The Bulwark Poll published this week confirmed the inexorable loss of support among Republicans for Donald Trump for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination and his displacement by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis as the putative GOP White House frontrunner. If the pending Trump prosecutions in Georgia, the Manhattan District Attorney’s office, and the U.S. Department of Justice move to the indictment stage, this will spell finie la comedie for The Donald’s aspirations of a Return to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
The distinguishing feature of the gubernatorial administration of Ron DeSantis has been his unrestrained and malevolent cultural war against the Black citizenry of the State of Florida. He has waged this war of oppression on three fronts: 1) the attempted diminishment of the voting power of the Florida African-American community; 2) the deprivation of First Amendment rights and academic freedom to Black teachers and students at both the high school and college levels; and 3) the evisceration of African-American education opportunities, both in terms of diversity programs and curriculum opportunities, most notably recently DeSantis’s refusal to make available to high school students the Advanced Placement program in African-American studies designed by the College Board.
Accordingly, the overwhelming majority of the Florida African-American community rejected Ron DeSantis at the polls on the last two Election Days. He won only 14 percent of Black voters in the 2018 Florida gubernatorial election and 13 percent in the 2022 election. He is viewed by Florida African-American citizens as even more deleterious to their daily lives than Donald Trump. No other governor has so wielded state power as a lethal weapon against the rights and opportunities of Black citizens since the days of the late governor of Alabama George Wallace.
If DeSantis is the 2024 GOP presidential nominee, any Republican candidate for another office who is perceived as supportive of DeSantis will face virtual total rejection by African-American voters. This was the case in the past with Republican candidates perceived by Black voters as supportive allies of Donald Trump.
A case in point was the fate of 2021 New Jersey Republican gubernatorial candidate Jack Ciattarelli, who ran a surprisingly effective campaign against incumbent Democratic Governor Phil Murphy but was defeated due to the abysmally low level of support he received from People of Color. In that election, he was viewed by the New Jersey African-American community to be a stalwart ally of Donald Trump, a mortal foe of Black citizens. By 2025, Ron DeSantis will be perceived by African-American voters throughout this nation to be an even more dire threat to them than Donald Trump ever was.
It must be emphasized that Jack Ciattarelli, who currently is the 2025 New Jersey gubernatorial Republican frontrunner, is not at all a racist or bigot against any minority group. But that will be irrelevant to African-American voters if he is perceived to be a Ron DeSantis ally. He will get even less support from Black voters in 2025 than he received in 2021.
Basically, Ron DeSantis attempts to place a veil over his malicious Kulturkampf against the African-American community by maintaining a false facade of suavity. Yet a close examination of the DeSantis record will quickly explain why he and GOP candidates who support him will be anathema to Black voters. The discussion below will focus on three aspects: 1) the motivation of DeSantis for his anti-Black cultural war; 2) the two leading DeSantis areas of special ideological anti-Black emphasis; and 3) his anti-Black actions in his three- front cultural war described above.
The best explanation of the increasingly racist messaging and policies of Republican conservatives can be found in the 2022 landmark work, Partisans: The Conservative Revolutionaries Who Remade American Politics in the 1990s, by Vanderbilt Professor Nicole Hemmer.
As explained by Hemmer, up through the years of the Reagan administration, the paramount ideology and message of Republican conservatives was anticommunism. With the end of the Cold War, anticommunism became inoperative as a viable conservative message.
As noted by Hemmer, the gap was filled by Pat Buchanan, who emerged as the ideological godfather of Republican conservatism. The Buchanan substitute for the anticommunist message was overt populist racism and nativism.
There was another substitute message that Buchanan added to the mix. He attracted many working-class voters whose jobs had been lost due to the decline of American industrialism and the emergence of Asian economies. Accordingly, Buchanan deleted the Cold War free trade, laissez-faire economic message and substituted a message of protectionism.
As a presidential candidate, Pat Buchanan fell short, but his ideological conquest of Republican conservatism, spurred by his early 1992 campaign success and his 1992 Republican National Convention speech was total. Donald Trump in 2016 discerned the viability of the racism/protectionism message, which inspired the MAGA movement.
Thus, Buchananism was channeled to the American public through Donald Trump and became known as Trumpism. The goal of Ron DeSantis has been to inherit the MAGA constituency from Trump, and so he will continue to emphasize his cultural anti-Black war as much as possible.
Special DeSantis Ideological Anti-Black Emphasis
There are two items of special ideological emphasis in the DeSantis anti-African-American cultural war: 1) his denial of the existence of systemic racism; and 2) his enactment of an “anti-woke” law, which he has utilized as a weapon of censorship to intimidate and silence his African-American critics and political opponents.
“Systemic racism” is the analysis, supported by massive evidence, that racism is not just a product of bigoted individuals, but instead is systemic in the nation’s institutions, which function to maintain the dominance of white people in society. This analysis emphasizes that racism is embedded in our societal and governmental system, rather than a product of inherently evil white individuals. Critical race theory is the academic study of systemic racism.
The systemic racism analysis is virtually universally accepted and supported throughout American academia, including by the Brookings Institute, which, while having a center-left orientation, is hardly a politically progressive entity. Yet Ron DeSantis, for his part, has explicitly denied that systemic racism exists—characterizing the notion as “a bunch of horse manure” and critical race theory as a. “Marxist ideology.”
The DeSantis position on systemic racism is not only racist on his part; it is evidence of his philistine, anti-critical thinking nature. Yet the “anti-woke” law which he enacted is something far worse. It exemplifies his intolerance for academic freedom.
The current use of the word “woke” is a classic illustrative example of the decadence of American political conservatism in our time. Originally, the word meant “the quality of being alert to racial prejudice and discrimination and possessing the belief there are systemic injustices in American society and the need to address them.” Today, right wing Americans use the word “woke” as a means to stigmatize racially sensitive people.
In April, DeSantis signed into law the legislation – called the Individual Freedom Act and the Stop-Woke (Wrongs to Our Kids and Employees) Act. This title was a further example of how American conservatives have distorted the meaning of the word “woke.”
This act enabled the most flagrant violations imaginable of academic freedom and the First Amendment freedoms of expression. It prohibits educational institutions and businesses from teaching students and employees anything that would cause anyone to “feel guilt, anguish or any form of psychological distress” due to their race, color, sex or national origin.” It specifically outlaws teachings that may promote guilt or invoke senses of privilege for “actions committed in the past by other members” of a group. This provides a basis for restraining teachers from teaching episodes of history involving white oppression of African-Americans.
The DeSantis Cultural War on Florida’s African Americans – The First Amendment and Academic Freedom Front
Fortunately, this past November, a Florida federal district court judge, Mark Walker issued a temporary injunction on the law, stating it violates first amendment rights to free speech, and 14th amendment rights to due process on campuses. Walker’s opinion language is most illustrative of the threat DeSantis poses to the Constitution:
“…. the powers in charge of Florida’s public university system have declared the state has unfettered authority to muzzle its professors in the name of ‘freedom’……Defendants argue that, under this act, professors enjoy ‘academic freedom’ so long as they express only those viewpoints of which the State approves. This is positively dystopian.”
“Our professors are critical to a healthy democracy, and the state of Florida’s decision to choose which viewpoints are worthy of illumination and which must remain in the shadows has implications for us all. …. If our ‘priests of democracy’ are not allowed to shed light on challenging ideas, then democracy will die in darkness.”
The DeSantis administration plans to appeal this decision. The threat to African-American civil liberty in Florida is not yet over.
The DeSantis Cultural War on Florida’s African Americans: The Curtailment of African-American Curriculum and Diversity Programs
During the past two weeks, the national news was replete with reports covering the refusal of the DeSantis administration to permit the teaching of an Advanced Placement Course on African-American Studies designed by the College Board. This compelled the College Board to water down the curriculum, eliminating vital sections, such as Critical Race Theory.
Yet the DeSantis war on African-American education opportunity isn’t stopping there. This past Tuesday, he announced his intention to ban state universities from spending money on diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives. These programs are intended to promote multiculturalism and encourage students of all races and backgrounds to feel comfortable in a campus setting, especially those from traditionally underrepresented communities.
The DeSantis Cultural War against Florida’s African-Americans: Voting Rights
It is the area of voting rights where DeSantis had committed his most deleterious actions against the Constitutional rights of Florida African-Americans. Outside of Florida, not much was known until recently about the longstanding DeSantis effort to disempower the Florida black community by evisceration of the impact of its voting power.
In an article in New York Magazine on January 26, 2023, entitled “Ron DeSantis’s Long War on Black Political Power,“ the veteran journalist Jonathan Chait explicitly describes each of the three components of the DeSantis effort to destroy the effectiveness of Black voting power: 1) Intimidation of Black voters by groundless “voting fraud” raids; 2) Financial obstacles to registration of former felons; and 3) Congressional district reapportionment that dramatically reduced Florida Black Congressional representation.
I have written before about the politically maladroit manner in which Jack Ciattarelli evolved from a Trump repudiating Profile in Courage in the 2017 GOP gubernatorial primary into a Trumpist acolyte in 2021.
Going into the 2021 GOP primary, Ciattarelli was faced with a vexing dilemma regarding the Trump conundrum. If he continued to repudiate Trump, he would gain the overwhelming enmity of the New Jersey MAGA movement and be a sure primary loser. If he became an enthusiastic Trump supporter, Ciattarelli himself would face massive repudiation from People of Color voters and have no chance of a general election victory.
The way Ciattarelli handled this is reminiscent of the response heavyweight challenger Jack Roper gave to radio announcer Clem McCarthy after being knocked out in the first round by World Heavyweight Champion Joe Louis in April, 1939: “I zigged when I should have zagged.”
Instead of enthusiastically politically embracing Trump, Ciattarelli could have nominally endorsed him while emphasizing his differences. That option had at least the possibility of avoiding huge defections of MAGA aligned voters in the primary while perhaps reducing the margins he would lose by among African-American voters in the general election. He chose to instead uncritically endorse the Trump presidency and suffered the Black voter repudiation consequences.
With a 2024 Republican presidential nomination of DeSantis, the Ciattarelli African-American voter dilemma will be even more acute than in 2021. There will be no middle way with Black voters. If he endorses DeSantis in 2024, Ciattarelli will be viewed by African-American voters as an adversary. His general election chances will be doomed. If he repudiates DeSantis, the MAGA GOP voters will support anybody but Jack in the primary.
Jack’s response thus far has been to indicate that he will hire more African-American staffers this time. That is all good, but it will not prevent a massive African-American repudiation of Jack Ciattarelli in 2025 if he endorses Ron DeSantis for President in 2024.
Alan J. Steinberg served as regional administrator of Region 2 EPA during the administration of former President George W. Bush and as executive director of the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission.