The simple reason why Ron DeSantis keeps finding his campaign embroiled in scandal

Why would Florida's governor team up with Nazis and other authoritarian scum? Because he is one of them

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published August 2, 2023 5:45AM (EDT)

Republican presidential candidate Florida Governor Ron DeSantis speaks to guests at the Republican Party of Iowa 2023 Lincoln Dinner on July 28, 2023 in Des Moines, Iowa. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Republican presidential candidate Florida Governor Ron DeSantis speaks to guests at the Republican Party of Iowa 2023 Lincoln Dinner on July 28, 2023 in Des Moines, Iowa. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

When GOP presidential hopeful Gov. Ron DeSantis fired a campaign staffer who posted a video with Nazi imagery in it, the media coverage fell into a predictable pattern: letting DeSantis off the hook. The staffer, Nate Hochman, had retweeted a video that celebrated DeSantis using Nazi imagery. Hochman denied knowing that the Sonnenrad symbol in the video was a popular alternative to the swastika that Nazis and neo-Nazis have long used. Because DeSantis let the staffer go, the media coverage implied that the campaign was unaware of the video or its meaning, and bore no responsibility for putting Nazi propaganda out there. 

Further reporting, however, has since suggested that DeSantis' exonerating narrative is false. Hochman did not innocently retweet a video he happened to see online. As Axios swiftly reported, Hochman was actually the creator of the video, which he then tried to pass off as made by someone else. As the report also noted, Hochman was let go during a purge of about one-third of the staff to budget issues. Nor was it a one-off incident of DeSantis staff making incendiary videos in-house, and then using sockpuppet accounts to trick the press into believing they were fan-made content. The New York Times recently reported that a shockingly hateful video attacking LGBTQ people, which the campaign retweeted and pretended was made by a DeSantis supporter, was also made by campaign staff.

Nor was there any reason to believe the DeSantis campaign was unaware of Hochman's radical leanings prior to his hiring. As the Daily Beast reported, Hochman interviewed Hitler fanboy Nick Fuentes in 2021 on Twitter Spaces. During the interview, Hochman said it would be "ideal" to have a political coalition "strictly organized around white identity at the exclusion of other people."

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Tuesday, David Weigel and Shelby Talcott of Semafor reported that the Nazi video and the viciously homophobic video "were not the result of an individual staffer or two striking out on their own, but something that was embedded in the campaign's operations." Instead, they write, "Senior aides to Ron DeSantis oversaw the campaign's high-risk strategy of laundering incendiary videos produced by their staff through allied anonymous Twitter accounts, a set of internal campaign communications obtained by Semafor reveals." The campaign's director of rapid response, Christina Pushaw, "told junior staffers that they should keep making meme videos," which she planned to distribute through cut-outs disguised to look like ordinary voters and not the campaign. 

As Jonathan Chait of New York wrote in response, all this suggests that this is not an accident or a matter of "campaign dysfunction." Instead, he argues, the DeSantis campaign's associations with the far-right are a very deliberate choice. Plus, DeSantis' flirtation with Nazis and other fascist scum is hardly new. Last year, a group of neo-Nazis held an anti-semitic demonstration in Orlando. DeSantis and Pushaw did everything they could to avoid condemning the neo-Nazis, as many other Republicans did without hesitation. DeSantis deflected by claiming Democrats were trying to "smear" him with the condemn-the-Nazis requests. Pushaw resorted to conspiracy theories claiming the neo-Nazis were a Democratic false flag. As Chait notes, white nationalists "have reciprocated these gestures," recognizing they have an ally in DeSantis. 

Chait argues that DeSantis is doing this stuff as "a fundamental strategic decision" to "actively court the far right."  He attributes the choice to a "decision to position DeSantis to [Donald] Trump's right" in the 2024 presidential primary. But if it were just a strategy, then it's not just immoral, but odd.

Polling repeatedly shows that the most right-wing Republicans, especially those who express the most racist or homophobic views, tend to be the most steadfast in their love of Trump. The only gettable votes for a challenger come from primary voters who are looking for someone more moderate, or at least someone who appears moderate enough to trick swing voters in the general. Plus, as the Rolling Stone reports, donors are starting to complain, demanding DeSantis "clean house" of a staff that's more interested in catering to the 8chan crowd than everyday voters. 

But it's unlikely that DeSantis is going to "clean house," because the problem is not really his staff. It's him.

This isn't strategic. This is just an extremely racist man and his extremely racist allies doing everything in their power to revive the kind of false ideas that powered the KKK. 

DeSantis is not an innocent babe in the woods who just stumbled into a bee's hive full of young fascists who happen to work for him. The simplest and likeliest explanation for why DeSantis has built such an odious campaign is that it reflects his own worldview. And, like most authoritarian nitwits, he's convinced himself that the numbers of people who agree with him are far larger than they actually are, and that they are just hiding their true views out of fear of "political correctness." We see this most recently in DeSantis' reactions to reports that Florida's education board, in response to his "anti-woke" censorship mandates, now requires students to learn that enslaved people experienced "personal benefit," because they "developed skills." As many historians and commentators pointed out, this is a barely-updated version of the apologetics slave owners used in the 19th century, in which they portrayed Black people as "savages" who needed white people to "civilize" them.

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But DeSantis just can't admit that Black people did not and do not need white people to force them in order to learn skills. Instead, he keeps circling back to this idea that Black people were helpless without white guidance. He whined to reporters that it's a historical fact that enslaved people parlayed "being a blacksmith into doing things later in life." But it is not a fact at all.  As many people pointed out, DeSantis is acting like African people didn't have, uh, metal work and other skills that have been around for thousands of years. Indeed, many people were targeted for enslavement precisely because they had skills their white captors didn't possess. 

It's telling that DeSantis is so stubborn, despite not just being wrong, but so wrong that he's drawing out a negative news cycle he probably could have made disappear by simply admitting slavery didn't have any silver linings. He keeps digging in deeper, sending an insulting public letter to Vice President Kamala Harris, claiming that it's "nation-leading" history class standards to recycle the talking points of 19th-century slave owners. This isn't strategic. This is just an extremely racist man and his extremely racist allies doing everything in their power to revive the kind of false ideas that powered the KKK. 

It's also worth noting that Pushaw's radicalism has not exactly been secret, either. Pushaw has been a big champion of the anti-LGBTQ Twitter account Libs of TikTok and has echoed the claims that LGBTQ people are the equivalent of pedophiles. The woman who runs that account, Chaya Raichick, has described LGBTQ people as "evil" and "a cult."

DeSantis is not a person who surrounded himself with far-right bigots unknowingly. He knows. This is what he wants. 

Of course, this doesn't exactly explain why Trump is crushing DeSantis in the polls of likely Republican primary voters. Trump is also a loud-and-proud racist who refuses to condemn neo-Nazis, and, in fact, called white nationalists "very fine people." DeSantis is not wrong to guess that Republican voter attitudes about white nationalism range from indifferent to enthusiastic, but that anyone who actually opposes it left the party a long time ago. But what Trump does that DeSantis doesn't is make those voters feel daring and edgy for being racist, instead of the tired, out-of-touch bigots that they actually are. As this week's New York Times polling shows, while Republican voters don't think of Trump as "likeable," the majority think he's "fun"  — a word most will not apply to DeSantis. Trump's tendency to style his vicious rants in the cadence of bad stand-up comedy allows his followers to tell a story about how their racism is just "jokes," even though the actual punchline never seems to show up. Obviously, they and Trump are just as sincere in their racial bigotries as DeSantis, but Trump's style lets them tell this more flattering story about themselves. For MAGA, looking at DeSantis is like looking in a mirror and seeing the seething hate reflected right back, in a harsh and unforgiving light. 

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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