What the ascension of the Florida governor says about the future of the GOP, and more musings on the week’s political news.
Welcome to the first edition of my newsletter. I’ve written extensively — you might even say obsessively — about Ron DeSantis’s war on vaccines. I’d like to explain why I find this topic so important. In short, it illustrates the pathological nature of the Republican Party and the ways in which its inability to restrain extremist ideas from gaining power is structural, not personal.
DeSantis has managed to unify both enthusiastic supporters of Donald Trump and many Republicans who find him embarrassing. The latter camp, in particular, merits special attention. I am thinking of politicians like Mitch McConnell and intellectuals like those at National Review and The Wall Street Journal editorial page. They were angered by the insurrection, but consider Trump more inept and harmful to the party than a danger to the republic. They reject the idea that Trump’s rise reflects any broader racist or authoritarian tendency within the party, and look forward to a time when he will pass from the scene and the GOP will return to normal.
One of the ways DeSantis has drawn in the far right is through his escalating attacks on vaccines. That campaign has taken the form of banning governments or even private entities from requiring vaccines, holding rallies with anti-vaxxers, recruiting a vaccine skeptic to serve as his state’s top health official, and refusing to say whether he received his booster shot. This week, he suggested nurses are right to shun the vaccine because it might hurt their fertility. And he suspended Orange County health director Dr. Raul Pino for encouraging — encouraging! — his staff to get vaccinated.
Ron DeSantis, somehow a hero to both the anti-vaccine right and the anti-Trump wing of the Republican Party.Photo: Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images
Pino’s offense was writing an email to staff, noting fewer than half had gotten two doses, and scolding, “I am sorry but in the absence of reasonable and real reasons it is irresponsible not to be vaccinated. We have been at this for two years, we were the first to give vaccines to the masses, we have done more than 300,000 and we are not even at 50% pathetic.” DeSantis is investigating whether Pino broke any of DeSantis’s anti-mandate laws by begging his staff to increase their vaccine uptake.
These steps have made DeSantis a hero to the anti-vaccine right. But he’s still a hero to the pro-vaccine right as well. If you ask DeSantis’s pro-vaccine supporters about his position, they’ll call DeSantis “a vocal proponent of the COVID vaccines” (which was true, but no longer is) or frame his position as merely opposing government mandates while noting that Florida’s vaccine uptake is high (a fact derived from highly flawed data that seems to count out-of-state tourists). National Review editor Rich Lowry, in a column touting DeSantis as the party’s future, gushes that “he has emerged as the party’s exemplar on the pandemic, with his strenuous opposition to lockdowns and mandates.” Can’t use the V-word, even though it’s a central element of his strategy.
And if you bring up the long and growing list of anti-vaccine steps DeSantis has taken, they’ll pretend they aren’t happening.
New York Post columnist Karol Markowicz, who grew so enthusiastic about DeSantis’s pandemic strategy that she decided to move to his state to experience his beneficent rule, has repeatedly denied that he has taken any anti-vaccine steps. After I wrote a column in October citing several of his anti-vaccine steps, Markowicz claimed I had failed to provide any examples of this:
This was a totally bizarre response, given that in addition to the extensive documentation of his anti-vaxx positions in my other columns, this very column included the following line: “DeSantis’s campaign has involved threatening to fine cruise ships that require proof of vaccination from their passengers and cities that require their employees to be vaccinated, appearing at rallies with anti-vaxx nuts, and appointing vaccine skeptic Joseph Ladapo as his surgeon general.”
You would think that, if you’re so into Ron DeSantis’s handling of COVID you make it your entire personality, you’d be aware of its most important feature. But Markowicz has made it her business not to be aware.
I wrote another recent column about how DeSantis is positioning himself to Trump’s right on COVID. National Review’s Dan McLaughlin reflexively sneered:
To be clear, the column did not say DeSantis is worse than Trump overall. It said he’s to Trump’s right on vaccines. Which is true.
When he was asked specifically about DeSantis outflanking Trump to the right on vaccines, McLaughlin — who ordinarily loves to argue on Twitter — changed the subject to something Nikki Fried said, and then disappeared. It is also his business not to know DeSantis’s position on vaccines.
The position these conservatives are coming from is important to understand. They dislike Trump, but they also believe the Republican Party other than Trump is fine. Lowry recently appeared on The Argument, where he revealingly said he has some criticisms of Trump, but — I am paraphrasing — “if you have a problem with Ron DeSantis, then you have a problem with the Republican Party.” Lowry and his allies don’t have a problem with the Republican Party.
DeSantis’s dalliance with the anti-vaccine right is an especially sensitive subject for his supporters, because it undercuts their premise that the party’s kook problem is mainly caused by Trump, and hence will disappear simply by nominating a different presidential candidate. Their solution to this dilemma is to ignore the evidence and insist, loudly and frequently, that anybody suggesting otherwise must have a partisan agenda.
The effect of this decision is to disable any mechanism that would restrain DeSantis’s extremism. Given the luxury of cultivating the anti-vaxx far right without losing any support in the party’s mainstream wing, he has gone further and further and further.
DeSantis, and especially his cultivation of the anti-vaccine movement, is an important story because it points the way toward the Republican Party’s future after Trump. The racists, authoritarians, and sundry wackos who gained power within the party under Trump will consolidate their gains, and the conservative movement will close ranks behind them.
Have you come across the term “Jewface”? If not, congratulations. It’s an epically stupid name for an even stupider idea that I hoped would go away on its own without my having to give it any thought. Alas, it seems to have stuck around.
The background for this horrid little turn of phrase is debate about representation in Hollywood. The jumping-off point is the perfectly sound observation that many racial minorities have been denied the ability to define their experience. The ultimate example of this is white characters playing cartoonish versions of African Americans in blackface, but it can be extended to a general dearth of writers and onscreen performers being able to bring to life internally recognizable versions of the lived experience of minority groups.
The sensible and necessary desire to correct this by deliberately creating more on- and off-screen roles for underrepresented minorities has extended into an often ridiculous taboo against actors playing characters of a different race. Having a white voice actor depict a non-white character in a cartoon is now widely described as racist minstrelsy. The underlying principle being extended to these decisions is a form of racial essentialism that denies the possibility that any person could ever understand or depict the experience of a member of a different identity — as if acting itself were not a thing.
In general, the extremes of left-wing identity politics often put Jews in an uncomfortable position. Some Jews respond by resisting the rules of racial essentialism, while others just want to be given their own place within the rules. (You’ll see them demand that Jews know what anti-Semitism is, and their claims of what counts as anti-Semitism should be deferred to just as other members of oppressed groups.) “Jewface” falls into this category of response.
“Jewface” is the term Jewish actors have used to describe giving the roles of Jewish characters to gentile actors.
Actor Maureen Lipman complained about casting Helen Mirren as Golda Meir, “because the Jewishness of the character is so integral. I’m sure she will be marvelous, but it would never be allowed for Ben Kingsley to play Nelson Mandela. You just couldn’t even go there.” Jonathan Shalit, chairman of InterTalent Rights Group, agreed: “Rightly there is uproar when white people play Black characters in a film,” he emailed Variety. “Maureen Lipman is entirely right to say a Jewish actress should have played the role of Israel’s legendary prime minister and committed Zionist Golda Meir. It is deeply offensive and hypocritical by so many to suggest otherwise.”
The argument from hypocrisy is that, if the rules forbid a minority character from being portrayed by a nonminority, then those rules should be extended to Jews. My response is that these rules are bad, and if it is hypocritical to violate them in the case of Jews, then all the better.
There is, again, a much more sensible and modest case for affirmative-action practices to diversify Hollywood. There is no need to apply these benefits to Jews. Jews have done okay in show business. Just listen to Adam Sandler.
The only rationale for extending these rules to Jewish characters is the absurd racial essentialist idea, which reaches its reductio ad absurdum when applied to the Jews. David Baddiel, writing in The Guardian, argues that Jewishness runs so deep that only Jews can convincingly depict it:
“The deep truth of any marginalised identity is only available to those who live that identity. Casting a non-minority actor to mimic that identity feels, to the progressive eye, like impersonation, and impersonation may carry with it an element of mockery — or at least seem reductive, reducing the complexity of that experience by channelling it through an actor who hasn’t lived it.”
If Gentiles can only “mimic” a Jewish character but not portray one authentically, it would logically follow that a Jewish actor is unable to authentically depict a Gentile character. As a matter of metaphysics, let alone simple arithmetic (most of the roles are not Jewish characters), I don’t think this idea is good for the Jews.
To suppose that being Jewish is a state of being so deeply interwoven into your being that even the greatest actors in the world cannot fake it is to cross from rampant racial essentialism into outright anti-Semitism. The line between Jews and Gentiles does not actually run so deep that one cannot convincingly portray the other, because we are both human. To quote a famous Jewish character written by a Gentile author, if you prick us, do we not bleed?
Here is a claim that states directly what many progressive activists usually imply:
As a factual matter, this has it backwards. As I explained in some detail last fall, African Americans are disproportionately represented in the Democratic Party’s moderate wing. This dynamic played itself out in the primary, where left-wing candidates like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren attracted overwhelmingly white voters, while the Black vote went heavily to Joe Biden. The same thing happened in the New York mayor’s race. In Minneapolis, Black voters rejected a police-defunding measure.
Yet the author, Bree Newsome, has nearly half a million followers and is hardly expressing an idiosyncratic view. Progressive activists believe they represent the objective interests of African Americans (as well as Latinos, Asian Americans, and women) and have worked very hard to transmute that belief into a fact that must be respected.
I tried to detail in my story how that process pushed many Democratic presidential candidates so far left they couldn’t appeal to minority voters. Elizabeth Warren is the paradigmatic case. Knowing she needed to build her support with minority voters, she kept wooing the activists who claimed to represent those communities, moving further and further left to gain their support.
The more encouraging news is that the elected wing of the Democratic Party has mostly figured this out. Axios reports 21 Democrats are proposing a bill to increase funding for police, in response to the rise in crime that is disproportionately harming African Americans. The bill combines some measures to improve training (“Investing in officer safety, de-escalation and domestic violence response training”) and education (“Providing retention bonuses and investment for officers pursuing graduate degrees in public health, social work and mental health”).
Polling is extremely clear that Black voters want to be protected both by and from the police. This bill is not going to come nearly close enough to implementing the kinds of reforms that will make police departments accountable to the communities they serve and weed out the most racist and violent cops. But it is a pragmatic recognition that the Democratic base has legitimate demands that can be met without alienating the center.
One of the frustrating dynamics I described in the story is that, while the Democratic Party’s brand problem was largely created by social-issue activism, the response from the center has been to abandon the party’s popular economic stances. Democrats who feel they lost votes over “defund the police” responded by voting to keep taxes on billionaires low. Here is some evidence they are looking for solutions that match the shape of the problem.
I’m not planning to force every edition of this newsletter to have thematic continuity. But the first and last items here underscore one of my long-standing beliefs I’d like to state explicitly: • There is a (highly inexact but useful) parallel between the extremism of the left and the right. • The Democratic Party currently has enough healthy antibodies in its system that it can overcome extreme and irrational ideas. The Republican Party is so overrun with cancer that recovery is hopeless. • It is necessary for liberals to engage in criticism with their political allies, lest the progressive movement wind up like the conservative movement.
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