Pamela Paul, exiled to the New York Times’s opinion pages from her long tour of managing the Times Book Review into midcult irrelevance, has quickly set up shop as the op-ed section’s right-curious culture warrior of first resort. She’s promoted anti-trans moral panics in column after column. She’s contributed phoned-in diatribes against alleged woke censorship that have nothing at all to do with actual censorship. And now, with the serene unselfconsciousness of the entitled opinion elite, she’s urging Florida GOP Governor Ron DeSantis’s book-banning, history-bowdlerizing, white-nationalist regime as a model that savvy Democratic strategists and candidates should closely heed and emulate.
Paul’s argument, in her column “What Liberals Can Learn From Ron DeSantis,” is a case study in the managerial incoherence of the disengaged liberal mind. She launches her column under the misapprehension that the liberal-left case against DeSantis is largely an aesthetic one. His “political flaws,” she writes, are “his distaste for glad-handing, his less-than-inspiring public-speaking style, his conspicuous unlikability”—as opposed to, say, his rolling culture war on any public education that doesn’t rigidly adhere to straight white fables of national uplift, his cynical and arguably illegal use of asylum seekers as props for media attention, or his firing and harassment of public health officials under Covid, or his deranged campaign to monitor the menstrual cycles of female student athletes in Florida schools. For Paul, DeSantis’s actual record comes in second to the appeal of his “knack for action” and the idea that during the early stage of the Covid pandemic, he “seemed to be doing something.”
For commentators such as Paul, these are the stakes of national politics; a series of symbolic feints that translate into narrative templates for the media to take up and beat relentlessly into submission. In that vein, Paul contends, what should move the liberal left beyond its reflexive alarm over DeSantis’s authoritarian agenda is the still-fresh memory of Trump’s disastrous ascension to the presidency in 2016. In another telltale lapse into the royal “we,” Paul seeks to remind readers of “what we missed that somehow made Trump a viable, let alone a desirable, candidate to occupy the Oval Office.” And what is it, exactly, that makes DeSantis a contender? In a high-meritocratic flourish, she pins it down to credentials:
Whereas Trump’s acceptance into the University of Pennsylvania, after an academic record notable only for its mediocrity, was an egregious example of leveraging personal connections to get into a prestigious university, DeSantis, the son of a TV ratings box installer and a nurse, actually earned his way into the Ivy League. People bent over backward to ascribe some accidental form of grifter street smarts to Trump. But DeSantis is demonstrably intelligent and industrious. He worked his way through Yale while playing baseball and graduated magna cum laude. Whereas Trump skirted military service with a convenient discovery of bone spurs, DeSantis was a commissioned officer in the Navy. He graduated from Harvard Law School.
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How can a Yale- and Harvard-branded leader be a reckless bigot on executive autopilot? It’s literally unthinkable to Paul, who sizes up DeSantis with this bathetic parody of reasoning:
It would be easy to write DeSantis off as a cartoon culture warrior or as racist, homophobic, transphobic and xenophobic. He may well be all those things, and so may some of his constituents. But he may not be, and either way, it would be foolish to characterize all his followers as such. Assuming a stance of moral superiority will do us no good. (See: Hillary Clinton, “deplorables.”)
Got that? He may not be! Makes you think, doesn’t it? What’s truly mind-bending here is that Clinton’s now-infamous “deplorables” remark was an exercise in precisely the same sort of empathic mind-meld with the undifferentiated conservative base Paul is undertaking here. Clinton was trying to tell her donor audience that Trump’s base was not merely riled up over issues that were pretexts for bigoted self-assertion, but that there was also a smaller hard core of Trump backers who were in fact deplorable white nationalists. Even this level of critical inquiry is clearly too much to expect from the former editor of The New York Times Book Review, who’s already done the important spade work of establishing that liberals have to take DeSantis seriously because he’s so very Ivy-matriculated.
It gets worse. When Paul takes up DeSantis’s Covid track record, which is a clear-cut policy disaster rife with data distortions and lies, she again can’t be bothered to engage in vulgar liberal moral superiority. Instead, she supplies a Peggy Noonan-esque word picture: “When I visited Miami from Covid-conscious New York in 2021, the vibe in bars and restaurants in the Wynwood art district—where nobody asked for proof of vaccination and I was the only person in a mask—was euphoric. In that young, overwhelmingly liberal corner of the city, people weren’t faulting DeSantis for his pandemic policies.” In other words, more than 85, 000 Floridians have died on DeSantis’s feckless Covid watch, but have you considered that I had a really nice brunch?
This same pose of deadpan elite connoisseurship shapes Paul’s discussion of the suite of policy calls that should, by rights, be of greatest concern to the Gray Lady’s self-appointed censorship foe: DeSantis’s gutting of the state’s public education system, from the right-wing takeover of New College to the hostile ideological overhaul of AP African-American Studies to the Inspector Javert–style probes into critical race theory, diversity training seminars, and assorted other thoughtcrimes of the right-wing culture wars.
In Paul’s saucer-eyed telling, this is another stylistic and aesthetic tic—and not an unbeguiling one; it’s “Desantis’s maverick approach to primary, secondary, and higher education.” (Anyone who suffered through the great Beltway veneration of John McCain instantly recognizes the descriptor “maverick” as a red flag of idea-free centrist punditry.) True, DeSantis’s McCarthyite Stop WOKE Act “may come with an incendiary name and some egregious efforts to curtail free speech,” but these are also ultimately aesthetic cavils. After all, “aspects of it appeal to Floridians tired of racial and ethnic divisiveness and the overt politicization of what’s taught in the classroom.” This resentment-fueled crackdown on lesson plans, curricula, and libraries might be authoritarian and racist, but hey, some people go for that sort of thing.
Ditto for colleges. “If ideological conformity has taken root in American universities, long a bastion of liberal ideals,” Paul chides, “then Democrats are the ones with the knowledge, experience and record to attend to the problem. It’s on liberals to check the excesses of illiberal orthodoxies rampant among those on its far-left wing.” (A quick look at the leading undergraduate majors in America, topped overwhelmingly by business and health care concentrations, supplies yet one more occasion to wonder just what the hell Pamela Paul is talking about.)
There are of course many genuine cautions for liberal political strategists and commentators to heed from the rise of Trumpism, starting with the rigid alignment of party elites behind a deeply flawed and change-averse candidate at the head of the 2016 ticket. But the idea of adopting a Democratic version of the DeSantis brand is very much the opposite of the sort of political wisdom that Paul and her evidently somnolent editors imagine it to be. Republican candidates ran hard on the anti-CRT, anti-school wokeness platform in the 2022 midterms and failed miserably. There’s no reason to think that DeSantis’s success as an education demagogue in a right-wing state will translate into a cohesive national crusade—and indeed, there are plenty of reasons to expect it to implode. But to see such trends plainly for what they are is to understand how our politics actually does and does not work—and not, however many times the ardent Harper’s Letter cognoscenti insist otherwise, an empty exercise in self-congratulatory left-wing self-righteousness. I never imagined I’d say these words, but as a shaper of informed political opinion, Pamela Paul is a heck of a book review editor.