Aside from a handful of running jokes involving pudding and boot lifts, the most durable legacy of the Ron DeSantis presidential campaign, which ended on Sunday, will be its relentless demonization of queer and trans people. DeSantis and his staff made scapegoating LGBTQ people—portrayed as threats to children and to the nation itself—a dominant message in a race there was little doubt the Florida governor would lose. This assault on LGBTQ people’s rights and safety will outlast his relatively brief and failed run for the White House. We should now expect DeSantis to return to demonizing queer and trans people in his state. His acceptance of threats and intimidation will live on in our national politics, as well.
From his go-to nonsensical debate talking points about children being “transed” to videos promoting DeSantis as an anti-drag crusader with fascist imagery, the DeSantis campaign turned to anti-trans politics so predictably that it seemed calculated. Political writers told us that it didn’t work, that he was being “too online,” too steeped in convoluted anti-woke signaling, too awkward and insincere even to be capable of communicating something he meant. It was tempting to believe, I guess, that no one would throw their weight so fully behind such legally shabby legislation as bans on drag performance, or on teaching queer books, or discussing slavery in the classroom—not unless it was part of some other plan. At times in this campaign, the reality that DeSantis wasn’t just “running to the right” of Trump on “culture war” issues but had already governed from there somehow eluded political commentators. DeSantis pushed his state’s health regulators to halt access to gender-affirming care, attempted to ban state colleges and universities from discussing “social issues” as very broadly and vaguely defined, and threatened venues that hosted drag events—while accusing those who opposed him of spreading a “fake narrative.”
In a similar vein, the DeSantis campaign has deliberately tried to mislead people on this score by distancing itself from its messengers, even as it shared its message: A deceptive and homophobic “Pride” video from June 2023 was produced by a campaign aide but was misrepresented as the work of some outside fan. It cut between out-of-context Trump sound bites meant to portray him as gay-friendly and hypermasculine moments in film and television. As MSNBC’s Zeeshan Aleem observed, the video doesn’t demand a return to traditional gender roles, rather it “celebrates a kind of eliminationist rhetoric”: that the response to the existence of queer and trans people is intimidation and violence. It also should be understood alongside another video the campaign released shortly afterward, which it also misrepresented as an outside effort but which was in fact created by a DeSantis speechwriter. After celebrating DeSantis again for his raft of anti-LGBTQ legislation and his offensive against drag performers, the video featured a DeSantis-as-savior image framed by the “black sun” symbol as appropriated by Nazis and neo-Nazis. (The DeSantis campaign later fired the speechwriter.) Both videos celebrated the sitting governor for his successful campaign of intimidation and exclusion in his home state.
At the time, The New York Times said that DeSantis was “seeking attention” with the “Pride” video, calling it “the type of move—devised to provoke a reaction—that Mr. Trump often deployed from his Twitter account.” What kind of reaction, precisely? DeSantis defended the video as “identifying Donald Trump as really being a pioneer in injecting gender ideology into the mainstream.” This accusation is not meant to be truthful. DeSantis is associating his enemy with “gender ideology,” that is, something to be opposed. This is an attack on Trump’s masculinity, and an assertion of DeSantis’s own—an expression of the ideology of male supremacism, one that Trump indeed shares. DeSantis isn’t looking for an outraged reaction, even if he knows he’ll get one; he’s trying to identify Trump with the out-group.
DeSantis’s consistent proximity to fascist imagery was a bit like his so-called “culture war” campaigning: Political commentators often mistakenly portrayed it as a distraction or a ploy, when in truth, it’s the whole show. The macho posturing, the embrace of intimidation: It’s not just a vibe for the sake of a video. All that was and remains as central to DeSantis’s patriarchal, male-supremacist ideology as his signature policy agenda, in which the dignity and freedom of people unlike him will be challenged by men like him, using threats and force.
The country as a whole may have been spared that kind of power, but Florida is for now stuck with him. And nationally too, there may be no coming back from what his campaign has normalized. Eighty-eight percent of Republican voters now say they want a candidate who would “ban surgeries that change a child’s gender,” according to a January CBS News/YouGov poll. Trump, of course, picked up on this months ago, proclaiming at a rally in a June 2023, “I talk about transgender, everyone goes crazy. Who would have thought? Five years ago, you didn’t know what the hell it was.” There is some polling data to suggest that, as a country, people have been adopting more regressive views on sex and gender since 2017.
“In order for the party to have a future after Trump, they needed to have a candidate,” wrote Evan Urquhart at Assigned Media, performing a postmortem on the DeSantis campaign’s political strategy. “In order for them to have a candidate, their candidate needed to have an issue. In order to have an issue, they needed to sell a moral panic. Now the candidate’s balloon has burst, but the panic rages on.” DeSantis was rejected by voters, maybe, for running predominantly on that panic. But he stoked the panic all the same. His campaign is over. The threat DeSantis poses to queer and trans people is not.