DeSantis is adrift in the boundless sea of right-wing jargon
It has been obvious that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) planned to seek the 2024 Republican presidential nomination for months now. Years, really. And on Wednesday, after an extended period of acting like a presidential candidate, DeSantis made it official.
The announcement came (eventually) in an audio conversation on Twitter. That was followed by a Fox News interview conducted by his former GOP colleague in the House, Trey Gowdy.
But one thing that stood out from the announcement wasn’t DeSantis’s compelling vision for America. That would have been hard to convey by even the most eloquent speaker in the radio-interview-style conversation on Twitter that lacked the energy of an audience. What was striking instead was the right-wing-jargon-inflected wonkiness of the case DeSantis presented.
The medium was the message, in that DeSantis was speaking dryly to a small group of supporters familiar with his vocabulary. For those not closely tracking debates that even sit outside the norm on Fox News, it must have felt like dropping suddenly into a poli-sci class after missing the first three weeks.
There was no shortage of invocations of the word “woke,” of course. Biden “takes his cues from the woke mob” and has “allowed woke ideology to drive his agenda,” DeSantis said in the Twitter conversation. America needs to “replac[e] the woke mind virus with reality, facts, and enduring principles.” He wanted to ensure that college students were not “going to be roadkill in some type of woke Olympics,” mixing metaphors a bit.
“We will never surrender to the woke mob and we will leave woke ideology in the dustbin of history,” he insisted both on Twitter and, with slightly different phrasing, on Fox News.
Okay. So what’s “woke ideology?” Well, it was simply assumed that you, the listener, would know.
Over the course of the past few years, DeSantis has been cagey about specifics. When prompted in court, staffers working for the Florida governor offered actual definitions, with one articulating that it refers to “the belief there are systemic injustices in American society and the need to address them.” But DeSantis uses it the way a marketing guy might use “AI” — an expansively bounded term that is often aimed as much at invoking an emotion as anything. Sure, it means a specific thing in a specific context, but that’s not generally when it’s most useful.
“Woke” is also probably fairly familiar to the audiences DeSantis was addressing. It was certainly a term familiar to Elon Musk, host of the Twitter conversation, and one of the world’s foremost propagators of “woke mind virus.” Other vernacular deployed by DeSantis, though, probably had an even narrower scope of familiarity.
Do you know what “DEI” is? How about “ESG?” You probably know what “CRT” is, but even that is likely more in the weeds than your average non-Fox-News-viewer might get. If you had parsed those abbreviations without much effort, perhaps you were thrown a bit by the casual invocation of Article Two of the Constitution. Or perhaps you were thrown by the invocation — on both Twitter and Fox News! — of the need to reform the accrediting process for higher education in order to root out the aforementioned DEI.
Let us now explain that term and the others. “DEI” refers to “diversity, equity and inclusion,” a shorthand for a broad range of efforts aimed at uprooting discrimination or bias (intentional and not) and to ensure that organizations reflect America broadly and not just a subset. With the increased focus on systemic racism following the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement, DEI became a corporatized shorthand for diversity efforts in the private sector or at, say, colleges and universities.
Because right-wing politics are heavily centered on race-based grievance and on protecting the existing (often unrecognized) advantages older White Americans enjoy, DEI became a target. The right succeeded in pushing a wide swath of race-centered discussion under the redefined-and-now-toxic rubric of CRT, “critical race theory” — an intentional effort helmed largely by DeSantis supporter Chris Rufo, who was tapped to ask a question of the governor in the Twitter conversation. So the effort to leverage perceived anti-White discrimination, a central motivating factor for the Republican base, shifted to targeting DEI.
“ESG” is slightly different. DEI is framed as an effort to enforce a liberal worldview at the corporate or university level. ESG refers to corporate efforts to consider “environmental, social and governance” factors when investing, efforts ostensibly about ensuring that corporate actions minimize social damage but often about appealing to consumers who are concerned about the role corporations play in the country.
This is a key point, of course. Recent polling shows that workers support their employers engaging in DEI-style efforts. Most Americans haven’t even heard of ESG and are mixed on whether companies should include ESG in their investments. But Americans also overwhelmingly support large corporations doing more to address environmental concerns.
“When we’re taking on things like DEI,” DeSantis said on Twitter, “you get blowback from legacy media and the far left. But that’s an example of an issue where they are out of step with the vast majority of Americans.”
Americans don’t really like affirmative action, it’s true. But 6 in 10 Americans also think that programs designed to increase the racial diversity of students on college campuses — a key part of the DEI that DeSantis has uprooted in Florida — are a good thing.
This is a central part of why DeSantis speaks in abstract, jargony terms. The campaign against CRT was very effective, using that abstracted abbreviation to cover a range of stuff that DeSantis and his allies didn’t like. So DEI and ESG get the same treatment, all under the rubric of fighting the “woke.”
When speaking outside of those broad lenses, DeSantis’s claims are more obviously dubious. Asked about his ongoing feud with Disney, this was his response.
“We believe jamming gender ideology in elementary school is wrong,” he said. “Disney obviously supported injecting gender ideology in elementary school.”
“Gender ideology” here means “acknowledging that trans people exist.” Disney offered belated opposition to a policy from DeSantis that had the intended effect of suppressing discussion of any relationship that wasn’t between a man and a woman — a recognition in part that younger, working-age people like their employees have fewer qualms about recognizing the diversity of relationships. But DeSantis wants to frame Disney’s position as starkly as possible, making more obvious the oddness of his rhetoric than if he said that Disney, say, “supported DEI.”
All of this woke/DEI/ESG stuff was well-suited to the conversation Musk was hosting (if not to the audience listening in). But it was more poorly suited to the Fox News interview.
“How would you address the ongoing war in Eastern Europe between Russia and Ukraine on Day One of a Ron DeSantis presidency?” Gowdy asked DeSantis. This is rocky terrain for the governor, who drew backlash a few months ago when he mirrored then-Fox host Tucker Carlson’s rhetoric on the conflict.
So he tried a different tack.
“First, I think what we need to do, as a veteran, is recognize that our military has become politicized,” he said. “You talk about gender ideology. You talk about things like global warming that they’re somehow concerned. And that’s not the military that I served in.”
If he were president, he added a bit later, America would see “recruiting start to get back to where it needs to be because people don’t want to join a woke military.”
Paul Begala famously distilled Rudolph W. Giuliani’s failed 2008 bid for the presidency by noting that there were only three things Giuliani needed for any sentence: “a noun and a verb and ‘9/11.’”
Swap in “woke” and we’re getting close to DeSantis 2024.