Yesterday, as part of what it describes as a reboot — and what the campaign media describes as a breakdown — Ron DeSantis’s presidential campaign fired another tranche of staffers, including speechwriter and right-wing activist Nate Hochman. The 25-year-old Hochman created a controversial social-media post that dissolves into a creepy fascistic scene with bayonet-wielding soldiers marching toward a strange rotating symbol. That symbol, a sonnenrad, is used by white supremacists as a kind of less obvious version of the swastika.
It would be easy to understand this development as simply more campaign dysfunction, perhaps poor vetting, or even a symptom of the campaign being “too online.” It is better understood as the result of a fundamental strategic decision by DeSantis to actively court the far right.
DeSantis’s campaign hired Hochman from National Review after it was reported he had participated in a Twitter Spaces with Nick Fuentes, who is at least Nazi-adjacent. “We were just talking about your influence and we were saying, like, you’ve gotten a lot of kids ‘based,’ and we respect that, for sure,” Hochman told him. “I literally said, ‘I think Nick’s probably a better influence than Ben Shapiro on young men who might otherwise be conservative.’” (The comparison is instructive: The nicest and perhaps only good thing that can be said about Shapiro is that Nazis hate him.)
When I wrote a long feature about DeSantis’s campaign last year, one factor I identified was its decision to position DeSantis to Trump’s right. The most visible aspects of this strategy have involved mocking Trump as a supporter of the COVID vaccine and LGBTQ rights, both of which are themes in the video Hochman created. But it has also led the campaign to woo the extreme right:
One of the less visible aspects of DeSantis’s political operation has been its appeals to conservative activists who have gained clout and influence during the Trump era and who have legitimized vaccine skepticism, support for Vladimir Putin, and dismissing or even participating in the January 6 insurrection. [DeSantis spokesperson Christina] Pushaw attended an event to promote the anti-gay education bill held by Brandon Straka, who was recorded at the Capitol on January 6 urging the crowd to seize a police officer’s shield and yelling “Go, go, go!” Esther Byrd, whom DeSantis appointed to the state’s board of education, has reportedly defended the January 6 rioters, QAnon, and the Proud Boys.
Last year, a small band of Nazis menaced Jewish students in Orlando (a city that has a small hub of white supremacists). Florida Republicans issued routine denunciations. Pushaw instead suggested the episode was faked by Democrats. When reporters asked him about it, DeSantis lashed out at the media, sneering, “Democrats who are trying to use this as some type of political issue to try to smear me” and “We’re not playing their game.”
The point of this political theater was not merely to display dominance against the media. It was to signal tribal solidarity with right-wing allies, by demonstrating DeSantis would not renounce them.
White supremacists have reciprocated these gestures. Pedro Gonzalez, a white nationalist influencer, stridently supported DeSantis’s campaign (while privately circulating overtly antisemitic propaganda). The white nationalist site VDare has praised DeSantis. These are not isolated scandals: DeSantis has actively competed for support against Trump among the most explicitly racist elements of the right, and he has succeeded.
It is certainly a relief to learn that DeSantis does not want his staffers to be creating official campaign videos with white supremacist imagery. Still, Hochman’s error here was not in the overall thrust of his project. He walked a very careful line of building bridges between the white nationalist right and the DeSantis campaign, and only fell off when the hidden message was sent a little too visibly.