The ‘Wicked Wisdom’ of Ron DeSantis
"TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — The marchers kept up a brisk pace, through streets lined by old oaks tinseled in Spanish moss that acknowledged even the slightest breeze.
At one point they chanted: “What do you do when Black history is under attack? Stand up, fight back.” At another they chanted: “Hey, hey, ho, ho, Ron DeSantis has got to go.”
They were in Tallahassee protesting DeSantis’s crusade against everything “woke,” a concept his own general counsel defined as “the belief there are systemic injustices in American society and the need to address them.” Earlier this week Shevrin Jones, the first openly gay man and first L.G.B.T. Black member of the Florida Senate, told me his theory of why Republicans like DeSantis are abusing and bastardizing the word “woke”: It’s “the new N-word.”
DeSantis’s obsession has led him from attacking critical race theory to, now, restricting the teaching of Black history itself.
So the marchers made their way from Bethel Missionary Baptist Church, where one speaker branded DeSantis the “Pharaoh of Florida,” to the State Capitol, where the Rev. Al Sharpton delivered a defiant speech, proudly commenting on the composition of the crowd: people of different races and generations.
That was true, of course, but the crowd was also a mass of Black faces flecked by white ones, and it skewed older than any other social justice protest I’ve covered.
It is those demographics that illustrate a challenge faced by those pushing back against DeSantis: In a city with a white plurality, and in a state where three-quarters of the population identifies as white and there are far more Hispanics than Black people, just how strong and deep are the coalitions between groups?
Yes, DeSantis is playing to the MAGA base in his craven quest for the presidency. He is trying to out-Trump Trump, to refine his cruelty to be more effective and less felonious.
Yes, he appeals to an oppression envy among white conservatives, in which they want the protected status and “perks” of victimhood without the devastation of being actual victims. Theirs is a form of civic gluttony and narcissism in which the market of privilege must be cornered.
And yes, he is spearheading a new iteration of the states’ rights movement, a movement that periodically resurfaces in this country like a breaching whale, from the Nullification Crisis of 1832 that pitted South Carolina against the federal government in a fight over tariffs, to the Civil War itself, to the rise of Jim Crow and the civil rights movement required to bring it down.
But there is a secondary layer of strategy that deserves more consideration: how DeSantis, whether intentionally or by happenstance, is attacking marginalized groups on issues where there is division among marginalized groups. He is exploiting anti-gay, anti-immigrant, anti-Black sentiments among groups who themselves are exploited, so that they fight one another — or at least don’t fight for one another — rather than throwing more of their energy into fighting him.
This well-worn divide-and-conquer strategy has been employed in our politics for centuries, and DeSantis has breathed new life into it.
Dr. Lisandro Pérez, founder of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University and now professor in the Department of Latin American and Latinx Studies at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, explained to me that in Miami, the notion that African Americans and Latinos could form a coalition was abandoned many years ago, in part because Cubans, in general, don’t see themselves as a marginalized minority but rather possess an exile ethos that prioritizes affairs of the homeland.
As Pérez put it, “I think a lot of Cubans voters are conservatives who probably do not view well things like rights of trans people and African American courses and all of that.”
In fact, according to exit polls from the 2022 election, Florida’s voters of Cuban descent chose DeSantis over Democrat Charlie Crist by a margin of more than two to one, and according to Florida International University’s 2022 poll of Cuban Americans in Miami, roughly 80 percent identify as white.
Last year when DeSantis, in a callous political stunt, flew Venezuelan immigrants from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard, a Telemundo/LX News poll found that half of Florida’s Hispanic voters supported the ploy.
At the time, Miami-based Democratic strategist Helena Poleo, who is Venezuelan and has been in this country for 24 years, told NBC News that some Venezuelan Americans supported the effort because many of them have been here for a long time, are whiter and wealthier than newer arrivals, and don’t identify with poor, darker-skinned immigrants.
When I interviewed Poleo recently, she told me a similar story. DeSantis, she said, “is playing to a hidden, seldom talked about, little ping of racism inside immigrants that is disgusting and that they are carrying from their homelands.”
DeSantis has also attacked the L.G.B.T. community with his “don’t say gay” bill, which limited how sexuality and gender expression could be discussed in classrooms. Using messaging that has become common in the Republican Party, he has fixated on the trans experience, cross-dressing and drag performers.
This is another issue on which he could exploit a fracture.
A May Pew Research Center survey found that while the rest of the Democratic Party has undergone a dramatic shift on identity, a majority of Black Democrats still believe gender is determined by sex at birth. Forty-four percent of Hispanic Democrats agreed with that sentiment.
In our conversations, Jones, the Black state senator I interviewed, was defiant, calling Wednesday’s rally “a notice” served not just to Republicans in Florida but Republicans nationally. “The fight that you are looking for is not the fight that you want,” he said of Republicans. “While you think it’s 1963, it’s 2023.”
But what if this is precisely the fight DeSantis wants? The outrage it has generated may only fuel his ascension in a conservative climate where anti-Black has been redefined as pro-equality, anti-gay as pro-family and anti-immigrant as pro-American.
Trump tried this strategy of division in the last election, with uneven success, and he lost in the effort.
But could a tweaking of the message and a change of the messenger have even greater effect? Could the Florida experiment be nationalized? Could DeSantis push this strategy to levels that Trump couldn’t, altering the political landscape and ushering in a dystopian era for issues of diversity?
Brandon Wolf, who was catapulted into activism in Florida after surviving the Orlando Pulse nightclub massacre in 2016, told me that effective coalitions are emerging to oppose DeSantis, but he acknowledged how formidable an opponent the governor is: “DeSantis’s strategy tries to pull us apart,” he said. It fuels a “narrative that we’re not all on the same page. They know that if they were able to unlock that vision of what the country, the world, could look like if we all stood in solidarity with one another, then they would lose.”
If these groups don’t unite to fight back soon, they could all lose in the end. For instance, as Pérez explained when talking about Cuban conservatives, the current policies being used to limit the teaching of Black history are broad enough that they could eliminate the course he created at F.I.U.: the history of Cuban Americans. And other states are already beginning to imitate or compete with what DeSantis is doing in Florida.
We would do well to learn this lesson nationally. The attack is broad: sexist, racist, xenophobic and homophobic. The only way to fight it is together.
I have always thought of DeSantis as a bit of a dullard, blinded by ambition. But Frank M. Reid III, bishop of the 11th Episcopal District of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Jacksonville, Fla., warns against such simplistic assessments:
“He went to Yale. He went to Harvard. He is not a quote, unquote, ‘redneck Republican.’ But he has recognized that this is his way to power, which makes him dangerous. And he wields that power fearlessly. He has a wicked wisdom.”