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Ron DeSantis Won’t Be Awoken
The Florida governor is bent on stoking the culture wars as his path to victory in Florida and beyond
On June 4, 1940, in a famed speech before the House of Commons at the end of the Dunkirk evacuation that saved the lives of more than 338,000 British and French troops, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill made clear his determination to achieve victory over the Nazis. It was a powerful message—inspired by what he called “a miracle of deliverance” at Dunkirk—and delivered with a memorable cadence near its conclusion.
“Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule,” he declared, “we shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender….”
This historic moment came to mind this weekend after hearing a portion of a speech by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is busy fashioning himself as the autocratic political heir to Donald Trump and a top contender for the 2024 presidential race. It caught my attention because of the similar cadence, the use of the term “fight” and the subject that motivated him. His target was not the world domination of the Nazis, but woke ideology, which he claims “ravages every institution in our society.”
Here’s what DeSantis said in a speech on Friday in Pittsburgh, where he came to campaign for Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidate and 2020 election denier Doug Mastriano:
“We must fight the woke in our schools. We must fight the woke in our businesses. We must fight the woke in government agencies. We can never ever surrender to woke ideology. And I’ll tell you this, the state of Florida is where woke goes to die.”
Seriously. This pale imitation is the culture war that he thinks deserves raising the stakes to be compared with the British confrontation with Adolf Hitler and the Nazi regime. Make no mistake: DeSantis is smart enough to know Churchill’s speech—which makes this battle cry particularly ridiculous.
Which isn’t to say that it won’t work in these emotionally fraught, deeply partisan times. The Pennsylvania crowd went wild when he concluded. And he served up more of the same in a later campaign rally for Senate candidate J.D. Vance in Ohio, talking about the “mind virus” and “woke mob virus” that’s infecting American institutions.
This is not a new topic for the Florida governor, of course. Last December he called woke thinking “an attempt to really delegitimize our history and to delegitimize our institutions,” “a form of cultural Marxism" and an attempt “to tear at the fabric of our society."
More than simply rhetoric, he has pursued a very public battle against the Disney Company over Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill (officially known as the Parental Rights in Education bill) and with many others over the “Stop WOKE” Act passed by the GOP-ruled Florida legislature earlier this year. The act was subsequently challenged by a number of businesses for violating free speech and blocked as unconstitutional by a Tallahassee U.S. District Court judge last Thursday.
This “anti-woke” law attacks so-called critical race theory in classrooms as well as diversity, inclusion and bias training programs by businesses. It prohibits schools and companies from blaming students and employees for racist history based on race or sex, criticizes the idea of “white privilege,” and asserts that they should not be made “to feel guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress” because of their race or gender or national origin.
The federal judge, Mark Walker, said the act violated the First Amendment and its policies were “bordering on unintelligible.” But that’s not all he said in his 44-page ruling: “In the popular television series Stranger Things, the ‘upside down’ describes a parallel dimension containing a distorted version of our world. Recently, Florida has seemed like a First Amendment upside down.”
It’s important to know the racial history of the notion to “stay woke.” It gained prominence in 2014 after the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. It was an oft-used caution among Black Lives Matter activists, not just as a basic survival tactic but to specifically watch out for police brutality. Over time, it has come to be the encapsulation of progressive political ideology focused on social and racial justice issues, and a way for the right to degrade progressive thinking, as if caring about these issues is inherently a danger.
As Vox notes, its origins date back to at least 1938, when Blues musician Lead Belly said in a spoken afterword of his protest song, “Scottsboro Boys,” about nine Black teenagers who were accused of raping two white women in Arkansas: “So I advise everybody, be a little careful when they go along through there—best stay woke, keep their eyes open.”
Consider what former New York mayor and presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg—not exactly the guy you’d associate with woke thinking—had to say about the Florida law in the pages of The Wall Street Journal last week, in a piece titled “Republican Censorship Goes for Woke”:
“Free inquiry and discourse—including professing ideas and beliefs—lie at the heart of democratic society…The way to address controversial theories isn’t by banning professors or business leaders from espousing them to students and workers—after all, government censorship of ideas often helps them gain popularity. Instead, it’s to allow citizens to give them a free airing, where they can be openly debated. That’s the American way.”
Yet Ron DeSantis has a very different notion of what the “American way” is. For a guy who talks an awful lot about freedom, he has a powerful desire and commitment to limit the freedoms of others. (Remember how he bullied a small group of high school students in March, as I noted in “We Can’t Let the Bullies Win.”)
Tomorrow, in the Florida primary, we’ll learn whether Charlie Crist or Nikki Fried will be the Democratic nominee to oppose him for governor in November, a next step in determining how strong he is as a future candidate for higher office.
But have no doubt, DeSantis will continue to exploit his power to stoke culture wars, incite the GOP base and strengthen his position. At a time when we need leadership that is compassionate and concerned with bringing people together, he is bent on proving that the path to the presidency requires repressing free speech and shutting down democratic freedoms.
One last note, a reason for optimism: A just-released NBC News poll found that “threat to democracy” has become the top issue for voters and now surpassing “cost of living,” the Democrats have closed the enthusiasm gap with Republicans for the midterms, and a clear majority think investigations into Donald Trump should continue. The poll was conducted August 14-16, after the FBI search at Mar-a-Lago on August 8.
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