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Florida Activists Say DeSantis’s Extremism Will Haunt Him in Presidential Race

As Gov. Ron DeSantis pivots to the national stage, backlash to his authoritarianism builds in Florida.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks to a crowd at the North Charleston Coliseum on April 19, 2023, in Charleston, South Carolina.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis declared his candidacy for president on Wednesday during a glitchy online event with Twitter owner Elon Musk. DeSantis enters the race as a frontrunner for the Republican nomination but still trailing behind former President Donald Trump, who is quick to boast about leading DeSantis in the polls.

DeSantis will likely resurrect themes around “freedom” deployed during his 2022 reelection campaign, but Floridians in the crosshairs of the governor’s extremist policies are warning fellow Americans that his reign in office has been authoritarian to the core.

In an effort to “out-Trump Trump,” as his critics like to say, DeSantis has leveraged the power of his office and the fealty of a GOP supermajority in the state legislature to launch a barrage of attacks on the civil rights of women, immigrants, LGBTQ people, teachers, students, labor unions, and more. Various social movements have united in response, filing a flurry of lawsuits challenging new social regulations and holding protests and student walkouts across the state.

Attacks on educators and LGBTQ kids were particularly underhanded and nasty as DeSantis rammed through what activists call “Don’t Say Gay” policies that restrict speech about sexual orientation and gender identity in K-12 public schools. Like many of DeSantis’s signature policies, “Don’t Say Gay” is facing legal challenges from students, parents and civil rights groups.

Florida has many LGBTQ residents, and its bars and beaches are a destination for queer travelers. However, under DeSantis’s leadership, Florida has become synonymous with the “anti-LGBTQ, anti-freedom” fervor gripping the far right, and the state’s reputation is seriously damaged, according to Brandon Wolf with Equality Florida, one of the groups challenging “Don’t Say Gay” policies in court.

“The damage is going to outlast his already flailing presidential campaign, and the heartbreaking part for me is we have to piece together the wreckage in his wake,” Wolf told reporters this week.

Notably, DeSantis quietly signed an extreme and unpopular ban on abortions after six weeks of pregnancy, before most people know they are pregnant. Stories about women forced to give birth in Florida despite serious health risks are now percolating in the national media.

For DeSantis, a six-week ban appeals to his supporters in the anti-abortion movement and sets him apart from Trump, who has been hesitant to embrace a national ban on abortion. However, the ban asserts state control over the bodies of millions of Floridians and ties the hands of doctors, who face up to five years in prison for running afoul of the law. Even victims of rape and incest must present documentary proof of their trauma to qualify for an exception and receive abortion care.

Abortion rights were a major liability for Republicans in the 2022 elections, and DeSantis has signaled that he would much rather talk about any other issue at the moment. Tacking to the right of Trump may help DeSantis in the primaries, but he must eventually defend his record with swing voters if he wins the GOP nomination.

“He tried rewriting history, whitewashing the history books and censoring away the truth; it wouldn’t surprise me if he tried to rewrite his legislative and policy history,” Wolf said.

If DeSantis overtakes Trump in the GOP primary and attempts to pivot toward moderate voters in the general election, the people of Florida will ensure he carries the bitter baggage of the culture wars along with him, according to Florida State Rep. Angie Nixon.

“It’s going to be a summer of resistance, and we are really going to be surprised by how Floridians really push back against DeSantis,” said Nixon, a Democrat from Jacksonville. Beside protests, which attracted hundreds to the capitol in Tallahassee during the legislative session, Nixon said grassroots groups are preparing to challenge DeSantis-backed policies with ballot initiatives.

While DeSantis pivots to a national audience, his efforts at social control will continue facing backlash at school board meetings and in the courts.

As part of DeSantis’s crackdown on speech and anti-racist history lessons in schools, conservative parents went on a censorship spree, demanding schools remove popular books from libraries. Last week, the writers’ free speech group PEN America teamed up with affected students and parents to challenge book bans in Florida’s Escambia County School District as unconstitutional. The Department of Education is also stepping in because book bans so often target titles with queer, Black and Brown characters, a clear act of discrimination against marginalized students.

“What we have seen, what this governor has done with his supermajority, has been to create an absolute power for the state over the people,” said Tessa Petit, executive director of the Florida Immigrant Coalition. “Which is the reason the state is regulating every single one of our freedoms.”

Petit pointed to a recent anti-immigrant law signed by DeSantis that prohibits taking an undocumented person into the state, making a weekend family trip to Georgia and back a crime punishable by prison time.

The attacks are clearly designed to please a national MAGA audience, leaving Floridians to defend their rights — including basic bodily autonomy — from the state of Florida and its new laws as DeSantis surfs the national stage. Meanwhile, activists say problems such as sea level rise and a shortage of affordable housing go unaddressed.

Even Disney World, a top employer in Florida, has faced unprecedented political attacks in retaliation for supporting the rights of its LGBTQ employees and customers. The company recently announced it would move 2,000 jobs to California. Democrats say Florida is experiencing a “brain drain” as prospective college students and faculty cross Florida schools off their list, and transgender youth flee the state with their families in search of gender-affirming health care that has been banned statewide.

“Like I’ve been saying y’all, America, you are in danger, girl,” Nixon said.

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