What’s the process by which a
political party becomes extremist
It happens bit by bit, day by day, week by gruesome week. It’s an
undifferentiated series of events, most of them not individually defining; they
just add up over time.
But every so often, there is a defining moment. You know it when you see it. It stands out. And such a moment occurred last Friday evening when the Ron DeSantis campaign tweeted out the Florida governor’s latest ad touting his, well, accomplishments vis à vis the LGBTQ community.
If you haven’t seen it yet, you really need to watch and study its full one minute and 13 seconds. Even by GOP standards, it’s frightening. It reveals more starkly than anything we’ve seen that the Republican Party wants to foment an epoch of moral panic and judgment like we haven’t seen in decades. And importantly, because this is the way things tend to work in the GOP, it will establish a new bar for the party’s base and therefore its presidential contenders: If you want to have a serious shot at winning this party’s nomination, your position on gay and transgender rights must be one of not only zero tolerance but celebration of open ostracism and bigotry.
The ad opens by attacking Donald Trump as soft on LGBTQ rights. It has him vowing to defend LGBTQ Americans (this was right after the Orlando nightclub shooting) and telling Barbara Walters that in the future, trans women should be able to compete in Miss Universe pageants. Then, having established this, it moves to a cataloging of DeSantis’s record, and that’s where we head into yellow-star territory.
With ominous background music that sure sounds like it was chosen to evoke terror, the ad flashes a series of headlines from mainstream newspapers calling DeSantis’s anti-LGBTQ initiatives extreme and even “draconian.” These of course are points of pride. Likewise, there are sentences critical of DeSantis lifted from press reports or attacks (“DeSantis is evil”). The culminating sentence is “a real wolf had finally arrived.” Then there’s an illustration of DeSantis with a couple of alligators behind him, in which the governor has, I kid you not, fangs.
Reactions played out over the holiday weekend. Pete Buttigieg jumped in smartly, as he often does: “I just don’t understand the mentality of somebody who gets up in the morning thinking that he’s going to prove his worth by competing over who can make life hardest for a hard-hit community that is already so vulnerable in America.” Chris Christie was good: “I’m not comfortable with it, and I’m not comfortable with the way both Governor DeSantis and Donald Trump are moving our debate in this country.” The Log Cabin Republicans, whose raison d’etre is getting harder and harder to understand, called it “divisive and desperate.”
The Christie response was in keeping with the “I’m the sane guy” campaign he is fruitlessly attempting to mount. Will Hurd, the center-right former congressman who just entered the race, also criticized the ad. But more interesting was the response from the other GOP candidates. As I was writing this, Tim Scott, Mike Pence, Nikki Haley, Vivek Ramaswamy, and Trump himself had not uttered a word, far as I could tell.
I think we get the message here. We’ve seen it over and over. A Republican candidate tries to stand out from the field by making the most extreme statement or taking the most extreme position on an issue. At first it’s like, Whoa, did he really go there? But within a few days, everyone else has joined him. The canary in this grim coal mine has usually been Trump, who made open racism against Muslims the normal GOP position, as well as tacit (maybe I’m being kind here) embrace of white supremacy, contempt for democracy, and so much else.
But now it’s DeSantis, whose campaign is flailing and who increasingly needs to contrast himself with Trump before the cement of these polls hardens. And “contrast,” as this ad instructs us, means that he will position himself to Trump’s right. If he does it, and he starts making a little headway in the polls, guess what? Yep—the other contenders will start doing it too.
And if DeSantis doesn’t make headway, well, that’s far from reassuring. Because that just means it’s Trump. And back in January, he laid out an agenda that included sweeping rollbacks on trans rights. He’s unlikely to let anyone out-Trump him in the moral panic sweepstakes.
Where will this end? I’m not sure it will ever end. It can be arrested, if the party gets crushed in next year’s election. But the only logic that animates the American right today is to figure out the position that’s two or three ticks to the right of the current status quo and stake it out. And just as one can slice fractions in half to infinity, Republicans can always find more extreme positions to adopt. Don’t believe me? Just watch.