Ron DeSantis, American Psycho

Ron DeSantis, American Psycho

The Florida governor’s irony-poisoned ad uses far-right memes to sanction homophobic and transphobic violence.

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Patrick Bateman, the main character of Brett Eaton Ellis’s incendiary 1991 novel American Psycho, is one of the most loathsome characters in literary history: an investment banker whose mind flits between delighting in the most shallow forms of consumerism and planning grisly acts of violence, including cannibalism, sexual defilement of the dead, and mass murder. In the novel, as in Mary Harron’s 2000 film adaptation starring Christian Bale as Bateman, it’s left unclear whether the sociopathic stockbroker actually acts on his vile fantasies or merely entertains them as a logical outgrowth of his antisocial worldview. The novel and movie remain hotly debated because of another ambiguity: Are they satirizing Bateman’s pathological violence, or reveling in it?

Whether a fantasist or a mass murderer, Bateman is utterly repulsive—at least to readers and viewers with a modicum of decency. Normally, anyone running for public office would not want voters to think of them as having anything in common with a necrophilic cannibal serial killer. But Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, in his increasingly desperate and flailing bid to gain traction in the Republican presidential primary, has made the strange decision to embrace, elevate, and defend an ad where he is likened to Bateman.

The ad was made by an anonymous DeSantis fan and retweeted by the DeSantis campaign on June 30. The argument of the ad is that Donald Trump was too friendly to LGBTQ rights, drawing a contrast with DeSantis, shown to be a relentless warrior against LGBTQ equality. After it was widely attacked, including by the conservative LGBT group Log Cabin Republicans, DeSantis defended the ad as making a valid point.

The political ideology of the ad, suggesting that even Trump’s lip service to LGBTQ rights went too far, is repugnant. The ad quotes a DeSantis critic saying the governor has “produced some of the harshest, most draconian laws that literally threaten trans existence.” This accusation of having an eliminationist program is touted as an achievement.

The ad’s aesthetics are as disturbing as its politics. As Politico notes, the ad “is “just plain weird, a video that is largely unintelligible to someone who hasn’t spent too many hours on the darker corners of the internet.” Interspersed with images of a resolute DeSantis, sometimes displaying superpowers like the ability to shoot lasers from his eyes, are clips of other supposedly admirable manly men. Along with Christian Bale as Bateman, we’re shown Leonardo DiCaprio as stock market swindler Jordan Belfort (from the 2013 movie The Wolf of Wall Street); Brad Pitt as the ancient Greek hero Achilles (from the 2004 movie Troy); Cillian Murphy as the fictional gangster Thomas Shelby (from the British TV drama Peaky Blinders); various body builders, including a meme of a sharply cleft muscleman known by the terminally online as GigaChad. The makers of Peaky Blinders condemned the use of their character in the ad.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg denounced the bigotry of the ad, but also alluded to how it displayed male insecurity in its combination of overt homophobia with a homoerotic subtext. Speaking on CNN, Buttigieg puckishly said, “I’m going to leave aside the strangeness of trying to prove your manhood by putting up a video that splices images of you in between oiled-up, shirtless bodybuilders.” Buttigieg’s husband, Chasten, not burdened by the etiquette required of a member of the president’s cabinet, was more blunt. He tweeted, “This is actually very gay.”

In The New Republic, Robert Schlessinger convincingly explained the valorization of Bateman as a product of a specific niche culture, the “manosphere,” where anxiety about the decline of masculine authority fuels a celebration of macho strength in bodybuilding, a selective reading of ancient culture, and movies with rule-breaking antiheroes. As Schlessinger notes, “In the decades since he cut his swath across the silver screen, Bale’s satirical antihero has become an earnest hero in certain meme-ified, heavily male corners of the internet.”

Writing in Vice, Brad Esposito placed Bateman in the same category as “Fight Club’s Tyler Durden, later joined by Jaoquin Phoenix’s Joker and Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jordan Belfort: a collection of lost toys that young men—in age or experience—use as watermarks for identity.” The list of “broken toys” could be extended further to include the long line of goons and gangsters whom some people come to see as heroes to emulate: Michael Corleone in The Godfather films, Tommy DeVito in Goodfellas, and Tony Soprano on The Sopranos.

There is often an element of comedy to such lawless protagonists. American Psycho, both the novel and movie, are best defended as works of satire. But the satirical impulse can go rancid when used to defend bigotry.

Politico rightly describes the DeSantis ad as displaying an “irony-laden variety of homophobia.” The celebration of Bateman and other miscreants is a form of joking-not-joking, a use of irony to deflect criticism and analysis. In his classic book Anti-Semite and Jew (1944), Jean-Paul Sartre deftly observed that anti-Semites often resorted to the cloak of jokiness:

Never believe that anti-Semites are completely unaware of the absurdity of their replies. They know that their remarks are frivolous, open to challenge. But they are amusing themselves, for it is their adversary who is obliged to use words responsibly, since he believes in words. The anti-Semites have the right to play.

This “right to play” is the basis of much supposedly transgressive far-right humor that promotes bigotry with a wink and a nod.

Rogue male antiheroes often charm the audience by being agents of disruption and disrespect, giving the raspberry to respectable society by acting on primal instincts that are necessarily repressed in ordinary life. When fused with right-wing politics, such criminal antiheroes allow those who uphold hierarchy and the status quo to adopt the more appealing pose of being a rebel.

Trump himself—at least in the image he carefully crafted during his many years as an entertainer—is a rogue male of this sort: the tough-talking boss who plays by his own rules. In aligning himself with Patrick Bateman fanboys, DeSantis is not just challenging Trump but also trying to copy him. Unfortunately for DeSantis, Trump is a hard act to mimic. DeSantis is to Trump what Pat Boone was to rock and roll outlaws like Elvis: a pale, shallow imitation lacking in authenticity. That comparison is perhaps unfair to Boone, who at least had a singing voice. DeSantis is so far from the original that he comes across as not even Pat Boone but someone ineptly trying to sing a Boone song with a karaoke machine. Trump, to use an old adage, knows how to fake sincerity. DeSantis only knows how to fake fraudulence.

There is a lethal stench of overcompensation in DeSantis: The harder he tries to be Trump, the more fake he seems. Pretending to be Patrick Bateman isn’t going to convince anyone that DeSantis is a macho man.

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