Saturday was a tale of two flags. One was flown at the White House: a rainbow Pride flag, specifically the trans- and racially inclusive “Progress” variation. “Today, the People’s House—your house—sends a clear message to the country and to the world,” President Biden tweeted, alongside an image of the flag hanging from the south portico. “America is a nation of pride.” The other one was held aloft—or rather, several of them were—in a small demonstration outside the entrance to Disney World in Orlando, Florida: the Nazi swastika. Some of the demonstrators were reportedly with the neo-Nazi group National Socialist Movement, and they also held signs with anti-gay slurs that need not be reproduced here.
You don’t have to guess which flag the leading right-wing sycophants were up in arms about.
“America has been humiliated, debauched and debased. A warning about how civilizations unravel from within,” former Trump adviser Stephen Miller tweeted. “The ideological coup is complete,” said The Daily Wire’s Ben Shapiro. Benny Johnson, of the right-wing youth group Turning Point USA, decreed, “The enemy is inside the castle walls.” Several Republican members of Congress claimed Biden had violated the “flag code,” with Representative Mike Johnson of Louisiana going on to deem it part of Biden’s “twisted agenda” and Senator Roger Marshall of Kansas calling it “a disgrace.” On Fox on Monday, Washington Examiner deputy editor Kaylee McGhee White claimed that the Biden administration was sending the message, “This ideology runs America.”
Rarely is the anti-LGBTQ crisis illustrated so clearly, where queer and trans people are being scapegoated and demonized by Republican officeholders and would-be stormtroopers alike. But there was a third flag of note on Saturday: A “DeSantis 2024” flag flew alongside the swastikas. That was no coincidence. DeSantis, more than any other Republican official today, stands for wielding the power of the state to enforce heterosexuality and eradicate transgender people.
Florida is the testing ground for sex and gender authoritarianism in the United States, with DeSantis now campaigning to “make America Florida” as president in 2024. DeSantis declared war on Disney after it opposed his signature “Don’t Say Gay” law, which has been used to chill any classroom discussion of queer and trans people. That combined with a raft of anti-LGBTQ laws passed by the state legislature has led queer and trans Floridians to leave the state, as The Washington Post reported this month. Florida is now at the vanguard of barring trans adults from gender-affirming care, by adding onerous requirements and restrictions like making it a crime to offer or obtain care via telehealth and allowing doctors and pharmacists to deny care outright. The goal is to dehumanize queer and trans communities. One Republican state lawmaker, Representative Webster Barnaby, likened trans people to “mutants” and “demons” this past session; another, Representative Randy Fine, called the anti-LGBTQ laws being passed part of their fight against “evil.”
Florida is also home to Moms for Liberty, who have galvanized if not kicked off the nationwide fight to remove books from schools and libraries for their LGBTQ content, and who are working to take over school boards and recruiting state legislators in their fight to mandate anti-LGBTQ policies in education and health care. This month, the Southern Poverty Law Center named them one of the leading extremist groups in the country, with links to Christian nationalists, the so-called “constitutional sheriffs” movements, and the Proud Boys. As just one example: Daily Salinas is a onetime DeSantis campaign volunteer who joined Moms for Liberty in disrupting a Miami-Dade school board meeting last year to demand the removal of sex ed curricula. She is also a supporter of the Proud Boys, appearing at their rallies and even greeting one released from the hospital.
Saturday is hardly the first time that pro-DeSantis and Nazi flags have stood side by side at demonstrations in the state. It happened in May 2022, also outside Disney World, and in July 2022 outside the Turning Point USA conference in Tampa. DeSantis has not condemned or even commented on the latest instance. If he does so, it will likely only be to distance himself: After other Florida lawmakers condemned two days of neo-Nazi demonstrations in January 2022, DeSantis spokeswoman Christina Pushaw asked, in a since-deleted tweet, “Do we even know they’re Nazis?” DeSantis, meanwhile, claimed the demonstrations were evidence that his opponents wanted to “smear me as if I had something to do with it.”
It was a nice gesture for the White House to celebrate Pride, signifying some measure of inclusion, especially this year, when symbols (like Target and its Pride merchandise) may matter more than before. In contrast, in Florida this year, Pride season opened with travel advisories from the NAACP and Human Rights Campaign, warning that the state is unsafe for queer and trans people. Several Pride events in the state were canceled or relocated as a result of the new laws, not to mention the threats posed by groups like the Proud Boys or the open neo-Nazis who took to Disney World. DeSantis may reject them yet, but he cannot deny that they see their struggle aligned with his: to rally others to join them in demonizing, driving out, and eradicating queer and trans people.