The threat of right-wing authoritarianism in the United States has lodged itself in the public mind in the model of January 6: A candidate for office refuses to accept defeat and then gins up phony legal complaints escalating into violence. But the more durable and successful model is the pattern used by strongmen like Viktor Orban, which does not require a violent assault on the state but instead employs a combination of legal methods: stacking legislative districts, using state power to bully corporations into support for the ruling party, marginalizing independent media and exploiting state-controlled pseudo-journalistic alternatives, and seizing control of the education system.
Ron DeSantis has used all these tools at various times. Over the last week, the last piece — his determination to control the ideological tenor of schools — has been on bright display. Orban identified schools and universities as a source of dissent, and set out to seize ideological control by placing his allies in control. DeSantis is doing the exact same thing.
(1) DeSantis, who has stacked the boards controlling state universities with allies while consolidating power in their hands, has appointed a half-dozen cronies to the board of the New College of Florida. What’s notable about the cast is its personal loyalty and its will to power. Christopher Rufo, the most famous, has used charges of grooming against various DeSantis political opponents and appeared with DeSantis at his events; Charles Kesler writes for the Claremont Review of Books, a bastion of authoritarian thought, and has praised DeSantis as the future of the party; Mark Bauerlein is an editor at the right-wing journal First Things and a former member of “Scholars for Trump” who has showered DeSantis with compliments; Matthew Spalding is associated with Claremont and right-wing Hillsdale College, and has attacked Republican critics of Donald Trump.
The undisguised purpose of this move is to put a right-wing stamp on the school’s curriculum. “Alongside two others not up for appointment who support DeSantis’s strategy and another who is expected to be replaced soon, the new BOT appointees can, with their majority power, theoretically target progressive programming at the school,” gushes the National Review.
(2) DeSantis’s “Stop Woke Act,” forbidding businesses, schools, and universities from espousing a series of concepts (primarily the existence of structural racism), was struck down last year as a blatant violation of the First Amendment. But DeSantis and his allies are plotting to find ways around their legal defeat. ProPublica reports that several universities in the state have dropped or altered courses on critical race theory, a perfectly respectable academic discipline, in response to the ongoing threats.
(3) Last year, DeSantis signed a law that his critics called “Don’t Say Gay,” but which he insisted merely prohibited young children from being taught about gender and sexuality. Judd Legum reports that the law, just as its critics predicted, is being used to crack down on a much broader array of pedagogy.
“Public records obtained by Popular Information through the Florida Freedom to Read Project reveal that several Florida schools have already removed books with LGBTQ characters from their libraries, citing the Parental Rights in Education Act,” he finds. “Further, training materials produced by the Florida Department of Education for librarians reveal that the DeSantis administration is encouraging this expansive interpretation of the law.” One book removed from a school library was Tango Makes Three, the true story of two male penguins, Roy and Silo, who lived in the Central Park Zoo.” The book, Leggum notes, contains “no sexual content,” presumably including penguin sex.
It is important to understand that there is a critique of the academic left rooted in free-speech norms that posits that many schools have had an atmosphere of ideological pressure that discourages or punishes professors who violate left-wing taboos. This is not the belief system animating DeSantis’s academic mission. He is not seeking to protect or restore free speech, but to impose controls of his own liking.
His maneuvers to control education are ideological, consistent with his uses of state power: They follow a post-liberal vision eschewing any pretense of neutrality. Conservatives would wax hysterical if a Democrat tried anything similar. (Imagine the response from the right if, say, Gavin Newsom stripped tax benefits from a company because it criticized one of his positions.) The only justification is raw power. DeSantis’s supporters reason that their enemies are illiberal fanatics, and so they have permission to use illiberal methods of their own.
It is also important to understand that DeSantis’s gleeful use of state power to intimidate critics and load the deck, unlike Trump’s, have generated virtually no pushback at all within the Republican Party. Because of this, and also because they manifest themselves in an endless series of bureaucratic maneuvering, they generate a fraction of the media attention and backlash.
At the National Conservatism Conference, spokespeople for DeSantis and Orban cited one another as models. DeSantis’s version of Orbanism may pose a less acute danger than Trump’s, with its threat of acute violence and imminent constitutional collapse. But the reason DeSantis has consolidated support within the party’s right wing is precisely because he is not abandoning its fervent post-liberalism. He is, instead, offering a way to succeed where Trump failed.