President DeSantis Isn't Inevitable...
But that's up to us
Though I decided not to write a full piece (yet, at least) about East Palestine, OH, goodness knows I’ve been gutted this past week thinking about that town. You know, my politics are pretty simple: I don’t think any human being deserves to be nuked by a railroad conglomerate, and I’d love for a government that doesn’t allow the worst possible tragedies to keep pummeling communities that have already been dealt a losing hand. In the meantime, has been telling East Palestine’s story well. Check out (and support) John Russell’s work over there. I’ll also continue to share mutual aid links as I find them: Here’s what I’ve come across so far.
Speaking of pitching in, this space only exists because enough kind folks support either this newsletter or my organizing at the Barnraisers Project so that I can pay for child care and have time to write and agitate and run trainings. If you value this work as well (and have a few bucks to chip in)… thanks in advance. I don’t take it for granted, and I’ll keep working hard to make it worth your while.
On January 18th, 1977, the Miami-Dade County Commission passed a landmark resolution barring discrimination based on sexual orientation. The commissioners did so in front of a large crowd of counter-protestors, the majority mobilized by Anita Bryant, a then-famous adult contemporary crooner. The ordinance’s backers hadn’t coordinated a parallel show of support, so the anti-gay crusaders dominated the room. It didn’t matter, though. Dade County had a story it wanted to tell about itself: about its sun-baked tolerance and live-and-let-live progressivism, about its identity as a destination for Holocaust survivors and Caribbean asylum seekers, about its politically and economically influential gay community. There was no reason to fear Bryant and her fellow holy rollers. By the late 1970s, the singer was a pitch-woman for Florida Orange Juice. How could an uber-square songstress who appeared on TV screens cheerfully proclaiming that “a day without orange juice is like a day without sunshine!” stand in the way of progress?
Six days later, Anita Bryant held a press conference officially announcing the formation of the Save Our Children coalition. Over the next two years, that group would successfully engineer a citizen referendum to overturn the resolution. Along the way, they also halted Florida’s ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment and catalyzed what would eventually become known as the Moral Majority. Communities across the country— from Austin, Texas to St. Paul, Minnesota— followed Miami’s lead in blocking anti-discrimination measures. Conservative firebrands like Jerry Falwell and Paul Weyrich took notice, organizing national networks of grassroots campaigners into the shock troops for the nascent Reagan Revolution.
Anita Bryant was and is a radical bigot. Even today, over forty years later, she still has not fully accepted her own bisexual granddaughter. But she was an incredibly savvy organizer. She knew that in order to win at the polls, she couldn’t rely merely on the support of her hardcore conservative base. She had to successfully convince a majority of her unaligned neighbors that Save Our Children was reasonable and tolerant and that her opponents— the gay community— were not just deviant but devious. And of course she had wind at her back in doing so (the status quo of 1970s homophobia, her own embodiment of White feminine ideals, etc.), but less so than might be assumed. Early Save Our Children voter analyses revealed that their core target audience— middle and upper class White Dade County housewives—both knew and liked gay people personally (a verbatim quote from an early debrief: “they love their dogs and they love the people who love their dogs”).
Not surprisingly, an outsized percentage of Save Our Children’s propaganda efforts went towards convincing those housewives that while the gays they knew might be nice, it was the gays that they didn’t know who were amoral family-destroying demons. There was another, equally important side to the propaganda war, though: convincing the mainstream media that they (the anti-gay crusaders) were smart, modern and relatable. As documented in Rick Perlstein’s Reaganland, it was interviews with Phil Donahue and sit-downs with America’s august daily papers where Bryant truly shined. William Raspberry, a liberal Washington Post columnist, noted that he fully intended a takedown of Bryant’s “campaign of bigotry” before spending extended time with her and being surprised by her eloquence and persuasiveness. Not for the last time, liberal establishment doyens were pleased to discover that reactionary conservatives made for charming dinner party guests.
To their credit, Dade County’s gay community organized passionately to defeat Save Our Children, but many liberals nationwide took the fight for granted. Surely their America, the one that stood for progress and human rights for all, wouldn’t lose to the orange juice lady.
That version of America did lose to the orange juice lady, though, just as one year later it would lose to the corny B-movie actor who used to co-star with a monkey. And now— over forty years later— we’ve got another sun-baked culture skirmish on our hands, and it’s worth asking ourselves what we have and haven’t learned in half of a lifetime.
You can say this for Anita Bryant. She has stood for hate and intolerance for decades, but at least she’s a true believer. Our eyes are now trained on Florida not because of anybody’s misguided moral beliefs, but simply because Ron DeSantis would very much like to be President. I am not going to attempt a full accounting of all the mean-spirited, red meat stunts to which we’ve already been subjected in service of this pursuit. They’re all bad. Books have been banned. Migrants have been tricked onto airplanes. Curricular standards have been defiled. Press conferences have been convened. Scowls have been scowled.
The through line in all of these moves isn’t solely “own the libs” schadenfreude, nor is it mere base building. DeSantis’s intended audience isn’t just the Fox News viewers who will show up most reliably for Republican primaries. It is the same general population of voters that both Bryant and Reagan appealed to as they cruised to local and national victories. To win those hearts and minds, DeSantis has to do two things. First, establish himself as America’s strongest family-and-taxpayer protecting White Knight. Secondly, cast all of his enemies as screaming, privileged banshees who hate anybody who resides outside of their gilded palaces of intellectual and moral righteousness.
In service of that first goal, DeSantis has (of course!) benefited from the same sycophantic “wow, he’s so smart and competent!” media coverage that was once bestowed on Bryant. For an almost parodic example, see last week’s New York Times column by Pamela Paul, which purports to be about how Democrats should respond to DeSantis, but in practice reads like a gushy mash note to an “intelligent and industrious” leader with a “knack for action.”
Given that all DeSantis needs to do in order to gain flattering media coverage is to literally not be named Donald Trump, that frees up him up to focus on defining the enemy. Vulnerable populations may be the true victims of a DeSantis stunt (asylum seekers, queer and trans teens, students of color), but those aren’t the antagonists you’re supposed to notice. The whole point of DeSantis’ migrant stunt wasn’t the migrants themselves (which, of course, speaks volumes about his feelings on the expendability of poor Brown people). It was the place he sent them: Martha’s Vineyard, a perennial stand-in for cloistered, judgmental privilege.
Nowhere is this “define the enemy” playbook clearer than in DeSantis’ education attacks. These have been wide-ranging, of course— a laundry list of “Don’t Say Gay” bills and attacks on books, curriculum and teachers’ unions— but it’s notable the outsized attention he has shown not just to higher education as a field, but to the state’s smallest public college: the New College of Florida.
New College, as the name would suggest, is an outlier in the world of American colleges and universities. It is a public institution that has more in common— in both mission, philosophy and vibes— with the kind of crunchy, progressive (and often expensive) private colleges that conservatives love to hate (there’s no need to cite a non-Oberlin example here, because I’m clearly talking about Oberlin) than it does with Florida State. You already know the list of signifiers I’m about to throw out here: no grades, no frats, no sports (other than sailing!), lots of critical theory, plenty of solicitation of pronouns, tons of students sporting hairstyles that grandparents might gawk at and say “well, I’ve never seen that before.”
If you’ve heard about New College recently, it’s because Ron DeSantis replaced its board of trustees with a set of self-satisfied right wing culture warriors, most notably Christopher Rufo, whom you might know as the “that perma-smirking guy who you definitely don’t want to run into at a party, lest you be subjected to an hour-long lecture about how he personally killed critical race theory.”
According to DeSantis and Rufo, the internal politics of a liberal arts college with fewer than 700 students is of critical importance to the future of the state of Florida because New College has become (cue foreboding music)… a left-wing indoctrination factory. Together, they have set out to “liberate” the school from illiberal leftist “hostage takers.” So far, those liberation efforts have included forcing the resignation of New College’s President [she has been replaced by an administrator from Michigan’s Hillsdale College (the conservative Oberlin!)], announcing plans to shutter the college’s diversity and equity office, and giving a bunch of interviews where they pretend as if the fate of the entire Republic hinges on whether or not another generation of twenty two year olds are allowed to pretend that they too understand Judith Butler’s dense, unyielding prose.
As if on cue, New College students and faculty are protesting. They are confronting Rufo and the other trustees on official visits to campus. They are raising their voices. And that’s both understandable and justified. Their educational and professional home is under attack. The dilemma, of course, is that DeSantis almost certainly wants nothing more than vitriolic protests from a bunch of visibly left-wing college kids. From the moment that then-Governor Ronald Reagan first declared that Berkeley hippies who “look like Tarzan, dress like Jane and smell like Cheetah” were a danger to the state of California, student radicals have been the best possible enemies an ambitious, reactionary politician could hope to have. Their mere existence is a conservative parent’s worst nightmare: that when removed from the home and sent to a permissive, family-hating public institution, their own All American children might grow to reject them.
Earlier this month, Rufo held his first public town hall at New College. And while that tiny institution might lack the critical mass of radicals of a 1960s Berkeley, everything otherwise went exactly according to plan. There was a bomb threat. Rufo went ahead with the event anyway (just look at him: too strong and too committed to free speech to be cowed by terrorists!). Dressed in a suit, Rufo, spoke calmly and authoritatively, presenting an immediate contrast with the heckling, hissing crowd. By the end of the session, a theater Professor with a rainbow flag draped over his back gave Rufo and his compatriots the only data point they needed to prove that the day had been a success. After stating that he found Rufo to be “crazy” on social media, he was now a convert. “Today I feel like I understand the words that are coming out of your mouth,” he said. “I feel like they are earnest.” Presumably, at that very moment, a New York Times editorial board angel gained its wings.
Shortly afterwards, the new Board of Trustees met for the first time. Approximately 100 protestors showed up there as well. At one point, after Rufo proposed eliminating the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion department, a protestor yelled “your opinion doesn’t matter!" With all the power vested in him by Robert’s Rules of Order, Rufo dispassionately replied back “my opinion does matter, actually” and the resolution passed. So calm. So competent. So prepared to appeal to a mainstream audience.
New College is a test case, of course. Rufo and DeSantis have already revealed their plans to pick as many fights as possible at the state’s largest universities (and of course to continue to wreak havoc in K-12 schools, where teachers’ unions will be the foe du jour rather than Maoist college kids with dissentient haircuts). The bet they’ll continue to make is that they’ll be the only ones trying to reach the masses who don’t officially identify as either leftist or conservative true believers. Their assumption is that the left will continue to be preoccupied with supporting and affirming one another rather than making the case that none of this— the villain of the week hysterics, the punitive overreach— is actually doing anything to make any of our lives better.
There’s often a fearful inevitability whenever liberals or leftists talk about DeSantis. “Trump, but competent” is the kind of descriptor that is almost laboratory designed to prick progressive anxieties. We’ve seen these tactics work already. When we tell stories like Anita Bryant’s, it’s often with a degree of resignation. We lost before, so we’ll lose once again. We might as well just preach to the choir and send our love to those under-attack college kids. Why build a broader coalition if there’s no hope that the masses will listen to us? We tell ourselves that our neighbors will always choose fascism and hate in the end. We are morally correct but destined for defeat. Our only option is to hunker down and await the inevitable rise of King DeSantis.
That’s not the whole story though. Anita Bryant won in Miami, just as she won in a number of places. But she didn’t win everywhere. And the distinguishing factor wasn’t that she prevailed in conservative cities and was defeated in progressive strongholds. In the 1970s, virtually every American community was more homophobic than it was tolerant. Bryant lost in the communities where Save Our Children was out-organized, where pro-equity campaigners executed a deliberate strategy to reach beyond the progressive true believers.
When anti-gay crusaders in Seattle (supported by Bryant) attempted to pass Initiative 13 to overturn that city’s anti-discrimination statute, activists fanned out across the city, listening to their neighbors’ fears about what would happen if every Seattleite’s personal life was under a microscope. Anti-13 advertisements appealed to voters’ empathy (“Somebody you know is gay”) but didn’t shy away from making the case as to why the bill was actually everybody’s issue. Because the organizers had listened beyond their base, they were able to craft one compelling general population pitch after another. And then, having made that case, they won. They defeated Initiative 13 by a 2 to 1 margin.
There is nothing inevitable about Ron DeSantis or Christopher Rufo. They may be savvy operators, but they’re operating from an old, well-trod playbook. They only win when they’re the only team on the field.
The good news is that there’s a true organizing moment in Florida right now, one fueled by DeSantis’ vainglorious, single-minded reach for the brass ring. His focus on a 600 student liberal arts college doesn’t do anything to help Floridians who are on the front lines of an ever-increasing cycle of climate disasters. His efforts to expand his attacks to all Florida universities won’t ease the fears of parents and students afraid of crippling student debt. His book bans won’t help families who love their libraries and want them well-stocked. His chartered migrant flights don’t make the cost of milk more affordable or aid a worker who is being run down by a heartless boss.
DeSantis will continue to make moves that make life harder for an increasing number of Floridians, because his goal— of course— isn’t to help anybody but himself. And each of those moves will present organizing opportunities, but only if we recognize them as such.
I live thousands of miles away from Florida. I care about what happens there both because millions of Floridians deserve a government who cares about them, and because of the real implications that this Sunshine State moment has for the entire nation. I know I’m not alone in that feeling. DeSantis angst is real. Whether we live near or far, however, now is the time to give our energy, curiosity and support both to those organizations in Florida with a track record of effective base building (such as the powerhouses at the UNITE union and the DART network of community organizers) as well as newer groups that are organizing that state’s increasingly alienated parent population (I have immense respect for the Florida Freedom to Read Project, who you can learn more about at's terrific newsletter, ).
As we do so, we have to keep our eye on the prize. If we merely bemoan this or that DeSantis stunt with our fellow true believers, we only clear the runway for his ascension. DeSantis isn't on anybody's side except his own. His religion is pomposity and self-regard. It isn't about care for people. We know that. The question, though, is if we actually want to share that message— and do the listening, learning and caring beyond our base required to do so— or whether we merely want to congratulate ourselves on our comparative moral righteousness.
Song of the week:
One of Anita Bryant’s biggest hits was a treacly number called “Paper Roses.” There’ve been a lot of covers that lean into the original’s overstuffed production (the best of that batch is Loretta Lynn’s version, of course). But you know who stripped it down? New Hampshire’s greatest-ever outsider sister savants, The Shaggs. Hell yeah, buddy. This is what we call reclaiming a song.
As always, you can find the collected song of the week playlist on Apple Music or Spotify.
This week’s community discussion for subscribers:
It’ll be one day late, but tomorrow we’re going to counter-program Valentine’s Day by proposing a better set of late-winter holidays. Classic brainstorm rules: no bad ideas. Maybe you have a solution for a better version of President’s Day? Or a new holiday where we eat nachos? I don’t know, let’s see what we can cook up. That’ll drop tomorrow, in paid subscribers’ inboxes. As always, if you want in but don’t have the cash, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org (no questions asked).
Thank you for this, Garrett. So helpful, as usual. I loved your DART shout out!! I was in Orlando last week for the annual DART clergy conference and it was so inspiring, especially meeting folks from all the Florida affiliates and hearing about the perseverance and wins of DART affiliates around the country. Gives me hope and energy for the work.
Pensacola Christian College recently invited the King's Singers to perform on campus (not for the first time) and then canceled the concert two hours before downbeat because of "concerns" that some of the singers are gay. In response, the King's Singers put out a statement that was both forthright and - importantly - community-building. The remarkable grace is a fantastic example of what is essentially community organizing-by-press-release. More, including the full statement, here: https://www.classicfm.com/artists/kings-singers/florida-college-cancels-concert-sexuality-concerns/