Ron DeSantis must be feeling good about his week.
The New York Times presented his assault on public education as a reflection of savvy political skills. Twitter made him the main character days in a row as across media outlets he was credited with having cowed College Board into censoring their new African American studies course. His effort to remake public New College of Florida in the image of private, religious Hillsdale and the revelation that Florida might require teen athletes to report menstrual cycles handed him more headlines.
Few could read the news and commentary last week without concluding that DeSantis is becoming the most powerful leader on the American right. But Ron DeSantis is no leader. He is an avid and shrewd follower.
Take the example of AP African American Studies. The course has been under fire from the right since at least the start of this school year, when the National Review characterized its pilot as the vanguard of “a new and sweeping effort to infuse leftist radicalism into America’s K–12 curriculum” and a Wall Street Journal piece called it “racial pandering.”
Months later, and within days of College Board’s planned release of the final course framework, DeSantis dropped his splashy announcement that he would ban it from Florida schools. When the revised framework arrived, seemingly purged of topics DeSantis had raged about, headlines implied he had brought the key shaper of high school curriculum to heel. College Board denies it caved to any political pressure; if it did, it was likely due not to DeSantis but those who came before him.
This seems to be the pattern: the far right political ecosystem shapes the narrative and writes legislation, and DeSantis follows the path of scorched earth, parroting the language and plagiarizing the work of others. His education censorship bills, the Parental Rights in Education Act (also known as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill) and the Stop WOKE Act, are not his own inventions. They are the actions of a copycat. Fifty-four separate similar gag orders were introduced in two dozen states in the first nine months of 2021. DeSantis proposed his Stop WOKE Act in Florida in December 2021, almost a full year after Trump’s executive action on diversity, equity, and inclusion training employed the language that was to be used and reused in these bills.
The Times rewarded DeSantis with a major feature for acts of speech suppression that were not his brainchildren, but those of a well-funded coalition of individuals and groups such as the Heritage Foundation, ALEC and the Manhattan Institute. An increasingly useful tool of these powerful interests, DeSantis has made the Florida governor’s mansion their satellite office; they recently rewarded him by lending him one of their key operatives: Christopher Rufo.
If there is a single person responsible for much of the moral panic about schools it is this man, now at the Manhattan Institute. Heritage, instrumental in the 1619 Project backlash that provided an excuse for the current assault on history curriculum, has been producing propaganda using CRT (Critical Race Theory) as an all-purpose pejorative since 2020.
Think tanks and lobbying groups have worked in concert with right wing media to produce a steady firehose of hyperbole and falsehoods about alleged leftist indoctrination of children in schools. Over the course of just four months in 2021, Media Matters found that Fox News mentioned CRT over 1,900 times. It is a well-warmed-up stage that DeSantis is using for his act.
Many observers, including Trump himself, have noted that DeSantis appears to have revamped his speaking style to mimic Trump’s. The talented impressionist Matt Friend shares with his audiences his breakdown of the Trumpian vocal and physical mannerisms that DeSantis apes. Tom Nichols explains how the Harvard and Yale alum plays the role of “one of the regular folks” for voters who have been conditioned to see higher education as hateful elitism. And MSBNC’s Chris Hayes has laid out how DeSantis has adopted not just Trump’s strongman style but his penchant for cruelty. Even his cruelest public acts are ideas he swiped, such as using refugees as political props, taken from Texas Governor Greg Abbott.
DeSantis’ goal is to get Trump’s followers to adhere to him but also to have the rest of us fear him, both of which he can accomplish more easily if he is ascribed more power than he has. He understands he can gain the kind of power he wants by exuding a sense of threatening omnipotence. So do DeSantis’s role models such as Rufo, who eagerly displays his megalomania like a comic book villain. Rufo has made it a goal to instill fear by publishing his strategy and open-carrying his political weapons. Recently installed by DeSantis on the board of New College, he snarled bare-toothed on Twitter, “We’re in charge now.” While this chest-beating is ludicrous, it still serves the purpose of claiming power to gain power.
To say that DeSantis is a tool is not to say that he isn’t a clear and present danger to Florida and the nation. His acts of repression embolden him and right wing actors across the nation; his acts of imitation inspire additional imitators (see also Huckabee Sanders, Youngkin, etc.). If he gains the White House, it then becomes once again the satellite office of a right wing power structure that has become dramatically anti-democratic.
It is to say, however, that care should be taken to confront the threat without building him up further. His words and actions should be treated as symptoms of the rise of authoritarianism, not products of political genius.
One way to do this: De-center DeSantis from the stories that aren’t really about him. Last week we could have been focused on the likelihood of College Board capitulating to the far right given its failure to protect the integrity of curriculum during this entire national wave of book banning and educational gag orders; the vulnerability of our public system of K-12 and higher education to the stifling of free speech by these same forces; the effect of extremist fear-mongering and censorship on teen mental health; the misogynist regulation and surveillance unleashed by the Dobbs decision the Federalist Society helped bring to pass.
Every time a story about the threat posed by the right wing agenda he supports is instead a story about his power and his political prospects, he has an opportunity to bring those things closer.
Jamelle Bouie highlights a better way to thwart DeSantis’ further rise: focus on the issues he wants kept behind the curtain, including Social Security and Medicare, that make him most vulnerable at the ballot box. We could “spend less time on cultural conflict and more time making the clear case that if given the chance, he would slash what’s left of the safety net and use the proceeds to help the rich stay rich.”
This piece originally appeared on substack.com.