The Republican presidential campaign of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis recently announced a “reset” that includes major staff cuts as well as a rebranding to boost the governor’s image as an insurgent, anti-establishment candidate.
While DeSantis' campaign manager depicted this as a new start (“Buckle up!”), it may be more of an end of the road for DeSantis’ quest — and bad news for all Republicans and GOP-leaning independents who desperately seek an alternative to Donald Trump.
DeSantis’ campaign has been a mix of waffling on policy issues — particularly Ukraine, where he has pandered to both hawks and isolationists — and culture-war bravado intended to outflank Trump from the right. This right-wing belligerence has resulted in some bizarre moments: Last month, the campaign shared a video clip slamming Trump for being too LGBT-friendly and not only touting DeSantis as an anti-gay, anti-transgender crusader but bragging about LGBT activists attacking him for “draconian laws that literally threaten trans existence.” After a week of criticism and mockery, the video was removed from the campaign’s Twitter feed.
DeSantis’ stance as an “anti-woke” culture warrior got him into another damaging controversy over Florida's school curriculum, specifically its African American history strand which critics have accused of promoting the idea that Black Americans benefited from slavery.
In this case, the accusation (amplified by Vice President Kamala Harris) happens to be unfair: It is based on a line which, after discussing various jobs performed by enslaved workers, notes that they were sometimes able to use those skills for their “personal benefit” — i.e., to support themselves after emancipation, or even to earn money and buy their and their family members’ freedom. That doesn't mean they benefited because of slavery; "in spite of slavery" is a more plausible reading. Indeed, a similar statement can be found in the Advanced Placement African American studies guidelines previously nixed by the DeSantis administration as too influenced by "critical race theory."
But instead of offering an effective defense that clearly explained why the charge was wrong and took the tragic history of slavery and racism in America seriously, DeSantis delivered a brief sneering and dismissive response, leaving him looking like he’s embroiled in a dispute about whether slavery did some good — not a place a presidential contender wants to be.
That misstep was followed by a kerfuffle over a video shared by the DeSantis campaign featuring a symbol commonly used in Nazi and neo-Nazi imagery, the Sonnenrad or sunwheel. This clip, it turned out, was made by an actual campaign staffer — a young right-wing journalist previously in trouble over an online chat with a notorious white supremacist and Holocaust denier. The staffer was fired. The damage was done.
Many Americans are wary of the excesses of so-called “woke” progressive activism. But all too often, “anti-woke” activism dives into far-right culture warfare steeped in racism, misogyny and other bigotries — and fringe lunacies such as anti-vaccine paranoia and conspiracy theories. The DeSantis campaign has not avoided those pitfalls.
The latest news: DeSantis would consider nominating conspiracy crank and anti-vaccine disinformation peddler Robert F. Kennedy Jr. (a Democratic presidential hopeful) to head the Food and Drug Administration or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That must be his peculiar idea of reaching across the partisan divide.
At this point, the hope that DeSantis could beat Trump for the Republican nomination is fading fast. And the hope that DeSantis could be a sane alternative to Trump? Never mind: If anything, the DeSantis reboot seems to promise more combativeness and polarization. As Trump would say: Sad.
Opinions expressed by Cathy Young, a writer for The Bulwark, are her own.