In this just published article Emine Yücel calls our attention to this web video the DeSantis campaign posted over the weekend which, on its face, is meant to focus GOP primary voters’ attention on the fact that ex-President Trump in the past at least professed to be supportive of the LGBTQ and trans communities. That is now an unforgivable act among many Republicans. But as she notes, it mixes garden variety gay-bashing with a flurry of hard-to-miss homoerotic imagery pushing Ron himself. As I put it in my less guarded Twitter voice: the “weird thing is the first half of this ad is pure gay/trans bashing but then shifts into a kind DeSantis Full Official Beefcake/He Man weirdness. are Ron and RFK jr gonna do some gonzo scenes together? … The ad also captures how the transition I note isn’t even that strange. Ron is going to both bring the hammer down on the sissies and also be the rough king of the leather bar.”
Besides having some fun at DeSantis’s expense, there’s a very real underlying issue here that’s worth unpacking. It’s become something of a cliché to say that DeSantis’ campaign is way too online, by which people mean that his campaign spends a lot of time pushing memes and ideas that resonate with the online right but can appear obscure or disturbing even to most Republicans, let alone the normal, loosely-affiliated people who count most in general elections.
One example of this cropped up last week in a controversy over a far-right influencer who the DeSantis campaign has openly allied itself with, Pedro Gonzales. It turns out that Gonzales has a lengthy history of explicitly racist and anti-semitic comments in various far-right chats, as first reported by, of all places, Breitbart. The controversy became a bit of a contest between the Trump and DeSantis camps over who could uncover more intense racism and anti-semitism among each others’ supporters. For his part, Gonzales said that the messages came from “a different, dumb season of my life,” which was his way of referring to 2019 and 2020.
For our purposes, what is relevant about Gonzales is that he is an example of a type: usually a guy who, at some point in his 20s, claims to have gone from explicit neo-Nazi or white supremacist activism to a more mature and seasoned far-right politics which stop just shy of explicitly racist or anti-semitic attacks. People do change, of course. And we should welcome and cheer those who do. But changing is going from being a white nationalist or neo-Nazi to being an anti-racist campaigner, or at least some non-racist politics. When someone shifts from lambasting the “treacherous Jews” to attacking “George Soros and the globalist bankers” we’re right to suspect this is not a change in belief so much as a revised branding — often with the goal of becoming gainfully employed in Republican politics. There is now a whole generation of far-right activists, raised in the movement’s fetid, eliminationist message boards making their way into Republican campaigns. The DeSantis campaign has staked much of its campaign on them.
Let’s consider the imagery in this campaign video discussed above.
As I noted, much of the first half is pretty garden variety gay-bashing and trans-bashing, focused on Trump’s superficial but at least nominal past support for those groups. But then in the second half it shifts to pushing what we might call “He Man Ron DeSantis,” who is a would-be alpha of post-Trump Republican politics. Now we have a thumping baseline and male chanting over a montage of pictures of an assertive, cackling DeSantis interspersed with images of oiled up male body builders, crying liberals, Brad Pitt as Achilles in the movie “Troy” and the Patrick Bateman serial killer character in the movie “American Psycho.”
If you’re not versed in the semiotics of the far right this all might simply make you think DeSantis or at least the guy who made the video just needs some help. And of course at a basic level you’d be right. But this isn’t random stuff. The quickly interspersed images of oiled up muscle men is part of the memelord world that the 69-year-old RFK Jr. appeals to by posting shirtless images of himself doing push ups and bench presses in what seems like an unmistakably steroid-juiced body. The Bateman references are part of an increasingly common far-right/incel-adjacent adoration of the redemptive violence dished out by the title character who doesn’t get his due respect. It’s part and parcel of why young male mass shooters are almost always found to be immersed in this far-right message board world. As for images of DeSantis compared to Brad Pitt dressed up as Achilles, well, I think we all know that angry young men who spend all their time on message boards strutting their masculinity and hatred of women can be subject to some degree of sexual confusion.
How much DeSantis himself is really in tune with this stuff I have no idea. But clearly he’s staked his political future on it. And as long as he remains close to the above the fold headlines — which in truth may not be much longer — we’ll see more examples of the MAGA/DeSantis/memelord underbelly leaching through in his campaign messaging.