Ron DeSantis’ supporters for the Republican presidential nomination are quick to scoff at critics who say that he shares Donald Trump’s authoritarian bent. But the Florida governor is not doing much to separate himself from the former president’s anti-democratic schemes or anti-press vitriol.
On Monday, DeSantis provided a glimpse of where he would lead the GOP – further into the right-wing media bubble that supported Trump’s every move, up to and including his attempt to subvert the 2020 election. DeSantis’ “Sunshine Summit” fundraiser for the state’s Republican party featured congressional primary debates moderated by right-wing commentators – including Fox News host Mark Levin, a prominent insurrectionist – and locked out reporters from mainstream outlets.
Levin, who reportedly moderated two of the debates alongside his “good friend” DeSantis, is an election conspiracy theorist and an unrepentant participant in Trump’s scheme to use false claims of voter fraud to remain in power. Levin worked with Trump lawyer John Eastman to develop Eastman’s coup plot, in which Trump pressured then-Vice President Mike Pence to illegally reject electors from key states that supported Joe Biden, according to Eastman’s legal filings.
Several of Levin’s right-wing media colleagues also spoke at the Sunshine Summit, including Fox News contributors Lisa Boothe (who also served as a debate moderator), Mollie Hemingway, and Karol Markowicz, all in apparent violation of the network’s policy against “talent participating in campaign events.” Newsweek opinion editor Josh Hammer and frequent Fox News guests Dave Rubin and Clay Travis also participated.
The Sunshine Summit debates were part of a pattern of the GOP turning to right-wing media personalities – often with national profiles – to moderate debates for this midterm cycle’s primaries, rather than the typical practice of using journalists from a local newspaper or TV or radio station.
Indeed, mainstream journalists were not only absent from the debate stage, they were largely barred from the room altogether, with DeSantis reportedly telling attendees that this was because he did not want “a bunch of left-wing media asking our primary candidates a bunch of gotcha questions.”
Politico’s Matt Dixon published the press list for the event, which showed that staffers for right-wing outlets like the Washington Free Beacon and Daily Wire had access to both the Summit, where the debates took place, and the evening Victory Dinner. Journalists at some mainstream outlets, meanwhile, were only allowed access to the dinner, not the summit, while others were denied credentials altogether.
When Dixon’s tweet spurred criticism from reporters who wished to attend, Christina Purshaw, DeSantis’ press secretary, made it clear that this was part of a deliberate strategy to undermine the press. “It has come to my attention that some liberal media activists are mad because they aren't allowed into #SunshineSummit this weekend,” she tweeted. “My message to them is to try crying about it. Then go to kickboxing and have a margarita. And write the same hit piece you were gonna write anyway.”
Trump famously hated the mainstream press, and his obsession with right-wing outlets like Fox was unprecedented for a U.S. president. But DeSantis, perhaps more than any other GOP politician, owes his political rise to Fox’s influence. Support from the network helped take him from back-bench member of Congress to swing state governor. And in that role, he became one of the network’s heroes for adopting Fox’s culture crusades as his own and gifting the network exclusive access to government business.
Fox may ultimately make DeSantis the Republican nominee for president. If that happens, we can expect to see a future in which GOP primaries take place exclusively on right-wing media, the network’s hosts remain the party’s kingmakers, and insurrectionists are more welcome than journalists.