Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during a press conference after Hurricane Ian on October 4, 2022 in Cape Coral.

Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during a press conference after Hurricane Ian on October 4, 2022 in Cape Coral.

(Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Ron DeSantis Carves Out a Brand as a Book-Burning, Anti-LGBTQ+, Racist Authoritarian

Playing the wannabe tough guy, he wants to troll his way to the White House as America's premiere culture warrior.

Ideological attacks on public education are central to the politics of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is carving out a brand as a book-burning, gay-phobic, transphobic, racist authoritarian. A Fauci-hater and anti-vax hero of right-wing media, DeSantis restricted instruction on gender identity and sexual orientation with his "Don't Say Gay" law. He limited what schools can teach about racism and diversity with his "Stop WOKE" law. He rejected math textbooks en masse for what the state called "prohibited topics," such as critical race theory; and he banned an Advanced Placement course in African-American studies for high school students on the grounds that it is a tool for "political indoctrination." Playing the wannabe tough guy, he wants to troll his way to the White House as America's premiere culture warrior.

His Trump-style, pugilistic approach was rewarded by Florida voters who reelected him by 19 percentage points. "Florida is where 'woke' goes to die" was DeSantis's sinister declaration in his inauguration speech, weaponizing "woke" to denounce any disliked policy from climate change to transgender rights, critical race theory, and the Black Lives Matter movement. He successfully appealed to the bigotries of the state's aging population, who were sadly bamboozled with racist culture war stunts like shipping legal migrants from Texas to Martha's Vineyard. They voted for a Trump poseur who performs cruelty for their enjoyment but wants to cut off Social Security and steal their nest eggs from under them.

As governor, DeSantis has failed to expand Medicaid, leaving hundreds of thousands of Floridians without health insurance. As a three-term congressman, DeSantis was a fierce opponent not just of the Affordable Care Act, but Social Security and Medicare. He voted to strip a quarter trillion dollars from programs that allow retired Americans to survive. Like most other Republicans in 2017, he voted to cut taxes on corporations, high-earners, and wealthy heirs. As president, he likely would slash what's left of the social safety net and use the proceeds to help the rich stay rich.

Single-minded about using the blunt-force gears of state to troll "the libs," DeSantis's anti-education crusade is doubly authoritarian—most obviously in its use of state power to suppress ideas and information, but also in its more subtle assumption that teaching is ultimately about imposing doctrines of one sort or another. As if he's auditioning for an anchor job, DeSantis is all over Fox News propagandizing the homophobic and racist laws he engineered.

"Gov. DeSantis understands culture war as public policy," barked Christopher Rufo, a DeSantis attack dog. Rufo—a MAGA activist who advised the DeSantis policy team on "Stop WOKE"—is essentially a chatbot who spews out an endless stream of culture war nonsense. A mini-DeSantis, he views anything related to addressing racism and diversity as "woke" while denouncing American schools as "hunting grounds" for pedophile teachers and suggesting that "parents have good reason" to worry about "grooming" in public schools.

Part of the "Stop WOKE" agenda pushed by DeSantis and Rufo, the "Individual Freedom" bill, bans the teaching of anything that might cause students to feel "guilt, anguish, or other forms of psychological distress." Yet the "freedom" it peddles is achieved by detaching Black children from knowledge of their own heritage and by "freeing" White children from dangerous feelings of solidarity with maltreated people. What DeSantis calls "psychological distress" is the spark of empathy children and adults feel from learning about the oppression of others. Even worse in the eyes of DeSantis, children might feel a sense of injustice and—inspired by the history of civil rights activists—want to better the world.

The legislation is part of a wave of "educational gag orders" banning the teaching of "divisive concepts"—all designed to chill classroom discussion of race and gender. Violations can trigger disciplinary action against faculty and enormous fines for their universities. But the gravest threat to academic freedom comes from a legal argument Florida has advanced in defense of the "Stop WOKE" Act.

In a brief filed in federal court, Florida's lawyers contend that faculty at public universities are government employees, in-classroom speech is "government speech," and the state "has simply chosen to regulate its own speech" with the "Stop WOKE" Act. Calling Florida's argument "positively dystopian" and noting it would give Florida "unfettered authority to muzzle its professors," the district court temporarily barred enforcement of the statute. But Florida has appealed, and the ultimate outcome of the case is uncertain.

With the various provisions of the "Stop WOKE" bill, "Don't Say Gay" bill, and now the rejection of the College Board's Advanced Placement African-American history, Florida leads an unrelenting, country-wide assault on truth and freedom of expression. Following Florida, other states want to suppress disfavored viewpoints in the form of laws that censor the histories and experiences of marginalized groups, especially Black and LGBTQ+ communities.

At least 18 states, for example, have laws or policies that restrict the teaching of race and gender. Typical prohibitions include outlawing "indoctrination"—viewed as teaching the history of slavery, racism, and Jim Crow—and forbidding discussions of gender identity, gender orientation, or critical race theory—the view that systemic racism is ingrained into American law and institutions. Along with promoting homophobia and hatred, this widespread attack on Black perspectives helps fuel the racial divisions that enable white supremacy, which serves to maintain the systemic racism that these laws try to ignore.

More than just "trolling the libs," these Florida laws have coerced librarians into becoming the reading police. DeSantis has made it clear that he doesn't want schools to acknowledge that LGBTQ+ people exist. He's banned the teaching of Black history classes on the grounds that lessons on people like Frederick Douglass or Rosa Parks "have no educational value." District officials there have launched reviews of the appropriateness of teachers' books as part of House Bill 1467, the state law mandating that school books be age-appropriate, free from pornography, and "suited to student needs." With the threat of legal action, Florida's Duval County Public Schools urged educators to "err on the side of caution" in determining whether a book "is developmentally appropriate for student use."

Some school districts even closed their libraries until all their books can be vetted to make sure they are in compliance and avoid felony charges. When a teacher raised concerns about such book removals, a school official warned the teacher that violating the state law could lead to third-degree felony charges for distributing "harmful materials" to minors. Students arrived in some Florida public school classrooms this month to find their teachers' bookshelves wrapped in paper. A Florida teacher was fired last week after posting a video of empty bookshelves that DeSantis called "a fake narrative." The efforts to conceal titles have stirred outrage from educators and parents, many of whom also shared images of bare wooden shelves or books veiled behind sheets of colored paper.

In his maniacal search for manufactured culture war assaults and new "libs to own," DeSantis has a bully's knack for finding easy targets among marginalized groups.

In his maniacal search for manufactured culture war assaults and new "libs to own," DeSantis has a bully's knack for finding easy targets among marginalized groups. He has fired the latest salvo in his educational culture war on New College—a tiny liberal arts school in Sarasota with a large LGBTQ+ population. Inaugurating a plan to remake Florida's educational system in his image and build his MAGA legitimacy ahead of a likely presidential run, DeSantis wants to fundamentally change the character of New College, which describes itself as "a community of free thinkers."

DeSantis's education commissioner has expressed a desire to transform the school into "Hillsdale of the South," referencing the conservative, Christian private college in Michigan that is a feeder school for right-wing politics and has close ties to both DeSantis and Trump. In response to a political assault on their academic freedom, New College students say they feel like they've been turned into guinea pigs in a right-wing social experiment.

The governor appointed a hard-right board of trustees that includes DeSantis' ventriloquist dummy Christopher Rufo, who decried what he called, "gender, grooming, and trans ideology in schools" and bragged on Twitter: "We are now over the walls and ready to transform higher education from within. Under the leadership of Gov. DeSantis, our all-star board will demonstrate that the public universities, which have been corrupted by woke nihilism, can be recaptured, restructured, and reformed."

The trustees promptly fired the school president and installed the former Republican state House Speaker and former DeSantis education commissioner Richard Corcoran as interim president. Corcoran told a Hillsdale National Leadership Seminar last summer that education was "100% ideological. Education is our sword. That's our weapon. Our weapon is education."

After ousting the college president, DeSantis unveiled higher education policies to weaken faculty tenure protections, eliminate diversity and equity programs, and mandate Western civilization courses. "The core curriculum must be grounded in actual history, the actual philosophy that has shaped Western civilization," said DeSantis. "We don't want students to go through, at taxpayer expense, and graduate with a degree in Zombie studies." Eliminating Zombie studies means students would not be able to explore the mysterious, malignant driving force of DeSantis's brain-dead voters.

Deepening a chill that had already taken hold across Florida's public schools and universities, the state asked students and faculty to fill out a survey about their political leanings and requested information about resources for transgender students. DeSantis' mouthpiece Rufo also targeted Florida State University, saying the school was led by a "sprawling bureaucracy dedicated to promoting left-wing narratives" that condemned American society as structurally racist, which FSU business professor Jack Fiorito called "exaggerated rubbish."

DeSantis attacks education as "indoctrination" to chase the votes of the most reactionary segment of the public. While claiming that the educational system is biased against conservatives, Christians, and white people and that teachers are pushing extreme leftist agendas, DeSantis legislates a system of right-wing indoctrination under the guise of fairness and impartiality. Aside from denouncing elite education, DeSantis—a graduate of Yale and Harvard—bashes the usual Fox News scourges and appeals to the grievance-fueled MAGA crowd. Like Trump, DeSantis harbors grudges and seeks revenge on enemies, real or perceived. In this, he echoes the MAGA mob's desire to punish and destroy immigrants, non-whites, and "woke" elites. The Trump-averse Republicans rallying to DeSantis are calculating that his synthetic, performative version of Trumpism will serve as an adequate substitute for the MAGA base.

The 2022 midterms hopefully showed that most people are sick of the MAGA clown show, the conspiracy theories, and the hate for its own sake. When voters get a whiff of DeSantis' boring act that strangely mimics Trump's gestures like a programmed automaton, they will find him as repulsive as Trump himself. His speech on Monday to the Fraternal Order of Police in a Chicago suburb provoked a fierce flurry of condemnations and criticism from the Illinois governor and Chicago mayoral contenders. Embattled incumbent mayor Lori Lightfoot got it right in her characterization: "Ron DeSantis has perfected being a bigoted, racist demagogue."

© 2023 Juan Cole