Last week, a meeting of the minds took place in Mar-a-Lago when Donald Trump hosted Ye and Nick Fuentes, two of the most powerful antisemites in American life. The dinner went swimmingly, as Trump “seemed very taken” with the white nationalist Fuentes, according to Axios.
The response from within the Republican Party was that Trump had blundered again. The president’s lack of judgment had embarrassed his allies and generated more unhelpful publicity. “Well, he certainly needs better judgment in who he dines with,” lamented Republican representative James Comer. “Republicans who continue to go along for the ride with Mr. Trump are teeing themselves up for disaster in 2024,” warns The Wall Street Journal editorial page. “If people are looking at DeSantis to run against Trump, here’s another reason why,” a longtime Trump adviser told NBC.
But to conceive of this episode as a mere failure to properly vet the Mar-a-Lago guest list, or even more broadly as an indictment of Trump’s leadership of the party, misapprehends its scope. The issue is that Trump has expanded the Republican coalition to the right, activating and encompassing undisguised white supremacists, who, through their entry into the two-party system, have gained newfound influence. This is a dangerous and historically significant change to the American political scene. And hardly anybody in the GOP — certainly not Ron DeSantis — intends to reverse it.
Trump’s campaign in 2015 had an immediate galvanizing effect on white supremacists, a once-marginalized faction that saw recognizable themes in his rhetoric and came off the sidelines to work on his behalf. Trump’s response has always been to profess ignorance without condemning white supremacists or their ideas. This allows a David Duke to shrug off Trump’s claims of never having heard of him but still share in the glory of his success. (“We are going to fulfill the promises of Donald Trump. That’s what we believed in. That’s why we voted for Donald Trump, because he said he’s going to take our country back.”)
Trump has woven white-supremacist themes into his rhetoric, sharing Groyper videos and hailing his Nazi-loving loyalists as J6 martyrs. Pro-Trump Republican members of Congress such as Paul Gosar and Marjorie Taylor Greene — now a Republican power broker who is set to have her committee privileges restored by the new GOP majority — participated in a white-nationalist conference. The status of these ideas is revealed by the refusal of the party’s leadership to cast them out.
The Republican mainstream has shrugged off Trump as an idiosyncratic personality whose behavior indicates no deeper racist or authoritarian tendency within the party. They have accordingly presented DeSantis as the solution. “DeSantis would be a Republican nominee without Donald Trump’s worst and most destructive impulses and habits,” Jim Geraghty argues.
But far from restoring the party’s pre-Trump identity, DeSantis would reify its Trump-era transformation. One way he would do this would be to carry forward Trump’s goal of turning the state into an Orbanist weapon to entrench Republican rule. But the other is to preserve the new coalition Trump created.
DeSantis is quite deliberate about this. He has reached out to QAnon supporters and insurrectionists and suggested January 6 was a setup by the FBI. He has denounced Liz Cheney for participating in the January 6 hearings but refused to denounce a gang of Nazis who showed up in Orlando and menaced local Jews. This is a clear signal of whom DeSantis sees as inside the coalition (white supremacists) and who is out (pro-democracy Republicans like Cheney.)
DeSantis’s supporters have greeted the idea that he would issue a pro forma statement denouncing white supremacists with mockery. Tablet’s Noam Blum suggested DeSantis is too busy governing for his spokesperson to issue a statement. “Contrary to how he is characterized in the national media,” sniffed National Review’s Dan McLaughlin, “Ron DeSantis’ personal approval is not required for the list of guests Floridians may invite to dinner.”
These people are not idiots. They understand perfectly well that DeSantis weighs in on national political and culture fights routinely. He is not too busy to attack the white-nationalist right. He wants to maintain its support but quietly.
Update: DeSantis’s non-white supremacist defenders insist he is simply taking the smart and necessary step of refusing to engage with Donald Trump:
But is that the reason DeSantis is refusing to denounce Nick Fuentes? After all, even Republicans who support Trump are denouncing Fuentes without attacking Trump. Kevin McCarthy, who wouldn’t criticize Trump if Trump shot him on 5th Avenue, nonetheless came up with a way to pretend Trump had also denounced Fuentes. DeSantis didn’t do that.
Another example from Tuesday illustrates the point. Over the weekend, a plane flew a banner over the Jacksonville Jaguars stadium with a Confederate flag and the message “PUT MONUMENTS BACK.” A reporter asked DeSantis about the episode – which, like the Fuentes-Ye dinner, took place in his state. DeSantis dodged again:
DeSantis now stands almost alone among prominent Republicans in refusing to denounce white nationalists.
Of course, he won’t say why, but the reasoning is clear. His conservative media supporters have laid it out in public. National Review’s Dan McLaughlin wrote earlier this year that DeSantis had a “character test” which consisted of winning the nomination “in a way that keeps Trump’s most passionate supporters behind him come that November.” Trump’s most passionate supporters include many white nationalists and people who feel solidarity with white nationalists. If DeSantis attacks them, he loses the support of a vital faction within the party.
His supporters wish to pretend this isn’t the case, and reliably depict any criticism of DeSantis as a bad-faith plot to prop up Trump. This is how they rationalize DeSantis’s courtship of every far-right faction: the election deniers, the anti-vaxxers, the white nationalists. The need to win justifies anything. Working from that premise, they project their own bad faith onto DeSantis’s critics. They must maintain Trump’s authoritarian and racist coalition intact, and they must have a story to tell themselves about how this choice was forced upon them by the liberals.