Ron DeSantis’s recent campaign ad deservedly got attention for being both maniacally anti-LGBTQ and, as Pete Buttigieg deftly observed, undeniably homoerotic. It includes film clips of Brad Pitt as the ancient Greek hero Achilles, “who, in the Iliad,” my colleague Prem Thakker observed on Monday, “has been interpreted to have gone on a vengeful rampage after the death of his gay lover, Patroclus.” Indeed, one wonders whether the Yale- and Harvard-educated DeSantis or his campaign team know the role homosexuality played in ancient Greek society.
But the ad was also just plain bizarre, as exemplified by the repeated presence of Patrick Bateman, the titular character from the 2000 movie American Psycho. Spoiler alert if you haven’t seen it (or the Bret Easton Ellis book on which it was based): Bateman, played by Christian Bale, a Wall Street master of the universe, gleefully hacks, slashes, and chainsaws his way through New York, even engaging in cannibalism and necrophilia.
It’s unclear whether Bateman actually commits these heinous acts or simply fantasizes about them, but that’s beside the point in the case of DeSantis’s ad:
What in the name of the party of “law and order” is going on here? Why would any sane—if desperate—campaign indulge in this sort of unhinged visual-associational rhetoric? “We should not lose sight,” MSNBC’s Zeeshan Aleem wrote on Monday, “of the madness of a major presidential candidate saying he’s OK with being likened to violent sociopaths.”
I asked that question of the DeSantis campaign itself, without response. (That’s not surprising, perhaps, given his famous antipathy for the press and TNR’s ideological leanings. But the ad favorably compares DeSantis to someone famous for saying things like, “I want to stab you to death and play around with your blood,” so whatever I write will be comparatively benign.)
Maybe DeSantis, a fellow Gen Xer, is just a 1980s enthusiast. But surely his campaign could have found a better pop culture icon with whom to compare him. Sure, Arnold Schwarzenegger is probably a nonstarter with GOP voters these days, but the ads of Sylvester Stallone grimly intoning, “You’re a disease, and I’m the cure,” practically write themselves. I mean, hell, if you’re going to crib a manly, crime-fighting Bale character, one would think Bruce Wayne is the obvious choice. (No, wait, Trump already beat DeSantis there.)
The answer is simpler and more disturbing. In the decades since he cut his swath across the silver screen, Bale’s satirical antihero has become an earnest hero in certain meme-ified, heavily male corners of the internet.
Bateman took on new prominence during the early days of the pandemic and its lockdowns. “He was popular on the internet from the onset, reaching fame in forums and social media, on platforms such as 4chan or TikTok,” Juanjo Villalba wrote in January in El País. “And in the first weeks of the 2020 coronavirus lockdown, a series of Patrick Bateman memes quickly began to circulate.” He especially appeals to “sigma males,” a group which Dazed’s Günseli Yalcinkaya has described as “an introverted alpha male who likes to ‘play by his own rules,’” an archetype that proliferated on 4chan and “esoteric right-wing fitness circles.”
“Bateman, for them, belongs to a gallery of idols that … also includes Tyler Durden from Fight Club, Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker and Jordan Belfort from The Wolf of Wall Street,” Villalba wrote. “Guys who are outside the system and play ‘by their own rules,’ broken toys on the fringes of society, in an endless battle against a world that is alien and hostile to them.”
This, then, is the crowd to which the anti-charismatic DeSantis is appealing, a pitch that he can be more toxically masculine than anyone else out there. (Leonardo DiCaprio’s Belfort also appears in the DeSantis ad.) It’s a pastiche of the white guys yearning for the days when masculinity alone ruled the day—and right in the target demographic of the truculent right. Remember when Tucker Carlson praised the virtues of scrotum tanning? Yeah, he knew his audience. So, apparently, does the DeSantis campaign.
“People don’t admire him simply because he’s a handsome fictional degenerate. There are a lot of those out there, most of whom get nowhere near the attention Bateman does and especially not from self-described conservatives,” right-wing journalist Robert Schmad wrote in The Washington Examiner in 2021. “Bateman’s popularity in corners of the Right is rooted in his perceived power. He wields control over himself and his surroundings, something many young men, especially conservatives, feel is unattainable to them and thus long for an avatar to experience such things vicariously through. Hence, Bateman’s appeal.”
How is that likely to work out for psycho-panderer DeSantis?
“It is very clearly an attempt to play to the Andrew Tate crowd. An amateur attempt, but that seems to be part of the schtick,” Kristin Kobes Du Mez, a historian at Calvin University and author of Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation, told me via email. Tate, a misogynistic YouTube influencer, was recently charged in Romania with rape and human trafficking.
Tate and his ilk, Du Mez said, are the bridge between right-wing evangelism and the “manosphere” types to whom DeSantis is dog whistling—nay, barking.
And this illustrates the depths of Team DeSantis’s panic: Evangelicals are sticking with Trump. Those few who favored DeSantis liked him because he was the saner culture warrior, Du Mez noted. “So, he has no choice but to play Trump’s game,” she said. “The problem is, this hasn’t worked for anyone who’s tried this. Cruz, Rubio, every Republican challenger who’s tried to look tough … Trump made the rules. He always wins at his game.” DeSantis, she continued, “comes across as cringier than Cruz, and weaker than Rubio.”
Patrick Bateman ruthlessly murdered anyone who showed a hint of weakness. You might say Trump is going to eat DeSantis alive.