Where Woke Goes to Die? Hardly

Most people by now recognize that Ron DeSantis is in the advanced stages of preparing to launch his presidential campaign. The Florida governor is currently engaged in a “shadow campaign,” which has been in the works for several months. He boasts a $200 million war chest, funded by Republican mega-donors like Ken Griffin and the Adelson family, which can reportedly go toe to toe with Donald Trump’s own campaign treasury. Likewise, DeSantis has been on a nationwide book tour promoting the kind of memoir typical of presidential candidates.

Further, the Florida governor has also been featured in media appearances on Fox News, which has been airing seemingly wall-to-wall positive coverage of DeSantis in recent weeks to amplify his name. This joins the near sycophantic coverage he’s received from other Murdoch-owned publications like the Wall Street Journal and the New York Post. DeSantis also recently participated in a high-profile interview with Piers Morgan on the broadcaster’s eponymous show (also streamed on Fox Nation), in which the Florida governor criticized Donald Trump in his most scathing terms to date, deepening the rampant speculation about an imminent presidential announcement. 

So far, DeSantis’ public appearances have largely focused on his record as Florida’s governor. The two keystones of that record, which DeSantis has repeatedly touted on the media circuit, are allegedly keeping Florida open during the pandemic while the rest of the country shut down, as well as the state being a reputed citadel for “anti-wokeism.” Those making the latter claim insist that DeSantis has combated the insidious spread of woke ideology in both public and private institutions by resorting to unconventional (for a Republican) measures, such as using “state power.” 

Although there is some merit to the above claims, the reality is that DeSantis’ Florida has not exactly avoided the maladies—cultural, economic, demographic—that have afflicted much of the rest of the country. In some cases, those maladies are made worse in Florida by the false impression that DeSantis is keeping things in order, such as by relying on high-publicity political stunts like shipping illegal aliens off to Martha’s Vineyard. These “stunts” may help shed light upon an issue, but they also risk sweeping it under the rug for good, as in the case with the migrant stunt, where publicity is mistaken for problem-solving. This allows DeSantis and his media acolytes to fundraise but it doesn’t actually solve any problems.

That is not to accuse DeSantis of intentional chicanery or gaslighting. But rather than being a mastermind tactician, DeSantis may better fall into the category of Barnumesque stuntman. Take, for example, DeSantis’ overhyped bill purporting to strip Walt Disney World of its special tax-exempt status, a longstanding policy that dates back 50 years. This was framed as a bold and cutting-edge use of state power against a corporate culture that has since gone radically woke. This gambit, which Mike Pence, in an admittedly weak move, recently criticized as going too far in the use of “state power,” in fact did nothing of the kind.

The reality is that the legislation did not so much deny Disney its favored status as it merely redistributed tax dollars from one geographical area to another. All told, the land where the Disney World resort proper operates—and which in turn was responsible for the spread of “corporate wokeness” in the first place—is still being funded by taxpayer dollars, but those billions of dollars are merely switching from Reedy Creek to adjacent Orange and Osceola counties.

So Walt Disney World still continues to operate with effective immunity to spread wokeism as it pleases—which it flaunted, just recently, when news broke that the theme park will play host to the “largest LGBTQ+ conference in the world,” a clear and humiliating affront to the Florida governor’s attempts at using state power to curb wokeism.

DeSantis has also failed to make Florida a safe haven for the Second Amendment after the Florida legislature withdrew, in yet another failed attempt to pass open carry, a recent amendment that would have put Florida in lockstep with other red states, such as Georgia, Texas, and Arizona. The failure is even more jarring considering both the upper and lower chambers of the Florida state legislature are Republican controlled—and by overwhelming majorities.

Only two rationales might account for the failure: The first, DeSantis lacks the respect of the state legislature required to pass the initiative, even though he made open-carry one of the centerpieces of his gubernatorial campaign, which severely undercuts the claims made by many of his supporters that DeSantis possesses the acumen of an expert manager. The alternative reading is that DeSantis was being disingenuous all along and is simply using the pretext of the legislature’s ineptitude to parlay responsibility for a bill that he privately considers a potential liability for a national campaign. In any case, whether ascribed to bad management skills or rank dishonesty, neither one is a good look.

In addition, DeSantis has been advertised as a fearless culture warrior by his supporters—ergo, the de facto slogan of the DeSantis brand: “Where Woke Goes to Die.” The on-the-ground facts paint a much more checkered picture. Not only does Florida still play host to scores of Drag Queen events and LGBT conferences, but moreover, on the all-important abortion issue, Florida has rapidly become one of the leading abortion hotspots in the nation—particularly since Roe was overturned last summer. For example, in 2022, Florida’s abortion rate spiked to its highest rate in 14 years – up from 38 percent just the year prior, a figure supported by its equally staggering number of abortion clinics, which are the third highest in the entire United States (behind only New York and California). These trends have been consistent throughout DeSantis’ governorship, even factoring in both the pandemic and Roe being overturned. Evidence for the latter is observed in the fact that in 2019, during DeSantis’s first term, abortions skyrocketed in the Sunshine State, countering a trend in which the total number of abortions actually fell nationwide.

On the subject of foreign policy, DeSantis’ record likewise leaves much to be desired. While governors naturally have few opportunities to get involved on international matters, DeSantis stands out from the norm for two obvious reasons: one, he has a record as a former congressman, and two, he is a major presidential contender. As I noted last week, DeSantis’ statements on the Russia-Ukraine conflict should be quite troubling to the tens of millions of would-be Republican voters who correctly prefer a non-interventionist approach to foreign policy. 

DeSantis has also attempted to burnish an image as a China hawk, which, though generally in the right direction, fails on the all-important issue of delivering actual results. For instance, while DeSantis has incited a good deal of publicity inveighing against China’s acquisition of Florida real estate, to date the campaign has been more bluster than bite. Case in point: in late 2022, a Chinese bioresearch firm (read: biolab) reportedly purchased over 1,400 acres of farmland to build a new facility, apparently to be used for testing primates (read: gain-of-function research). That this happened under the watch of Governor Anti-Lockdown, on the heels of a landslide reelection victory, should come as a shock to all who trusted the Florida governor’s word as someone who was supposedly committed to prioritizing his constituents’ interests first. Beyond that, however, it does not appear that DeSantis’ hawkish tendencies towards China are properly oriented.

This point is underscored when compared with Donald Trump’s China stance. Trump is someone unquestionably committed to hammering China with tariffs, a stance that would doubtlessly prioritize American interests first. Further, there is no question that given his background as a Manhattan real estate mogul, Trump would do everything in his power to buck the trend of Chinese investments in U.S. real estate. Trump is also the kind of candidate who might entertain less mainstream policies like preventing Chinese citizens from taking up spots in top American universities.

DeSantis, on the other hand, is a man with deep ties to libertarian think tank Club for Growth, which has been historically antagonistic to Trump’s tariffs. Moreover, one of DeSantis’ biggest donors is China superhawk Kenneth Griffin, who’s been goading for a full-scale ground war to protect Taiwan, likely following the model of Ukraine. Nobody would ever suggest that Trump would be someone to engage the Chinese in a ground war over a territorial dispute; DeSantis, conversely, is an open book—and the special interests that dominate him all would seem to point in the wrong direction.

A holistic assessment of Ron DeSantis’ track record would reveal a lot of bravado supported by little substance. While this might pass as policy in the court of Fox News talking heads or on a book tour—or even sufficient to dupe enough donors to launch a presidential campaign—it fails on the most pivotal factor for any executive: getting things done. In truth, the real Florida is not unlike many other woke citadels found in deep blue states, which adds a whole new, more complicated meaning to another DeSantis catchphrase: “Make America Florida.”

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About Paul Ingrassia

Paul Ingrassia is a Claremont Publius and John Marshall Fellow and served in President Trump’s National Economic Council. He graduated from Cornell Law School in 2022. His Twitter handle is: @PaulIngrassia.

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