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Ron DeSantis Is a Case Study in the Threat of Fascism in the US

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has pursued white supremacist policies with deep roots in the Jim Crow era.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at a rally at the Wyndham Hotel on August 19, 2022, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

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Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is ascendant in U.S. politics, with new polling indicating that Donald Trump would now lose to DeSantis if Republican voters were given a choice today about who to vote for in a presidential primary for 2024. But what mainstream media are too often failing to recognize is how DeSantis’s political actions — from his shameful treatment of migrants to his use of election police to terrorize voters — are fueling the emergence of fascist politics in the United States.

Too often issues are dealt with in the mainstream press in an utterly isolated fashion, removed from both a historical context and a number of related issues. For instance, many of the policies enacted by GOP legislators, such as the banning of books, resonate with policies that were used in Nazi Germany and other totalitarian countries in the 1930s and 1970s.

Treating issues in a disconnected and isolated manner makes it difficult to understand how they fit into a broader pattern of domination and reinforce each other. For instance, attacks on LGBTQ people, people of color and Indigenous groups are rarely analyzed as part of the politics of disposability that in the past ultimately led to the rise of totalitarian regimes of terror, concentration camps and mass murder. In another example, the demonization of those considered unworthy of citizenship — along with the rise of antisemitism, racism, anti-immigrant hostility, nativism and the war against transgender youth — are habitually removed from the legacy of fascism.

While some pundits have connected DeSantis’s politics to an emerging authoritarianism, they still fail both to name the ongoing development of fascism in the U.S. and to recognize that it takes different forms in different societies and historical formations. They dismiss any talk of fascism by suggesting that its unique historical attributes, such as the genocidal use of concentration camps, have to be repeated precisely in order to assign the term fascism to present events. Fascism is never entirely interred in the past; it is a dangerous ideology that may go into remission but never disappears.

Fascism is a recurrent and infinitely translatable phenomenon and often takes on the cultural and political attributes of the societies in which it appears. The refusal to acknowledge that fascism can appear in many forms, often lying dormant in a society until the emergence of certain forces unleash it, reinforces the willingness of many to retreat into silence or ignore the seriousness of the emerging fascist threat. Expressing ourselves in words, learning from history and making connections among disparate events all matter in the age of fascism. Kelly Hayes, speaking in a “Movement Memos” podcast published by Truthout, is right to say:

We must also understand that there is no ethical silence in the face of fascism. Silence is complicity and cooperation, which helps facilitate atrocity. That might likewise be hard to hear. But how many liberals and leftists have fallen silent on trans issues as the Republicans make the elimination of trans people from public life the new centerpiece of their politics?

Fascist politics saturate U.S. society. Ultranationalism, the calls for racial purity, voter suppression, hyper-militarism, required loyalty oaths from higher education faculty, rampant censorship, a ubiquitous anti-intellectualism, and a full-fledged attack on social provisions and public goods make clear that democracy is in crisis. Yet, in too many cases, the larger significance of these incendiary calamities is missed because they are treated as separate from each other.

Examples of the landscape of disconnections and the fascist conjuncture that it supports are not difficult to find. Two recent seemingly disparate events include Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s demonization of migrants, and former President Donald Trump’s hosting of Kanye West (a publicly declared admirer of Hitler and antisemite) and Nick Fuentes (a well-known white supremacist, antisemite and Holocaust denier) at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Florida. Both of these issues received a great deal of attention but were easily forgotten and disconnected from each other. Both of these events were largely decontextualized in the liberal and corporate-controlled media, treated as isolated issues, and as such illustrate the hegemonic power of a politics of disconnection. In what follows, I want to focus on Ron DeSantis’s immigration stunt and how it was analyzed more as a ruthless publicity event to showcase his reactionary ideology regarding immigration rather than as white supremacist policy with deep roots in the Jim Crow era.

On September 13, 2022, Ron DeSantis shipped two planeloads of Venezuelan migrants to Martha’s Vineyard, allegedly in order to draw attention to what he claimed to be the Biden administration’s failed border policies. The two planes left from Texas filled with lawful asylum seekers who were told by DeSantis’s staff that they were to be provided with jobs and “up to eight months of cash assistance for income-eligible refugees in Massachusetts, apparently mimicking benefits offered to refugees who arrive in the United States through the country’s official resettlement program, which the Venezuelans were not part of,” according to the New York Times. They were also provided with a fake brochure titled “Refugee Migrant Benefits,” though they did not qualify for such benefits.

Judd Legum reports in Popular Information:

Several migrants told NPR they were told the flight was going to Boston, not Martha’s Vineyard. According to the migrants, a woman who identified herself as Perla also said that, if they traveled to Boston, they could receive “expedited work papers.” The allegation that the migrants were misled is legally significant. It would mean that the flights were not just heartless, but potentially criminal.

Very few analyses gave much attention to how DeSantis’s stunt was connected to a white supremacy ideology. Nor did they give much attention to how the stunt resembled a segregationist past in which White Citizens’ Councils in the South protested against attempts by activists in the early 1960 who traveled to the South as Freedom Riders to integrate the interstate bus system. Not only did the segregationists and armed mobs confront the freedom riders when they pulled into Southern cities with bats and firebombs, they also “passed out leaflets and placed want ads in Southern newspapers to recruit Black families with the promise of jobs up north” as part of an inhumane plan to send busloads of Black people up North.

It is worth repeating that little was reported about how this story echoed a segregationist past of Jim Crow racist policies and violence. And almost nothing was said about how DeSantis’s politics of disposability was part of a similar logic carried to extremes in the past in fascist regimes such as Nazi Germany. Not only did DeSantis build on the legacy of American white supremacists such as former Gov. George Wallace, he also took a lesson from the history of fascism in trying to ride white supremacy and nationalism to further his political career.

DeSantis’s publicity stunt of using migrants as political pawns was also disconnected in the mainstream and liberal media from his attempt to erase the history of the Jim Crow era as part of his larger project of a politics of disposability. For instance, little was said connecting this racist policy to DeSantis’s passing laws banning books about Black history and racial narratives from schools and libraries, along with limiting what teachers can teach about racism — a policy that clearly indicates how DeSantis is following in the footsteps of the Nazification of education in Hitler’s Germany.

Almost nothing was mentioned connecting these incidents with DeSantis’s incredibly ignorant historical claim that it was the “American revolution that caused people to question slavery” and that “nobody had questioned it before we decided as Americans that we are endowered by our creator with inalienable rights and that we are all created equal. Then that birthed abolition movements.”

DeSantis’s lies, policies and embrace of historical revisionism cannot be separated from either an egregious fascist history or the current attempts by the GOP to erase migrants and Black and Brown people from history in order to prop up a white nationalist agenda. Writer Meaghan Ellis, relying on the work of Brown University historian Seth Rockman, rightly argues that DeSantis’s reading of slavery is especially “pernicious because it places Black people outside the category of ‘we’ and ‘Americans’ [while pretending] that enslaved African and African-descended people aren’t worth taking seriously as people whose opinions about slavery might matter, then or now.”

James Baldwin was right in arguing in “The White Man’s Guilt” that this whitewashing of history makes clear that white people do not want to know the sordid racist past of American history and as a result they are “barricaded inside their history.”

DeSantis’s historical ignorance is about more than refusing a future free of racism, and the enactment of a more just world. It is part of a broader legacy deeply rooted in the U.S.’s fascist past. It is part of a legacy in which Trump and his right-wing extremist supporters refuse to tell the truth about the U.S.’s history while making the present in the image of a Jim Crow past. The historian Robert S. McElvaine captures this GOP return to a racist past. He writes:

Today’s right-wing extremists seek to “Take Back America” in two senses: back from those who are not white or not male and back to the time when straight white males were in charge. An essential part of their overall quest to effect a second “Restoration” of white man’s rule is an attempt to restore the ignorance of American history that had prevailed before 1964.

Ron DeSantis has made clear in both his statements and policies that fascist politics is alive and well in the United States. Following in the footsteps of Viktor Orbán, the authoritarian leader who has turned Hungary into a fascist country, DeSantis has waged a war on immigrants, targeted gay and transgender youth, purged voters, banned books in Florida schools, limited what teachers can say about racism and other critical elements of American history, and used state power to punish businesses, evident in his ruthless and vindictive attack on Disney. He has also used policing to punish Black voters who disagree with his policies, courted Christian nationalists, supported a white nationalist agenda and waged a war on higher education. There is little doubt that DeSantis has turned Florida into a laboratory of fascist politics. Politicians and scholars alike, including Robert Reich (former secretary of the treasury from the Clinton administration) and the historian Ruth Ben-Ghiat, have labeled DeSantis a fascist, and they are right.

Fascism flourishes in a society that fails to address its overlapping forms of oppression, ignores broader symbolic and material constraints, and limits analyses to narrow, distinct issues. Fascism is a language of erasure and suppression. It uses words as theater to provide spectacles that offer audiences the thrill of cathartic violence. Fascism thrives on the language of dehumanization, bolstered by a politics of disconnection. As a discourse of erasure, fascism embraces ignorance and thoughtlessness. It eliminates those protecting spaces that enable individuals to question, think, analyze and hold power accountable. Wedded to a politics of disconnection, it refuses to align the struggle over immediate needs with a call for broader structural changes. Fascism in its updated form is the enemy of historical consciousness because it does not want its history told for fear that people will recognize it when it appears in new forms. Not only is fascism a discourse of terror and displacement, it is also a project that assaults those ideas and institutions that enable individuals to understand the potential of education, language and theory to reveal how power and resistance are interconnected and can be woven into the landscapes of politics.

Rather than focus on individual solutions, the left needs a language and politics that address root causes in their interconnections while highlighting the structural, cultural, educational and institutional underpinnings of authoritarianism in all of its forms. Reframing the present in order to challenge the abyss of fascism demands a new language, politics, ethical grammar, sense of political agency, and a renewed effort to make matters of consciousness and education central to politics. The fracturing of politics has become a form of complicity with neoliberal fascism, and it must be challenged in order to imagine a society free from the scourge of hatred, bigotry, inequality, racism and individualism. The left needs a robust language, energized politics and international social movement that address the enormity of the danger that fascism poses in the current historical moment. This should be a language that rebuilds, reimagines, believes another world is possible and insists on radical change.

Given a fascist threat that refuses to go away, the urgency of this time demands the resurgence of a mass movement — “more attentive to the intersections of race, gender, disability, and climate catastrophe,” in the words of Robin D.G. Kelley and Deborah Chasman — willing to act, resist and give democracy the room to breathe again.

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