Michelle Goldberg

Ron DeSantis vs. the ‘Woke Mind Virus’

An electronic billboard displays a close-up of Ron DeSantis’s face.
Credit...Damon Winter/The New York Times

Opinion Columnist

Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida could have made his presidential campaign announcement in some idyllic seaside park, surrounded by the wholesome families he’s trying to defend from subversive books and the Walt Disney Company. Instead, he did it in a glitchy audio feed with a socially awkward billionaire. Even if the Twitter rollout had worked smoothly — which it definitely did not — it would have been a debacle.

The technological failures are, understandably, dominating the headlines. They were humiliating for everyone involved, making the campaign look amateurish and undermining Elon Musk’s claims that firing most of Twitter’s work force hasn’t impaired the platform. But behind these unforced errors lie deeper failures of political judgment by DeSantis, ones that speak to a blinkered and — for all his cultural populism — elitist worldview. How else do you explain a campaign kickoff with more discussion of crypto regulation than of inflation?

DeSantis’s decision to begin his campaign like this is a sign of weakness in three ways. First, there’s his inability to see what is obvious to Musk’s critics, which is that Musk, while perhaps a genius in some areas, is also often an arrogant screw-up whose projects break down in public. (See: the Tesla Cybertruck’s supposedly shatterproof windows or the explosion of the SpaceX Starship.) You have to be fairly deep in the right-wing echo chamber to believe Musk’s self-presentation as a swaggering Tony Stark figure who can be counted on to deliver.

Second, DeSantis’s decision to make his tacit alliance with Musk such an integral part of his campaign identity suggests a submissive and receding quality. He ran for governor in 2018 by emphasizing his worshipful fealty to Donald Trump, cutting an embarrassing commercial in which he lovingly instructed his children in the MAGA gospel. Now, coming out of Trump’s shadow, he’s opted to attach himself to another big, strong friend rather than stand on his own. Last night, after the announcement, his campaign tweeted a bizarre, music-less video that features DeSantis speaking about immigration over a montage of images of him and of Musk, as if they were running for president as a team.

Finally, DeSantis is so deeply, fatally online that he doesn’t seem to understand that Musk’s concerns only partly overlap with the concerns of the people he needs to vote for him.

DeSantis is betting that anti-wokeness, the belief system that ties him to Musk, is enough to power a presidential race. He’s not necessarily wrong: Though polling about the salience of wokeness is mixed, in an April Wall Street Journal survey, 55 percent of Republicans said “Fighting woke ideology in our schools and businesses” was more important than protecting Social Security and Medicare. The reason DeSantis is a major contender in the first place is the reactionary agenda he’s enacted in Florida, which includes sweeping limitations on what can be taught in public schools, a six-week abortion ban and the cruelest anti-trans policies in America.

But anti-wokeness has different flavors. There are the worries about the erosion of what were once called “family values,” and then there are the esoteric concerns of Silicon Valley edgelords. DeSantis emphasized the latter on Wednesday night, discussing niche issues in language that I suspect is unintelligible to ordinary people, even those who might hate the brand of social justice politics derided as wokeness. He spoke, without much explanation, about college “accreditation cartels,” the “E.S.G. movement” — investing that weighs environmental, social and governance factors — and central bank digital currency. A large part of the discussion — far more than about, say, the economy or foreign policy — was about Twitter itself.

“The woke mind virus is basically a form of cultural Marxism,” DeSantis said later Wednesday night on Fox News. If you spend time on the right-wing internet, that is a platitude. But my guess is that for a lot of people, it’s gibberish. Now, Trump also repurposes ideas and memes from the far-right internet demimonde, but he does so with a lowest-common-denominator bluntness. “We’re going to defeat the cult of gender ideology and reaffirm that God created two genders, called men and women,” Trump said in South Carolina earlier this year. You don’t have to know exactly what “gender ideology” is to know what he means.

In his recent book, “The Courage to Be Free,” DeSantis wrote that his first encounter with the left was at Yale University, where he got his undergraduate degree, and that experiencing “unbridled leftism on campus pushed me to the right.” From there, he went to Harvard Law School, which “was just as left-wing as Yale.” What he doesn’t seem to understand is that for all his hatred of Ivy League pretensions, his political outlook was shaped in the Ivy League’s crucible. He speaks the language not of normal people but of right-wing counter-elites, thinkers and activists who come out of the same rarefied milieus as the progressive intellectuals they despise.

Maybe DeSantis’s misunderstanding of elitism has tripped him up. As he wrote in his book, the word “elite,” to him, is not about wealth, talent or achievement. Instead, it’s an epithet for progressives, those who share “the ideology and outlook of the ruling class, which one can demonstrate by ‘virtue signaling.’” He singles out Clarence Thomas as someone who is not an elite, despite being one of the most powerful men in America. Neither, in his view, are wealthy Texas oilmen or Florida car dealers or, presumably, Musk, one of the richest men in the world. It is, of course, a standard right-wing rhetorical move to suggest that so-called wealth creators are part of an oppressed class. The problem with DeSantis is that he seems to believe it, so when he’s speaking to plutocrats on Twitter Spaces, he thinks he’s speaking to the people.

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Michelle Goldberg has been an Opinion columnist since 2017. She is the author of several books about politics, religion and women’s rights, and was part of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize for public service in 2018 for reporting on workplace sexual harassment. @michelleinbklyn