past decade.
Perhaps more significant of all,
[Quoting Slate] Orbán turned Hungary’s state media into a pure propaganda outlet. He used his power to engineer the sale of critical opposition outlets into the hands of his loyalists. He used his control over the country’s electoral commission to impose arbitrary fines on opposition parties, effectively rendering them incapable of mounting a real campaign.
In 2019, Linker tweeted that Orban “shuts down media outlets and universities that disagree with him.” In 2020, Linker tweeted “COVID-19 was Orban's Reichtstag fire” — then, in response to a since-deleted tweet that apparently took issue with the comparison, Linker wrote “Of course it is. Orban has declared himself dictator. Don't be a useful idiot.”
Linker then elaborated in a column headlined “Viktor Orbán's American apologists,” writing of “the alarming (but also completely unsurprising)” actions of Orban’s ruling party “suspending parliament and elections, giving Orbán the power to rule by decree, and pronouncing that the spreading of ‘fake news’ would be punished by up to five years in prison,” and noting Orban “has long been an enemy of pluralism and freedom, a wannabe dictator waiting for the perfect pretext to snuff out Hungary's liberal democracy after years of systematically weakening its defenses” before asking:
Which way will the conservatives go, I wonder?
It all depends on just how anti-liberal they are ready to become. For years National Review defended the fascist Franco regime in Spain against its many critics. Are contemporary conservatives in favor of treating Orban's nationalistic authoritarianism as a similarly defensible alternative? Just how much do they despise a political system that valorizes liberal journalism, appoints experts credentialized by prestigious secular universities to positions of power, and defers to unelected, busybody bureaucrats who fine-tune national life through the regulatory tentacles of an all-powerful administrative state? And are there any limits to the political forces they would empower to take it on and take it down?
A few days later, Linker defended Freedom House’s assessment that Hungary is no longer a democracy.
Let’s pause here for a summary: Linker has written that Orban is a good model for what could happen “if President Trump is permitted to follow through on his indisputably authoritarian instincts,” noted Orban’s moves to seize control of Hungary’s news media and arbitrarily fine the political opposition, “effectively rendering them incapable of mounting a real campaign,” said Orban has “declared himself dictator,” and agreed Hungary is no longer a democracy.
But then something interesting happened. In 2021, Linker walked back his assessment slightly, arguing “Orban hasn’t crushed the opposition. The opposition is running against & may defeat him in elections next year.” Pressed for data supporting that claim, Linker pointed to “numerous poll results showing a close race.” In fact, Orban ultimately won by 20 percentage points, with the highest vote share in Hungary since the fall of communism. Freedom House assessed the election as “not free, let alone fair.” But by that point, Linker was fully committed to the bit, mocking the idea that Hungary is no longer a democracy with free and fair elections:
But wait — Orbán won re-election in a landslide? How could that be? Haven't we heard for years that Hungary is no longer a democracy? That its elections might be free, but they certainly aren’t fair? That the country is now governed by an “authoritarian regime” or possibly “soft fascism”?
The reality is more muddled than such breathless commentary would lead one to believe.
Good luck figuring out how Orban winning a landslide is inconsistent with Hungary not having fair elections or being a democracy. Indeed, in 2021 Linker had pointed to the purportedly close race as evidence that Hungary is still a democracy; in 2022 he pointed to Orban’s landslide victory as evidence it must be.
Anyway, the gist of Linker’s 2022 column was that sure, Orban has rigged Hungary’s elections in his favor, but also a lot of people like him, therefore Hungary enjoys free and fair democratic elections:
The solid victory of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán's Fidesz Party on Sunday has the populist-nationalist faction of the Republican Party feeling giddy about its prospects — but it's Democrats still confused about Trump who should be paying close attention to Orbán's democratic success. […]
Viktor Orbán has done some bad things over the past 12 years to give himself and his party a marginal boost in elections. But his ability to mobilize the non-urban parts of his country in support of his government is far more significant and the true secret of his political success. He won — with a little help from the system's extra-democratic institutions — because many people liked him.
This is very dumb. Hitler and Stalin had their fans, too. So did Saddam Hussein. The measure of whether elections are free and fair isn’t whether some people like the winner, or even whether many people like the winner. It’s whether the elections are free and fair. You can’t note that a country’s leader has seized control of the news media and imposed fines on the political opposition rendering them “incapable of mounting a real campaign” and then marvel at the leader’s popularity. That’s what seizing control of the media and hobbling the opposition is for! Orban’s popularity doesn’t prove democracy is still intact, it proves his efforts to impose autocracy are working.
This week, in wake of criticism of his New York Times column, Linker returned to the DeSantis-Orban comparison:
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. […] 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. [emphasis added]
You can twist yourself into a pretzel trying to litigate the difference between a fascist, an authoritarian, a soft authoritarian, and an illiberal democrat who uses the power of the state to rig elections for himself, and then speculate about whether Candidate A is two or three degrees closer than Candidate B to one of those labels, or you can simply recognize that both candidates want to seize power with or without majority support and appear eager to subvert democracy in order to do so, and to wield that power in ways that oppress racial and other historically marginalized minorities.
Linker has chosen to become a pretzel.
Reading Linker’s current attempts to downplay Orban’s (and, by extension, DeSantis’) danger to democracy, I am reminded of Linker’s immediate reaction to the January 6, 2021 insurrection. Here’s Linker later that year:
In my first column after Jan. 6, I made a point of rejecting the use of the word ‘coup’ to describe the events Trump had set in motion […] Yet as time has gone on and we've learned more details about what happened in the days and weeks leading up to Jan. 6 […] I’ve come to think that choosing to fight and die on the hill of whether or not Trump and his allies were fomenting a ‘coup’ is a textbook example of missing the forest for the trees. The highest level of the administration was doing everything it could think of to keep itself in power in defiance of the outcome of a legitimate election, including encouraging an assault on the seat of the national legislature. If that wasn’t a coup in the strictest terms, it was undeniably an act that aimed to overturn the democratic character of American government. That’s what matters, and semantic debates about precisely what to label it are a trivial distraction.
Is Ron DeSantis more or less dangerous than Donald Trump? I don’t know — not with a high degree of confidence, anyway. But I think that obsessing over that question misses the forest for the trees. What really matters is that both want to overturn the democratic character of American government. What really matters is that both are incredibly dangerous — and made more dangerous by news coverage and punditry that obscures this fact.
As is the Republican Party generally.
Maybe I’ll come back to this at greater length some other time. For today I will simply note that for the last six years or a whole lot of people have been in a constant state of shock that the GOP/conservative movement are doing things they’ve long obviously been trying to do. That shock is incompatible with the notion that the Left has long exaggerated the dangers of the Right.
Linker tries to get around this inconvenient truth by suggesting that Donald Trump won in 2016 because liberals exaggerated their critiques of Goldwater, McCain, and Romney. This is nonsense. Trump didn’t win because people didn’t believe he was that bad; he won in spite of it. We know this for many reasons, one of which is that Trump was an historically unpopular candidate in 2016 and an historically unpopular president. Trump didn’t win in 2016 because people didn’t believe what liberals said about him; he won because people did believe the exaggerated claims he and others made about Hillary Clinton. And because of James Comey, Russia, and a lot of other things that don’t have anything to do with the bizarre right-wing fantasy that liberal meanness to Mitt Romney caused the Trump presidency.
Or any other Republican who could plausibly win the Republican presidential nomination.
If you’re wondering what the hell wearing a vest has to do with moderation, the answer is: Nothing at all. But that’s how our media elites roll.