Would DeSantis’s less chaotic approach ultimately be worse than that of the scandal-magnet Trump?
e appointed three conservative Supreme Court justices who shocked the nation with rulings that dramatically took away rights. He sided with the racists who used “states’ rights” to push through undemocratic policies locally. And he’s the only American president who lost a reelection bid but returned to office in the following election.
Yes, I’m thinking of former New York governor and Democrat Grover Cleveland who first won the presidency in 1884, lost his reelection bid in 1888, only to successfully regain the presidency in 1892 against then-incumbent Benjamin Harrison.
In 2024, Donald Trump hopes to repeat that history in all its ugliness by becoming the second former president to recapture the White House. And mind you, the consequences of that second Cleveland administration were devastating. Three of his Supreme Court appointees — Melville W. Fuller, Rufus W. Peckham, and Edward D. White — were part of the majority in the crucial and devastating 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson case that would sanction racial segregation across the nation and so solidify an American apartheid system that didn’t end legally until the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision.
In a similar vein, it’s hard to imagine how destructive a second Trump administration would be, given his first time in office. In virtually every area of public policy, the Trump administration proved a setback for women, people of color, working-class communities, LGBTQ individuals, environmental advocates, and those fighting to expand human and democratic rights. His three hyper-conservative Supreme Court appointees helped overturn Roe v. Wade, taking away abortion rights for millions without hesitation, while there have also been significant setbacks in the areas of gun safety, religious freedom, workers’ rights, and more.
But in truth, it’s not the policymaking that Donald Trump truly longs for. Above all, he clearly misses the corruption, cruelty, and sense of power that came with his presidency. His dream of an authoritarian state in which he can punish his enemies endlessly without accountability (while enriching himself and his family) was thwarted in 2020 when voters rejected his candidacy. The bitterness of that loss still eats at his very being and drives his current presidential bid. As he himself stated, in a second term he seeks “retribution” against one and all.
For those still in the Republican Party, Trump is once again the overwhelming early favorite. While 61% of Americans don’t want him as president again — 89% of Democrats and 64% of independents — a whopping 76% of Republicans are Trumpian to the core, according to a March 2023 Marist poll. If impeachments, a slew of coming indictments, and a conviction for libel don’t deter his GOP supporters — indeed, they seem to have had the opposite effect — then it’s easy to see Trump winning the nomination in a landslide.
Yet, in a number of ways, as the Republican Party continues to move ever more to the right, MAGA has already evolved beyond him. Despite the media oxygen he continues to consume, the current moment is less about him than most of us believe. Just as Cleveland reflected the growing racial retrenchment of the white South in the late 1800s, Trump embodies the growing entrenchment of an ever more extremist wing of American politics.
As hyper-MAGA losing Pennsylvania senatorial candidate Kathy Barnette correctly stated, “MAGA does not belong to President Trump.” In referring to the ascendant far-right wing of the Republican Party last year, she claimed that “our values never, never shifted to President Trump’s values.” Rather it was “President Trump who shifted and aligned with our values.” What she neglected to add was that his conversion was completely transactional: he needed their support, and they needed his.
Once committed, Trump leaned fully into the politics of white supremacy and white Christian nationalism that still animate the base of the party and its most prominent leaders at the local, state, and federal levels. Before, during, and since his presidency, he’s hurled racist invective at every category of black Americans — black women, black women journalists, black athletes, black elected officials, black appointed officials, black law-enforcement officers, black election workers, black prosecutors, black youth, black countries, black historic figures, black activists, black-dominated cities, and black political leaders. In rallies and speeches, he regularly refers to any black person who holds him to account as a “racist,” tapping into the prejudices of his base, a crew who nominally contend that racism no longer exists.
Trump — and the most horrendous member of Congress, Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene — have championed the January 6th violent insurrectionists. Only recently in a CNN town hall, he promised to pardon “a large portion” of them, if reelected, to the cheers of his supporters who conveniently ignore the fact that he didn’t pardon them in his last two weeks as president.
It should be noted that, in his time in office, he failed to keep any of the major promises he made on the campaign trail, including building that border wall, ending Obamacare, passing an infrastructure bill, and lowering the cost of prescription drugs. His one signature piece of legislation proved to be a tax cut that transferred billions of dollars to the already super-rich. His other big achievement, of course, was to stack the Supreme Court with those three ultra-conservative justices who have taken away rights, including the 50-year-old national right to an abortion.
Despite an impulse to hide the most draconian aspects of the GOP policy agenda, it can be glimpsed via Republican initiatives in Congress and those of governors and Republican-controlled state legislatures. At the moment, their far-right trek towards authoritarianism remains largely in sync with Trump’s political and personal aspirations for power.
The DeSantis Dilemma
There is remarkably little difference between Trump and his main challengers for the presidential nomination when it comes to the politics and policies of the contemporary Republican Party. Take Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.
For much of the last year, the mainstream media focused its attention on a potential cage match between a resurgent Trump and the now politically deflating DeSantis. It was the undisciplined populist versus the inflexible ideologue, the former president’s ability to articulate the most dangerous far-right ideas against DeSantis’s proven ability to actually implement them.
For many on the left and in the progressive world, the debate has been over which of them would be worse, which would be quicker to destroy the country. Would DeSantis’s less chaotic approach ultimately be worse than that of the scandal-magnet Trump? Would a growing list of potential indictments benefit or harm Trump? Who would prevail in the battle of the brands — Make America Great Again (MAGA) or Make Florida America (MFA)?
In the end, the differences between the two of them are likely to prove superficial indeed. In the areas where Americans would be most severely affected, there’s hardly a fly’s hair of separation between them. Beyond the fact that both are mercurial, petty, narcissistic bigots, as well as textbook definitions of toxic masculinity, it’s in the realm of politics and public policy where they might take somewhat different roads that, unfortunately, would head this country toward the very same destination: an undemocratic, authoritarian state whose foundational creed would be racism and unrelenting bigotry.