Ron DeSantis escalates his authoritarian purge: GOP bounty hunters are the next frontier

His Stasi-style bill adds bounty hunting to national efforts to purge school officials for insufficient bigotry

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published December 16, 2021 1:11PM (EST)

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

The Supreme Court just offered their blessing to the Texas abortion ban, which rewards bounty hunters for snitching on those who "aid and abet" abortions. Now less than one week later, Republicans are looking to use similar mechanisms to ban not just abortions, but the teaching of history.

In Florida, Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis has offered up the use of this novel enforcement mechanism to fight the culture wars in classrooms and corporations, which should send a chill down any freedom-loving person's spine. Called the "Stop WOKE Act," the bill would allow any parent to sue a school district for teaching "critical race theory." 

While "critical race theory" is a scare term the right uses to make it sound like there's some novel and esoteric indoctrination going on in schools, a little digging shows what Republicans actually mean by the term is any lessons or materials that acknowledge racism had any impact on American history. Conservatives groups are demanding schools ban books about the 1963 March on Washington or Brown v. the Board of Education.

In Texas, a Republican state representative circulated a list of books he wants banned, which includes books by Ta-Nehisi Coates, Margaret Atwood, and John Irving. Virginia's winning GOP gubernatorial candidate, Glenn Youngkin, ran ads exalting an effort to censor "Beloved" by Toni Morrison. And schools officials in a Texas suburb argued that the restrictions required them to teach "both sides" of the Holocaust.

RELATED: Republicans' war on education is the most crucial part of their push for fascism

In light of this, it's not at all subtle what DeSantis is trying to do here: Intimidate schools into erasing much of American history. The Florida law bans teaching "that racism is embedded in American society and its legal systems." Two of the most prominent historical examples of legal systems embedding racism are slavery and Jim Crow. If every Trump-loving parent can sue the school for teaching kids about the Civil War or the civil rights movement, some schools may decide it's not worth the hassle to teach American history in any meaningful way at all. Teachers and other school officials may leave the state or the profession, rather than spend every waking moment worrying about being sued by racist parents for doing the job of educating students. 

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This isn't speculation. DeSantis is building on an already-growing national trend of school officials being purged for insufficient deference to the bigotries of the local MAGA nuts.  

On Monday, Jeannie Stone, the superintendent of Richardson ISD — a school district of suburban Dallas, TX — resigned her position after enduring months of abuse from right-wing forces in the community. Stone had been named the Superintendent of the Year by the Texas PTA in 2019, but in 2020, she stepped on a bee's hive by declaring new school initiatives focused on diversity and inclusion. These policies reflected existing changes in the school district, which was once solidly white but has seen a dramatic demographic shift towards more diversity in recent years. Stone's commitment to treating all students equally, however, caused a freakout — with the usual nonsensical accusations about "critical race theory," as well as anger over mask mandates — leading to her resignation. 

"[Y]ou have chosen to amplify the voices of this small group of parents who would have our district turn away from science and reason, from progress and inclusion," local mother Lowry Mandel, who formed the Lake Highlands Area Moms Against Racism Facebook page last year, wrote in an impassioned response on Facebook

RELATED: The Rittenhouse effect: Republicans want a Stasi of their own 

This follows similar fascistic purge efforts across Texas. In a nearby suburban school district, a Black principal named James Whitfield was pushed out of his job under similar nonsense accusations about "critical race theory." His sin? Writing a public letter in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, in which he declared, "Education is the key to stomping out ignorance, hate, and systemic racism." A lot of parents clearly prefer hate and ignorance and are willing to destroy anyone who would challenge them. Now another superintendent, Eric Williams — who runs a school district in suburban Houston — is being targeted by similarly hysterical accusations that he is "anti-white." 

Spotsylvania County in Virginia recently drew national headlines for an aggressive book censorship effort by the school board that led to two members calling on books to be burned. The national spotlight caused the school board to back down, but the forces of anti-wokeism were still baying for blood. On Monday, they got it, forcing the resignation of superintendent Scott Baker. Baker came under fire from the pro-censorship forces for saying he trusted librarians to do their job, instead of immediately acceding to demands that libraries be purged of books that conservatives don't like. 

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While Republicans love to portray this rising up against "critical race theory" as a spontaneous grassroots reaction to progressive overreach, it's hard not to notice a strong pattern in what districts just so happen to become hotspots for these racist panics, book bannings, and purges: Swing districts.On Tuesday, the New York Times reported that the far-right nationalist group the Proud Boys plans "to bring their brand of menacing politics to the local level" in a campaign aimed at public schools. Some of their first targets are a suburb of Chicago, a coastal town in North Carolina, and a small town in Wisconsin.

Richardson ISD in Texas covers a county that was strongly Republican until 2018, when far-right Republican Pete Sessions was booted in favor for Black Democratic Rep. Colin Allred. Tarrant County, where Whitfield was pushed out of his job, was a nail-biter in 2020, with Joe Biden beating Donald Trump by .22% of the vote. The area targeted for a school purge near Houston is also a blueing suburb. The North Carolina area zeroed in on by the Proud Boys is literally known as a major bellwether for presidential elections. The Wisconsin district is blue but getting bluer. It's same story with the Illinois suburb that's been targeted. 

RELATED: Rising GOP star Ron DeSantis goes after campus thoughtcrime with vague, threatening new law

Many of these communities are part of a broader trend in the U.S., where a lot of inner ring and denser suburbs and even some small towns are moving left, politically, as college-educated white voters become more Democratic and some previously monotone communities are becoming racially diverse. Republicans clearly see the fake panic over "critical race theory" as a way to reverse that trend. Targeting schools is particularly smart.  Many people only start to get really interested in politics and their local community when their kids start going to school. Racialized panic is a good way to radicalize previously apolitical white people into joining the GOP cause, which is increasingly indistinguishable from the fascist cause. 

Spotsylvania County is proof of concept. It went for Biden in 2020, but heavily broke for Youngkin in 2021, after Republicans spent months whipping white people in the area into a frenzy of anger over "critical race theory." But while the superintendent was harassed out of his job, Spotsylvania also offers evidence that this race-baiting strategy can be defeated —  but only if liberals and Democrats fight back. After all, the book-burners did back down from their efforts when they got pushback from local people who didn't like all this book-burning talk. 

RELATED: The right's attack on "critical race theory": Another battle in the Orwellian war against democracy

DeSantis is taking this swing district strategy to the state level. Florida is going to be critical in the next few years for determining if the country falls to Trump and Trumpism, or if Democrats can eke out enough power to save democracy. Authoritarianism thrives in environments where people are paranoid and fearful, where community trust is depleted, and where the forces of education and rationality are being run out of town. So of course DeSantis wants to pass a law that will accomplish all those goals, by empowering racists to harass educators and cause as much community strife as possible. It's a strategy that's tearing apart community bonds across the country. And it may soon come to a town near you. 

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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Bounty Hunters Commentary Critical Race Theory Gop Ron Desantis Stop Woke War On Schools