This week, after Kanye West and Nick Fuentes dined with former president Donald Trump at his Florida home, reporters once again probed the state’s governor for a response. Ron DeSantis once again withheld judgment. The most recent outburst of virulent antisemitism from the right has prompted a broad array of Republican leaders to respond. Most of their comments have been grossly inadequate, often leaning into the pretense that Trump was misled or had actually denounced the views of his companions. But nearly all of them have at least made a pro forma statement opposing white nationalism. DeSantis is perhaps the most prominent exception in his failure to clear a bar so low even “my Kevin” McCarthy managed to slither over it.
The Republican Party’s long march to the right is the dominant development in American politics of the last half-century. It is worth carefully examining just how this process of extremism works and how marginal ideas are gradually normalized. The key decisions are frequently not made by the likes of Kanye and Fuentes but by the party power brokers who must choose whether to accept their support or open a schism with their supporters.
Republicans have deliberately set out to normalize Kanye despite clear signs of antisemitic thinking and mental illness. (If mental illness were prohibitive, they wouldn’t be standing behind their Georgia Senate nominee.) The House Judiciary Committee tweeted, “Kanye. Elon. Trump.,” before finally deleting the tweet when Kanye praised Hitler. Tucker Carlson, himself a quasi white nationalist, hosted Kanye and edited out his most antisemitic comments from the interview in a bid to maintain his respectability.
The response of DeSantis is especially telling. Trump is in some ways an outlier, but DeSantis represents the party’s future — a carefully constructed synthesis of its paranoid base and its plutocratic elite. Trump opened up the party to a new far-right fringe, but DeSantis is the key figure who will determine whether the place of that fringe is permanent. His answer is very clearly yes.
In theory, DeSantis faces a difficult choice. Many of his traditional, Reaganite supporters are disgusted with the conspiracy theorists and open racists flocking into the party. The traditional conservatives could pressure DeSantis to denounce the kooks. Instead, they have given him a green light to court them.
A case study in this process is Dan McLaughlin, a senior writer for a DeSantis fanzine called National Review. McLaughlin’s fervent advocacy of DeSantis has included regular efforts to either deny or justify his alliance with the ideas McLaughlin himself can’t justify.
One example is Trump’s effort to secure an unelected second term. Shortly after the election, DeSantis appeared coup-curious, going on Fox News to float the prospect of state legislatures appointing Trump electors to overturn the election results. When that effort failed, he went largely silent. DeSantis has suggested January 6 was an inside job by the FBI, denied it was an insurrection, lashed out at Republicans who favor an investigation, and has refused to say whether Joe Biden legitimately won.
McLaughlin praised his refusal to accept the 2020 election results as a shrewd strategy. “It’s not beanbag,” he conceded, “but if it succeeds, it’s a sort of rhetorical methadone that will pry voters away from a leader who is selling them something much more dangerous than simply telling them the truth about provable if not decisive problems with the election.”
Of course, the refusal of other Republicans to challenge Trump’s lie is precisely what has put them in this position. Since January 6, Trump has energetically repeated his false claims while fellow Republicans have stayed silent. Inevitably, the loud side of the debate has gained more supporters than the silent side, creating a situation where the only hope of leading the party is to honor the lie.
A second example is vaccines. DeSantis has moved from covert to overt support for the anti-vaccine cause through a progressive series of steps: hosting anti-vaxxers at public events, refusing to say his vaccine status, appointing an anti-vaxxer as the state’s top health official, and now working anti-vaccine rhetoric into his stump speech.
McLaughlin, a supporter of vaccine efficacy, began by mocking the idea DeSantis was endorsing vaccine skepticism and insisted his goal was “to keep Florida highly vaccinated.” (Florida is the only state not to order COVID boosters for kids under 18 and the only state officially urging men under the age of 40 not to take the jab.)
But this denial merely gave DeSantis permission to move more overtly into the kook space. He has spread false rumors about federal vaccine mandates, and his top health official has appeared on QAnon programs to promote conspiracy theories about vaccines. The pattern is striking: First the traditional conservatives deny DeSantis’s alliance with the far right, and then, when it becomes a fait accompli, they ignore it.
So now we come to DeSantis’s refusal to condemn white nationalists. He has followed the same strategy over and over. Last year, when a gang of white supremacists menaced Jews in Florida, his spokesperson suggested they were actually Democrats pretending to be Nazis. Asked for clarity, DeSantis instead lashed out at the media. This year, when white nationalists flew a banner over an NFL football stadium, DeSantis declined to condemn them and condemned the media for asking him about it. This week, he turned down another chance to simply denounce white nationalism.
McLaughlin’s response is to praise DeSantis for following his recommended strategy. “Republican politicians know that they will get zero credit for anything they say, and will just earn themselves more bad headlines by engaging with these demands,” he reasons. “The only winning move is not to play.”
McLaughlin’s logic begins and ends with the premise that anything DeSantis needs to do to win is correct and justified. The traditional conservatives have calculated that they cannot take back their party by fighting with the conspiracy theorists, election deniers, or Nazi-adjacent trolls Trump has welcomed into the party. Their idea of winning is to co-opt those forces while piously pretending they are doing no such thing.