Vampires are anticlimactic monsters. They claim to be immortal, but shine one beam of sunlight on them and they’re a pile of dust. It’s undeniably a victory—hey, no more vampire—but it seems like something that scary should take a lot longer to die. For another example of this phenomenon, you can look to the presidential campaign of Florida governor Ron DeSantis, which, after many years of buildup, and much dread on the part of LGBTQ2S+ folks, has fallen apart only a few weeks into the Republican primary.
As of late October, DeSantis trails in a far-distant second place behind Donald Trump, who—just to be clear—is currently on trial for criminal fraud and will soon be on trial for conspiring to overthrow the 2020 election. A lot of things could happen between now and November 2024, but right now, the most publicly disgraced former president in history is still more likely to be the next president than Ron DeSantis. Moreover, as DeSantis’s presidential hopes crumble, his allies in Florida are reportedly deserting him. By blowing his strong local reputation on a weak national campaign, he may have kneecapped himself on both fronts.
There is schadenfreude here, and it is sweet. Yet even with DeSantis cleared from the field of play, the post-Trump Republican Party is a cesspool of bigotry and right-wing extremism—and Mr. Cesspool himself may be back in the Oval Office before long. President DeSantis is almost certainly dead in the water, and it’s not wrong to celebrate that. But we should also ask ourselves what, if anything, has actually changed.
Every so often, I forget that I am blessed to write for a Canadian publication, and that many of our readers (lucky souls that they are) might not actually know much about who Ron DeSantis is, or what he’s done or why his name strikes fear into the hearts of the innocent.
So, for them: Ron DeSantis is (as previously mentioned) the governor of Florida, and under his administration, Florida has become the test kitchen where many of America’s most toxic anti-trans and anti-gay laws are rolled out. “Don’t Say Gay” is DeSantis. Florida’s ban on gender-affirming healthcare for minors is DeSantis. The Florida drag ban is DeSantis. Lots of states have floated or passed similar laws, but Florida is where they often show up first, and where they’ve been pursued most aggressively. Ron DeSantis is why.
Outside of his anti-LGBTQ2S+ stances, DeSantis has also built his brand around more generally anti-“woke” (read: racist) politics: For example, Florida’s “Stop W.O.K.E.” Act banned diversity and inclusion programs and the teaching of critical race theory at state schools. The goal was to “give businesses, employees, children and families tools to fight back against woke indoctrination,” according to a press release from DeSantis’s office.
If Republicans planned to run on culture war in 2024, Ron DeSantis was the obvious candidate. According to political journalist (and Xtra contributor) Nico Lang, who has been covering DeSantis’s campaign, this may be what’s doomed him. In a deeply reported article for them, Lang writes that Republicans are pulling back on “anti-woke” messaging, fearing “message fatigue.” These policies are polarizing, and the American public is increasingly sick of hearing about them, which leaves DeSantis—the candidate who’s done the most to associate his name with the war on “wokeness”—fighting on the wrong hill.
“Like, very recently he made the news for banning pro-Palestinian groups at college campuses in Florida,” Lang tells me in a phone call. “And even Megyn Kelly, of all people, came out to say that she feels that’s a mistake and that those organizations and student groups should be allowed to speak. When Megyn Kelly, of all people—‘Santa Claus is white’—is saying that you are too extreme, I think that’s really bad.”
There’s also the fact that, despite passing all that terrifying legislation, DeSantis looks a lot weaker now than he did a few years ago, not least because he can’t actually enforce most of those bills. The trans healthcare ban was blocked in court. The drag ban was blocked in court. “Don’t Say Gay” still stands, but it’s been challenged numerous times.
“DeSantis is challenging the injunction of his anti-drag law at the Supreme Court,” Lang tells me. “Rather than just taking his loss, he keeps fighting it again and again and again. I find that really fascinating, that you have this guy who just keeps doubling down because he’s so desperate for a win. That really, to me, indicates the desperation of this campaign. Because when was the last time DeSantis had a win?”
But the fact that Republicans are pulling back on the language of “woke” doesn’t mean that they’ve stopped advocating for bigotry. Donald Trump, for example, is one of the candidates who says he’s sick of the word “woke.” Trump’s following has also been built almost exclusively on appeals to white grievance, racial animus and anti-immigrant sentiment, with some violent misogyny and aggressively anti-trans politics thrown into the bargain.
DeSantis’s appeal was based on being, essentially, Trump without the baggage—but people who like Trump typically don’t care about his baggage, and will continue to support him no matter how embattled he gets. The fraud trial, like the countless Trump scandals that preceded it, will likely do little or nothing to hurt his chances. DeSantis does not command that kind of loyalty. He might have made a good Trump replacement under other circumstances, but his appeal evaporates when he’s running against the real thing.
So, to state the incredibly obvious: the defeat of Ron DeSantis is not the defeat of institutional queerphobia, nor does it mean that we’re facing a kinder, gentler Republican Party, nor does it mean that a Republican victory in 2024 would be anything less than disastrous for queer and trans people. Trump signed plenty of anti-trans executive orders during his time in office. Nikki Haley, who has taken up DeSantis’s slack as the “reasonable alternative,” thinks that letting trans girls play sports will cause cis girls to commit suicide. It’s bad out there.
What DeSantis’s failure does prove is that obsessively campaigning against trans and queer people’s right to exist is not the crowd-pleasing populist position it’s been made out to be. Centrists of the Matt Yglesias variety have spent the past several years hand-wringing about how “divisive” queer and, especially, trans rights are, and arguing that Democrats will simply have to throw trans people under the bus if they want to remain competitive. But if there were one politician who could reliably command the votes of America’s transphobes, it’s Ron DeSantis, and no one is voting for him.
This isn’t a new lesson—in the most recent midterms, Republicans leaned hard on culture war and anti-trans bills, to disappointing results. Those midterms didn’t change their commitment to anti-LGBTQ2S+ legislation, and Ron DeSantis’s defeat won’t change it, either. But queer and trans people have historically suffered from an asymmetry of sentiment—the politicians on the right who hate us really, really hate us, while politicians on the left, who nominally support us, are willing to back off at the first whiff of trouble. The next time someone on the left or the centre argues that queer and trans people’s humanity is unpopular, divisive, too hot to touch, too risky, there will be a handy rejoinder to them, in the form of the very recent, very public humiliation of Ron DeSantis. It’s a small win, but it counts.
Shine a little light on these guys, and they turn to dust. They are never as scary or as invulnerable as they would like us to think. We know that, and our allies have no reason not to know it too. We just have to hope they’re paying attention. Though the failure of Ron DeSantis feels great—hey, no President DeSantis—there are still a lot more monsters like him. This is one victory. There are many more fights ahead.