A little over four years ago, Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign appeared to be, if not inevitable, then at least like the most strongly positioned candidacy to win her party’s nomination. The former Harvard professor had won over a large segment of the progressive intelligentsia with her impressive array of domestic-policy proposals. But the enthusiasm of activists and intellectuals seemed to augur a groundswell of support from the base that never arrived.
The Warren precedent sprung to mind when Florida governor Ron DeSantis yesterday ventured to South Carolina, where he railed against the “woke mind-virus,” which he defined, perhaps unhelpfully, as “a form of cultural Marxism.” These are terms and concepts that have ricocheted across the conservative elite, especially Republicans trapped in New York, Washington, Silicon Valley, and other citadels of liberal elitism, where teachers and human-resource staffers have grown enamored of Robin DiAngelo–speak. But is this worldview, and the jargon DeSantis uses to express it, actually familiar to the voters? Are Republicans in South Carolina truly in a state of despair over “cultural Marxism”?
DeSantis’s struggles have consumed the national media and inspired sundry explanations. Perhaps his misanthropy is the problem. (“He doesn’t like talking to people, and it’s showing,” one supporter complained to the Washington Post.) Maybe the issue is that Donald Trump was indicted. Maybe it’s his refusal to engage the mainstream media. Or maybe his struggles are a passing phase, willed into existence by a campaign press corps that quadrennially seizes on any wisp of momentum, positive or negative, and blows it up into a self-perpetuating narrative, before getting bored and overcorrecting the other way. (DeSantis’s new image as an inept loser is difficult to square with his 19-point victory in Florida last year.) But the deepest problem may be that he has simply brain-poisoned himself into an abstract worldview that his constituents don’t recognize.
Unlike Trump, who oozed his way into Republican politics through a combination of instinct and absorbing hours of Fox News, DeSantis came to the conservative movement from the brainy end. His first book articulates a theory that has circulated among elite right-wing economic elites for decades: that redistribution through taxes and spending via the ballot box poses an existential threat to liberty. His devotion to that theory helped drive him to take positions (in favor of cutting and privatizing Social Security and Medicare) that now constitute perhaps his biggest political liabilities.
More recently, DeSantis seems to have grown fascinated with a different theory that has spread rapidly on the right. It posits that the far left has gained control of the media, schools, entertainment, and even many corporations, from which position it will extend its control over the rest of society. (They often refer to this process by using a line allegedly from the Italian communist Antonio Gramsci, “the long march through the institutions.”) Conservatives believe they must gain control of government and use the power of the state to halt the spread of these radical theories, or else face ideological extinction.
DeSantis has referred repeatedly to this theory in public. His book explains this is the basis for his governing agenda. (Given left-wing control of institutions, he writes, “elected officials who do nothing more than get out of the way are essentially greenlighting these institutions to continue their unimpeded march through society.”)
Indeed, this theory seems to have ordered much of his activity over the last year. DeSantis’s measures to clamp down on instruction about sexism and gender in schools, to intimidate companies that criticized his proposals, to clamp down on ESG investing, and to make it easier to sue the media all follow from this analysis of American society. This agenda has helped build for DeSantis a loyal following in the conservative-movement apparatus. Traditional organs like the National Review and The Wall Street Journal editorial page, and new Trump-era ones like the National Conservatives, have all enthusiastically rallied behind him.
But do these maneuvers actually resonate with the party’s rank and file? Many of his moves seem consumed with grievances that are only intelligible to those steeped in state-of-the-art right-wing social analysis. Does the average Republican care about DeSantis’s plans to wrest control of a tiny liberal-arts college’s curriculum? Are they interested, or even supportive, of his manic crusade to stop Disney from supposedly grooming children with insidious left-wing propaganda that the average parent cannot detect?
In an interview, DeSantis lashed out at Bud Light for featuring Dylan Mulvaney, a trans woman influencer. He explained to Benny Johnson that he was boycotting the beer, although it wasn’t clear he ever drank it to begin with:
“Some of these controversies that come up, and people can kind of just say, ‘Oh, well it’s kind of a one-off, yeah, it was stupid to do,’ but it’s part of a larger thing where corporate America is trying to change our country. Trying to change policy, trying to change culture, and you know, I’d rather be governed by we the people than woke companies, and so I think [the] pushback is in order across the board including with Bud Light.”
“What would I do? My wife and I, whenever we just go out for a beer, we actually like the stout, Guinness.”
Of course, a politician can appeal to Joe Sixpack without partaking of his beverage of choice. (Trump abstains from alcohol.) But it seems revealing to watch DeSantis mustering passion on the subject of Bud Light entirely through the lens of his conviction that its advertising methods are part of a nefarious ideological propaganda campaign.
DeSantis’s first term as governor achieved political success in part because the pandemic allowed him to craft a populist identity based on the intuitive principle of letting people do what they want. Now he has grown obsessed with uprooting progressive ideology from every aspect of their lives, from the schools to the beer they drink to the cartoons their children watch. In the minds of DeSantis and his most ardent followers, he is pursuing a historically necessary struggle. I wonder, however, if Republican voters are even able to follow the plot.