He 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.
A dive into the policy wasteland of both reveals a distinctly unsurprising convergence. DeSantis has become infamous for the anti-woke initiatives that have roiled Florida’s education system from elementary school to college. Books have been (figuratively and perhaps literally) burned, teachers fired, school boards overthrown, and — from English and history to math and social science — curriculums revamped to fit a right-wing agenda. Almost singlehandedly, the governor has pushed through “anti-woke” policies and signed legislation aimed at reconstructing the state’s education system from top to bottom.
It should be recalled, however, that Trump was no slouch when it came to attacking wokeness. On September 4, 2020, he ordered the White House Office of Management and Budget to issue a memorandum that directed federal agencies “to begin to identify all contracts or other agency spending related to any training on ‘critical race theory,’ ‘white privilege,’ or any other training or propaganda” that might suggest the United States is a racist country. The goal was to cut funding and cancel contracts related to programs or training supposedly employing such concepts.
In September 2020, with only two months left in office, in a move likely meant to counter the actions of DeSantis, Trump launched a “1776 Commission” whose purpose was to develop a curriculum that would promote a “patriotic education” about race and the nation’s history. This was a pathetic effort to refute the New York Times’s“1619 Project” that argued slavery and racism were central to the birth of the nation, a theory that has driven conservatives into a frenzied state of panic.
Cynically, that commission issued its “1776 Report” on Martin Luther King Jr. Day — January 18, 2021 — only two days before Trump left office in humiliation. It would be soundly criticized for its host of inaccuracies, its right-wing ideological bent, and even plagiarism that whitewashed American history, its founders, and their racism. A second Trump administration would undoubtedly go all in to put DeSantis in the shade by presenting a distinctly falsified, though politically useful version of that history.
Suppressing the Vote and Cheering Street Violence
DeSantis’s ideological opposition to abortion is in sync with Trump’s transactional one. While some GOP big names are calling for a national ban, both DeSantis and Trump are trying to find a sweet spot where they can build support, especially among evangelical extremists, while still retaining some possibility of winning educated white suburban women. Unlikely as that is, in a distinctly cowardly move, DeSantis signed his extreme Florida anti-abortion law late on a Thursday night behind closed doors, while Trump continues to fume and worry (legitimately) about paying the cost for losing women voters in a general election.
DeSantis loves to highlight the work of his Gestapo-like election police unit as his contribution to enforcing “voter integrity.” Established in 2022, the unit operates out of Florida’s Office of Election Crimes and Security (OECS) and includes a statewide prosecutor. It will undoubtedly shock no one that most of those arrested in its initial months were overwhelmingly people of color. Virtually all of them were dealing with a confusing election system that had restored voting rights to some but not all ex-felons. (That system had, in fact, actually issued voter ID cards to former felons who weren’t eligible.) DeSantis proudly praised the arrests, no matter that most of them were later tossed out of court. In fact, local prosecutors refused hundreds of OECS referrals.
In terms of voting rights, though, has DeSantis topped Trump’s effort to throw out millions of black votes, attack black election workers, and have his Justice Department support every voter-suppression policy passed by GOP state legislatures? Not yet, he hasn’t. And don’t forget that Trump also created an ill-fated, disingenuous Presidential Commission on Election Integrity within months of taking office in 2017. Its real purpose was to collect state election data and weaponize it against Democratic voters. That effort, however, proved so clumsily fraudulent that even Republican-controlled states refused to submit information and the Commission was dissolved within seven months. Six years later, with the clear aim of suppressing Democratic and black voters, Trump has been calling for same-day-only in-person voting with paper ballots.
And finally, don’t forget how both Trump and DeSantis (as well as Texas Governor Greg Abbott) have brazenly celebrated the street violence perpetrated by armed white men. Trump hosted Kyle Rittenhouse at Mar-a-Lago in November 2021. Rittenhouse had shot and killed Anthony Huber and Joseph Rosenbaum, while wounding Gaige Grosskreutz, during racial-justice protests in Kenosha, Wisconsin, in 2020. He became a cause célèbre of the far-right media and the MAGA movement and was eventually found not guilty, leading to Trump’s invitation. The former president has also loudly pledged to pardon charged or convicted violent January 6th insurrectionists.
Not to be outdone, DeSantis recently praised Daniel Penny who killed Jordan Neely, a slim, young black man having a mental health crisis on a New York City subway car. Penny, a trained ex-Marine, applied a chokehold for many minutes. Neely’s death was ruled a homicide and Penny has now been arrested for it. Far-right Republicans were quick to issue statements of solidarity and to support fundraising for his legal case. DeSantis referred to Penny as a “good Samaritan” and shared a link to his fundraising page, while somehow associating the incident with that number one billionaire scoundrel for conservatives, George Soros.
By their behavior and words, Trump and DeSantis provide a permission zone for white nationalist violence.
In the end, the two of them aren’t so much highlighting their differences as competing to see who can be the most extreme, issue by issue. As Trump made clear in his recent CNN town hall — functionally, a Trump rally — he has no intention of tacking towards the middle. Quite the opposite, as he heads for Election Day 2024, his hurricane of lies will only grow more extreme, shameless, and dangerous, while the GOP base cheers him on.
DeSantis has, so far, been reduced to running against Trump on the issue of “electability.” He claims Trump can’t win in a general election – possibly true (if the economy doesn’t go into recession) – and is calling on GOP voters to put aside their Trumpian passions and be more practical. Essentially, this is the same argument being made by other soon-to-be also-rans like former Trump U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, former Trump Vice President Mike Pence, and Senator Tim Scott. They all cower when it comes to really going after Trump, becoming instead the political equivalents of passive-aggressive 13-year-olds. Even former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who may join the race and has gone from frenemy to all-out never-Trumper, has shown little divergence from the former president’s most basic policies.
Trump Misses the Corruption, Cruelty, and Power
What distinguishes DeSantis from the rest of the pack and aligns him more fully with The Donald is that they both have an urge to be cruel for no other reason than that they can be. Few political leaders have ever been quite as thin-skinned as Trump. His pettiness is legendary, while it clearly gives him pleasure to inflict pain on others. DeSantis has a similar personality. His treatment of immigrants, the way he describes LGBTQ individuals, and his press releases and speeches against any perceived opponent are filled to the brim with invective and venom.
DeSantis’s Make Florida America, or MFA, is a genuine threat and his own version of a MAGA move. A Trump or DeSantis administration would ensure at least four long years of brutal retaliation and murderous policies through the prism of white nationalist Great Replacement rhetoric.
Sadly, the problem isn’t just Trump — or rather it’s not only Trump — or DeSantis either. The horror of our moment is the way the base of the contemporary Republican Party has come to embrace the most extreme views and policies around.
So, here’s a final question for this difficult moment: In a forest of fascism, does it matter which tree is the tallest?
This column is distributed by TomDispatch.