Further Thoughts on Trump, DeSantis, and ChatGPT

by Neil H. Buchanan

Even by the unsettled standards of 2023, the past week has been especially unusual for a certain governor of the third-largest state in the United States.  Ron DeSantis has settled into a very-distant second spot in the Republican presidential preference polls, and he seems to have become increasingly determined to make news for the sake of making news.  Provocation for its own sake.

The move that grabbed headlines this week was the simply weird video that his campaign released attacking Donald Trump's history of being relatively tolerant -- in some cases even solicitous -- of the LGBTQ+ community.  Trump is apparently "woke"!  Rather than linking to that video, I will provide here a link to Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg's comments about the DeSantis video shortly after it was released.  That was the high road.

MSNBC's Chris Hayes -- who is briefly shown in the DeSantis video criticizing the governor, which of course is a badge of right-wing pride -- took a different approach, pointing out that the campaign video was trafficking in the most trollish stuff that one can find on the farthest right fringes of the internet.  He wondered aloud how that was possibly a good campaign strategy (ideology aside) and concluded by saying that one cannot build a coalition big enough to win the nomination "by trying to convince the biggest dorks on the internet that you are an even more callous psychopath than [Trump] is."

Although DeSantis continues to raise gobs of money, that no longer necessarily means anything, as one of his predecessors as Florida's governor -- Jeb "Please clap!" Bush -- proved eight years ago.  Even so, I have no special ability to predict electoral outcomes (nor does anyone else), except to observe that candidates with very low poll numbers sometimes pull off a surprise (the most recent being now-President Joe Biden, who was dead in the water after the 2020 New Hampshire primary).  And although Biden does not have anti-charisma in the way that DeSantis uniquely does, the current President did prove that one does not need to have crowd-thrilling presence to win an election.  So who knows?  DeSantis might yet shock the world.

My purpose here, then, is not to argue that the latest DeSantis campaign video is a turning point, or is even significant.  I do, however, think that it reopens the discussion that I began two weeks ago in a Dorf on Law column: "Ron DeSantis is the ChatGPT to Donald Trump’s Lizard Brain."  The analogy there was designed to say that Trump is in some very unsettling sense a "natural," while DeSantis is not only a contrivance but uniquely unoriginal.

AI bots mimic human thought by collecting information and regurgitating it in often awkward forms that, even when not outright incorrect (as ChatGPT was when it said that a friend's teenage daughter was "born in the late 1960s," has a Ph.D. from Berkeley, and is a "renowned professor of anthropology"), are often simply bad copies of human thought.  In that column, I offered one example to support my analogy, which was DeSantis's attempt to copy-without-copying Trump's "fake news" all-purpose insult by recasting it as "legacy media."  Seriously, one could easily imagine an unthinking AI bot coming up with that one, somehow both a copy of the original but totally drained of any potency.

The latest DeSantis video is a lot like that, except that the AI bot has now been keyed onto the dark web.  Even on a more prosaic level, however, DeSantis has for the last several years been obviously adapting his body language and hand gestures to be like Trump's, and earlier this year he even started saying "China" in the odd way that Trump does.  That, however, is mere mimicry and imitation, the form of flattery that was deemed to be most sincere decades before the internet existed.  Is DeSantis different (worse) than a mere copycat?

Interestingly, Oscar Wilde's full quote is: "Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery that mediocrity can pay to greatness."  I would never ascribe greatness to Trump, but in this context I think one can replace that word with "authenticity."  Trump is, if nothing else, his unique self.

It is tempting to say that Trump's views are entirely driven by his desire to be adored and to have his ego and deep neediness constantly stroked and coddled.  He recently remarked with apparently genuine surprise that his crowds this year have suddenly become especially raucous whenever he mentions LGBTQ+ issues, and because he follows his cult as much as he leads it, he quickly started giving them more of what they want -- though obviously not out of any preexisting animosity on his part.  He is what we might call an "adaptive hater" in this instance.

Even so, that framing of the situation understates how truly hateful Trump is.  Evidence of his racism goes all the way back to his earliest days working with his father to discriminate against Black would-be tenants, through his despicable attempts to have the Central Park Five executed, and on and on.  His animus against immigrants from Mexico ("rapists" and "murderers") and Muslims knows no bounds.  And his sexism and misogyny are almost unspeakable.  He is no blank slate, merely hating the people whom he thinks are useful targets, even though that seems to be what is happening with LGBTQ+ issues this year.

DeSantis did not have a known history of hating the people that he currently scapegoats and vilifies, but his demeanor makes it easy to believe that there is nothing adaptive or inauthentic about what he is saying or doing in these areas.  I cannot imagine, for example, that he would repeal or even dial back his anti-woke (which seems to mean pro-comatose) legislative agenda here in Florida, even if his presidential bid fails.  There is no evidence that he is not as angry and intent on harming certain groups as he appears to be.

So DeSantis is Trumpian in the anti-democracy, Orwellian sense of saying that everything is about "freedom" while undermining people's (and even businesses') liberties.  He is also, as I noted earlier, copying Trump in some obvious ways.  But having thought about the "Trump is to 'being authentic' as DeSantis is to AI" analogy, I cannot help but notice that there is more going on.  John Oliver's episode this past March regarding DeSantis was of course spot-on, and in that segment he noted that the governor was using some of his most infamous moments (including bullying kids) in his own campaign ads, as if they are positive reasons to vote for him.

One of those examples was a press conference from last year, in which DeSantis started berating a (female) reporter, constantly interrupting her and telling her that she was trying to ask three questions whereas everyone else had asked only one.  This echoed Trump's many instances in which he would attack reporters (usually female, also usually non-White) with insults and derision.

Mere copying again?  Not quite.  As I watched the video of the DeSantis encounter, it almost felt like one could see the cogs turning behind his eyes as he thought: "OK, I've been planning to yell at a reporter, because Trump does that.  Now is the time that I am going to start yelling at this reporter.  She hasn't said anything to yell about, so I'll just start yelling at her and then continue yelling at her for trying to clarify and repeat the question that I continue to stop her from asking by interrupting her."  It was the "legacy media" thing again: Trump yells at reporters when they genuinely have gotten under his (very thin) skin; DeSantis AI yells at reporters because yelling at reporters is what he thinks he should do, with or without a triggering event, because he gathered that data on the internet.

As much as I disagree with both Trump and DeSantis on nearly every matter of substance, that is obviously not the point here.  More than that, I am not even saying that Trump's version of narcissistic realness is better (or worse) than DeSantis's ineffective variation on abusing the media.  I am only saying that, no matter what one thinks about either man, Trump is almost never off script because he has no script, while DeSantis is slavishly on-script at all times, and he seems to be systematically running through the never-as-good-as-the-original script that he has decided in advance to perform, no matter what.  Whether or not one finds that off-putting, it is at least a big and notable difference between the original and the copy.