DeSantis's cruel Martha's Vineyard stunt is a prime example of MAGA vice signaling
They're desperate to demonstrate that everyone is as immoral as they are.
By Noah Berlatsky
When you hear the phrase “both sides,” it’s generally because you’re talking about the (frustrating, deceptive) media strategy of providing equal weight to the views of both parties, regardless of morality or truth. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s gleefully sadistic human trafficking conspiracy, however, illustrates that “both sides” is not just a failure of journalism. It’s also a fascist tactic. Which means that when politics is framed solely in terms of partisanship and power, the result is not neutrality, but a victory for the worst people in the world.
The exact details of DeSantis’s scheme are still emerging. But what we know already is bad enough. Last week, he used funds earmarked to remove migrants from Florida to round up around fifty immigrants in San Antonio, Texas. His agents put them on two planes to Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts at a cost of about $600,000 in tax dollars. The migrants are mostly Venezuelan refugees who entered the US legally.
DeSantis did not contact anyone in Martha’s Vineyard, according to local officials, so no one had resources — like shelter — to help the people when they arrived. DeSantis claims the immigrants got on the planes voluntarily. But immigrants interviewed say that they were told they were heading to Boston. Judd Legum at Popular Information obtained a brochure given to the migrants that said that when they arrived there were programs to assure them “8 months cash assistance” as well as aid for housing, food, and clothing. This was all a lie.
Deceiving people to transport them for exploitation is human trafficking. Authorities in Massachusetts and Texas have duly launched criminal investigations into DeSantis’ vicious political stunt.
So, what does DeSantis hope to accomplish that’s worth putting himself in legal jeopardy?
The main goal obviously is raising his political profile for a 2024 presidential run. But the more immediate justification is to claim his political enemies are as morally debased as he is. It’s “both sides.”
The politics of spite
DeSantis hoped that people in a blue state would recoil in horror and mistreat immigrants placed on their doorstep, just as he mistreated immigrants by lying to them and shipping them like cattle across the country.
“When people are brought to their front door they go berserk, and they're so upset that this is happening,” DeSantis claimed, in a statement eagerly quoted by right wing outlets. “And it just shows you that their virtue-signaling is a fraud."
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People were indeed upset at DeSantis’ harmful stunt — but they were upset because the stunt was harmful, not because they didn’t want to help people in need. On the contrary, the Martha’s Vineyard community organized quickly to provide shelter, food, water, health care, and a play space for children.
Conservative pundit Ben Shapiro complained bitterly that media coverage had backfired because the people on Martha’s Vineyard were too nice.
“Twitter deems it a win for Democrats that the residents of Martha's Vineyard housed illegal [sic] immigrants for 48 hours and now likely want to write themselves a musical about their hospitality,” he sneered. (Note that Shapiro compulsively lies about the immigrants’ status; they entered the US legally.)
The right likes to hurt people for the sake of hurting them, as Adam Serwer has famously pointed out. For DeSantis and Shapiro, it’s not enough that they are evil themselves. They want and need the people on Martha’s Vineyard to behave immorally and cruelly as well. That’s because right wing and fascist politics are built on a presumption that human nature is immoral and cruel.
Generally, in democratic systems, politicians attempt to present themselves as compassionate, caring, and virtuous. In this context, the actions of the people on Martha’s Vineyard, who rushed to help those in need, is an ideal of community engagement and democratic action.
When DeSantis says that the people of Martha’s Vineyard are “virtue signaling,” it’s in part an accusation of hypocrisy. But more broadly, it’s a wholesale attack on the very idea of virtue. It doesn’t really matter how the people in the community treat their neighbors or how they treat strangers. If they are brutal to them, it proves that they are hypocrites. And if they are not brutal — well, that’s just an even deeper hypocrisy, since it shows they are lying about their true feelings in order to impress onlookers.
DeSantis is using immigrants and the people of Martha’s Vineyard as props. But his ultimate message is simple; he is saying that he, DeSantis, is not a hypocrite, because he, DeSantis, hates openly. He is engaged in what some have called “vice signaling”.
The story should be about DeSantis’s immorality, not the horserace
Part of what DeSantis is vice signaling is that politics is just power; there is no morality and there are no ideals. People on Martha’s Vineyard (whether they behave with kindness or not) are really just as focused on power and status and boosting themselves as he is. As the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent says about Trump, the right believes “everything is just a power struggle all the way down, and there are just winners and losers/suckers.”
This is DeSantis’s view. But it’s also, by default, the view of political horserace journalists who revel in “both sides” coverage.
That’s perhaps best epitomized in a tweet from data journalist and aspiring pundit Nate Silver, in which he mocked California governor Gavin Newsom for challenging DeSantis to a debate.
“Hard to think of more of a pot-calling-the-kettle-black situation than Gavin Newsom calling someone else attention-starved. Like DeSantis, he's trying to run a 2024 presidental [sic] campaign while dozens of his colleagues are in tight midterm races.”
Silver argues that both Newsom and DeSantis are acting purely out of a desire for power; they are both running for 2024. He does not in any way acknowledge that Newsom is pursuing his goal by appealing to democratic traditions (debating) while DeSantis is pursuing his goal by engaging in human trafficking, exploitation, and sadism.
DeSantis claims everyone is equally corrupt; Silver claims everyone is equally corrupt. Silver’s argument is in the form of “both sides.” But by implicitly claiming that politics is a virtueless field of ambition and corruption, he cosigns the DeSantis worldview, and the DeSantis program.
What’s most chilling is that when people like Silver and the New York Times’ brow-furrowing conservative pundit Ross Douthat lend credence to DeSantis, they’re not just helping him push a both-sides narrative about power and corruption. They’re helping him push a both-sides narrative about hate.
DeSantis wants to show that blue state Democrats are hypocrites who don’t treat people with kindness. But more than that, he wants to show that Democrats, and all white people, naturally express vicious animosity towards Hispanics and people of color, and/or that citizens of the US naturally loathe immigrants.
As philosopher Jason Stanley explains in his book How Fascism Works, one way that fascist politicians can try to appear sincere or authentic is “by standing for division and conflict without apology … openly sid[ing] with Christians over Muslims and atheists, or native-born Americans over immigrants, or whites over blacks, or the rich over the poor.”
DeSantis and Trump present politics as a game in which everyone is corrupt and everyone seeks power for themselves and their in-group. But they also argue that who counts as your in-group and who counts as an outsider breaks down across obvious, natural cultural fault lines. (Trump, somewhat ironically considering what DeSantis is up to, called for the death penalty for human traffickers during his rally in Ohio last Saturday.)
Martha’s Vineyard is filled with hypocrites, and they are hypocrites, in DeSantis’ view, because they scold him for a hateful politics of division when they too hate the same people he does. They must. It’s natural. And as such, racism — and homophobia and xenophobia and misogyny and antisemitism — are natural too. One shouldn’t be ashamed of them. One should be proud, inasmuch as embracing hatred is a sign of authenticity and honesty.
Nate Silver, Ross Douthat, the NYT editorial board, and the rest of the both-sides journalism establishment don’t come out and forthrightly state that race realism is the one true realism, obviously. But if they treat DeSantis’s racist cruelty as a savvy political stunt, then they are effectively endorsing that view. If you refuse to take a stand on fascist violence, you are helping the fascists, who are dedicated to the principle that power is the only morality, and bigotry the only virtue.
Ronna McDaniel sets a new standard for fact-free fentanyl fear-mongering
By Aaron Rupar
For last Friday’s edition of the newsletter, I debunked Kevin McCarthy’s fentanyl fear-mongering — specifically, a story he’s been telling on Fox News about someone in California overdosing and having to be taken to the hospital after merely touching a pill. Suffice it to say that RNC chair Ronna McDaniel must not be a reader of Public Notice, which makes sense since she has me blocked on Twitter.
During a Tuesday Fox News appearance, McDaniel not only invoked McCarthy’s false story as part of an effort to scare the bejesus out of voters, but she actually added her own embellishments.