With Florida Governor Ron Desantis officially announcing his candidacy for the presidency yesterday in the tailor-made (if decidedly bug-ridden) media space of Elon Musk’s right-wing Twitter, we are moving through the baroque phase of right-wing American culture warfare—a moment when the shape-shifting politics of offense-taking can be trained on virtually any subject. The topic in question gets roughly tricked out as fodder for outrage—whether it’s the perpetual anti-Trump “witch hunt” that produced the adverse verdict for the 45th president in E. Jean Carroll’s suit charging him with sexual assault and defamation, or the perfidy of Bud Light, which now carries the reputation of trans-grooming among the MAGA set thanks to a short-lived campaign that put a trans social-media influencer’s image on a beer can. And whatever you do, do not get them started on the Disney Corporation and its subservience to the gay agenda.
The watchword for the DeSantis brand of culture warfare is a vision of government as both the guardian and promulgator of a very specific worldview. During a recent phone call with donors, DeSantis quoted one of his supporters who summed up his case for the nomination: “You know, Trump was somebody, we liked his policies but we didn’t like his values. And with you, we like your policies but also know that you share our values.” Of course, the policies are the values.
To see this worldview in action, you just have to consult DeSantis’s extensive legislative record. During his governorship, he has used his super-majority in the state legislature to transform it into an all-purpose factory of right-leaning culture grievance. DeSantis’s multifront Kulturkampf is now poised to go national, as the main selling point for his presidential campaign. What’s telling is that his fledgling run is not hampered by his extremist track record in the governor’s office. No, what DeSantis needs to do to loosen Donald Trump’s apparent stranglehold on the GOP primary base is to outflank Trump’s own unhinged culture-war rhetoric, which also fixates on imaginary threats to real American sovereignty from immigrants, radical educators, corporate elites and the like.
Earlier this month, DeSantis signed HB 3, a bill that forbids state officials from promoting ESG bond sales—that is, investment in companies operating under broad “environmental, social, and governance” guidelines. “We don’t want to have an economy in which these businesses are taking all these positions on political issues or using shareholder assets to advance an ideological agenda,” DeSantis said at a press conference, while standing behind a podium bedecked with the slogan “Government of Laws, Not Woke Politics.”
The specter of wokeness is to Ron DeSantis what the white whale was to Captain Ahab. The governor proudly christened his pet law banning racially themed instruction, training, and materials in Florida schools and workplaces the “Stop WOKE Act” (as in “Stop Wrongs to Our Kids and Employees”). That law, like the scores of other similarly repressive measures that have sailed through the legislature on DeSantis’s watch, posits a free-floating plague of “wokeness” foisted on a virtuous citizenry by shadowy “elites” in the schools, the corporate world, and the media-academe complex. The tireless DeSantis has held press conferences, banned books, and passed legislation to showcase his determination to rescue Floridians from the psychological torments of “wokeness.”
However, any time DeSantis and his allies are pressed to explain just what wokeness is and does, they can’t supply a cogent definition. By their lights, it’s not the use of classroom time to discuss America’s slaveholding past. Nor is it an ideology of any sort, still less an organized political lobby or advocacy concern outfitted with an address, a budget, and a collection of mailing lists. In the language of measures like the Stop WOKE Act, it’s taken to be a form of instruction or discourse that makes students and workers feel unduly responsible for past historic wrongs. But doctrinaire politics isn’t typically—or ever, really—litigated as a public issue via the shifting tides of subjective feeling.
Nor do the efforts to invoke or apply this language in real-world settings add any clarity. In January, the Florida Department of Education rejected a proposal for an AP African American History course, saying “the content of this course is inexplicably contrary to Florida law and significantly lacks educational value.” But educators had been using the proposed curriculum without controversy months before DeSantis turned it into a bogeyman to incite anxiety over the course’s alleged potential to “indoctrinate” students. Without citing any evidence of any actually existing student’s mental distress, DeSantis has employed the specter of woke indoctrination to dictate a far more repressive model of instruction than anything imputed to his culture-war opposition—-even though Florida students have never been required to endure “indoctrination” or any other form of upsetting racial content under the auspices of the AP Board.
And the inquisition has moved seamlessly from AP classrooms to textbooks. Florida’s board of education recently rejected 82 of the 101 proposed social studies textbooks, alleging that they contained “inaccurate material, errors and other information that is not aligned with Florida law.” After education officials initially rejected the 82 offending books, they teamed with publishers to edit and revise some of the content, ultimately producing a bureaucracy-sanitized roster of 66 textbooks. One excision spoke volumes about the outraged sensibilities of right-wing bureaucrats, if not the tender feelings of school children—the removal of the simple factual statement that “many American sympathized with Black Lives Matter movement.”
It’s instructive to see when the pose of solicitude for hurt feelings falls away in DeSantis’s Florida—the moments when the governor, in his role as self-appointed culture-war commissar, revels in the gothic recounting of brutal crimes committed by members of a designated out-group, namely undocumented immigrants. In February, he announced a legislative proposal to combat the “increasing threats” posed by illegal immigration. “Florida will lead the way in protecting Americans from the deleterious effect of the left’s open borders agenda,” said DeSantis. Nearly a year earlier, in March 2022, DeSantis published a news release titled “Man Who Brutally Murdered Daytona Beach Couple During Bike Week was an Illegal Immigrant with Multiple Prior Drug Charges.” Here are a few notable excerpts from that document, which flagged from its title onward the aim of fomenting a climate of fear and distrust of illegal immigration:
On March 10, 2022, a man named Jean R. Macean, a citizen of Haiti and an illegal immigrant, was taken into custody for the murder of Terry and Brenda Aultman and charged with two counts of first-degree murder.…
The Aultmans suffered at the hands of an illegal immigrant due to open border policies that are failing our citizens.…
In addition to this horrific murder, on October 7, 2021, Yery Noel Medina Ulloa, a 24-year-old illegal immigrant from Honduras, was arrested for the murder of a man in Jacksonville. Ulloa had crossed the U.S. border illegally, posing as an unaccompanied minor, before making his way to Florida.
To state the obvious: These are indeed horrific crimes and genuine cause for concern about public safety. But DeSantis’s obsessive focus on the national and racial identities of the accused killers is in stark contrast to his extensive efforts to purge the state’s schools and workplaces of all upsetting mentions of race and its baleful social legacies in America. It’s clear, in other words, that the recourse to the rhetoric of anti-woke culture warfare to designate subjects unfit for state-approved consideration of their victimization is wholly dictated by the political payoff of such maneuvers. It’s thus not surprising that DeSantis appointed Jeffrey Moore to serve as county commissioner in Gadsden County, a majority Black county, which called for Moore’s resignation in 2022 after pictures of Moore in a Ku Klux Klan outfit had surfaced. There could be no clearer statement on whose victimization, and which values, count in a governorship operating on the logic of white grievance.
To grasp this dogmatic racial disparity more clearly as the foundation of policy-making, look to another revealing use of DeSantis’ crime rhetoric. The governor recently signed SB 450, which lowered the number of jurors required to administer capital punishment from unanimous to a super-majority of eight out of 12. The measure was largely a response to a jury’s life-in-prison sentencing of Nikolas Cruz, the killer in the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School massacre in Parkland that claimed 17 lives. Here DeSantis was again determined to marshal the full punitive power of the state in the wake of the school shooting—in part, of course, so he could sidestep the demand for meaningful gun control legislation in the wake of the murderous rampage of Cruz, who was just 19 at the time of the shootings. “Once a defendant in a capital case is found guilty by a unanimous jury, one juror should not be able to veto a capital sentence,” DeSantis said. “I’m proud to sign legislation that will prevent families from having to endure what the Parkland families have and ensure proper justice will be served in the state of Florida.”
It’s noteworthy that DeSantis never mentions the race of Cruz (who is white) in revisiting one of the worst violent crimes in recent Florida history. Nor does he discuss the well-documented intersection of widespread gun access and militant white identity politics in mass shootings; no press release from the governor’s office proclaimed an epidemic of white-perpetrated violence was jeopardizing the safety and well-being of Floridians. Instead, the governor acted to expedite death-penalty sentencing—an inhumane punishment that, despite Cruz’s own race, always falls disproportionately on Black defendants—while signing an open-carry bill for all Floridians over the age of 18. If all of this hadn’t made the racial politics of DeSantis’s crime rhetoric clear enough, he recently took to social media to promote a GoFundMe campaign for Daniel Penny, the accused killer of Jordan Neely on the New York subway. DeSantis called Penny a “good Samaritan”—a grotesque misreading of both Neely’s killing and the New Testament—and pledged that he and his supporters would “have his back.”
As that shameful display made clear, DeSantis’s multifront Kulturkampf is now poised to go national, as the main selling point for his presidential campaign. What’s telling is that his fledgling run is not hampered by his extremist track record in the governor’s office. No, what DeSantis needs to do to loosen Donald Trump’s apparent stranglehold on the GOP primary base is to outflank Trump’s own unhinged culture-war rhetoric, which also fixates on imaginary threats to real American sovereignty from immigrants, radical educators, corporate elites, and the like.
It’s a race to the bottom that’s all but calculated to drive away independent voters and anyone else averse to the right’s own chosen course of mass indoctrination. But that may be the point, given the perverse logic of American electioneering. Daniel Cox, writing for FiveThirtyEight, offered an explanation as to why Republicans offer perpetual fearmongering instead of popular policies to its electorate: “The biggest reason why the GOP may not be pushing more popular policies is that recent history suggests it’s unnecessary.” Laura Bronner and Nathaniel Rakich, also writing for FiveThirtyEight, note that “Republican senators have not represented a majority of the population since 1999—yet, from 2003 to 2007 and again from 2015 to 2021, Republicans had a majority of members of the Senate itself. That means that, for 10 years, Republican senators were passing bills—and not passing others—on behalf of a minority of Americans.”
This dynamic is especially clear in matters of political economy. Republicans claim to be guardians of the middle class and champions of fiscal responsibility, yet have no serious policy platform to address the day-to-day struggles of American families and workers. Instead, they deploy 1990s-branded culture war rhetoric to incite anxiety among the conservative movement base. “A war for the soul of America” was the theme of conservative commentator Patrick Buchanan’s keynote speech before the 1992 Republican National Convention. Buchanan’s dictum that the culture wars are “as critical to the kind of nation we will one day be as was the Cold War itself.”
Three decades later, it’s the same formulaic message—with the important difference that Buchanan’s outsider messaging from the hard right is now squarely in the GOP mainstream. “We are in a cultural, cold civil war right now,” Robert Blizzard, a GOP pollster, told ABC News in February. “And I think that that’s part of the reason why you’re seeing Republican candidates or presumptive Republican candidates for president start to lay down some policies and some positions to establish their credibility in that battle.” He went on to explain that there are no foreseeable limits to the cruelty embedded in the culture-war demagoguery of the right: “When it comes to some of the public education stuff, the [critical race theory] stuff, the transgender stuff, especially with kids, I don’t think there’s a primary electorate risk for going too far whatsoever.” That’s the paradox that Ron DeSantis is looking to make a political career out of.