*Published with the generous permission of Ruth Ben-Ghiat. Read all of her outstanding writing in her Lucid newsletter.
by Ruth Ben-Ghiat
Ron DeSantis loves children —especially the ones who take part in the shows he stages for his own glory. Black, White, or Latino, they are all God's creatures to him, and they are all props in the holy war he is waging on their behalf to protect "freedom" in Florida.
In 2018, when he was running for governor as a "pitbull Trump defender," DeSantis had to make do with his own children. His infant son appeared in a campaign ad lying in a crib with a MAGA blanket, dressed in a MAGA shirt, while his toddler daughter was shown learning Trump slogans like "build the wall" from Daddy.
Now that DeSantis is governor, his pool of actors is practically unlimited. Hundreds of young people have starred in public relations productions since he took office, standing around him looking uncertain while he smiles woodenly, or holding signs emblazoned with his favorite slogans.
In the past, those messages have included anti-science propaganda that has placed young people in danger during the pandemic by encouraging them to disregard common sense public health protocols. "Tell them about the mask and what you didn't like about it," DeSantis prompted a second grader on camera; the young girl had been excluded from school for refusing to wear a mask.
Coaching children to act in ways that show disregard for others while increasing their own risk of becoming ill is the opposite of good governance: it is what amoral and fanatical leaders do.
Some may object to DeSantis being singled out for having photo opportunities with children, given that most public officials pose with young constituents from time to time. Yet as Aaron Rupar observes, children have particular prominence in DeSantis's public persona. And there is a cynical logic that dictates when they appear.
As all authoritarians know, the presence of cute young faces goes a long way to soften extremist actions in the public's mind and distract from the leader taking their rights away. That's why DeSantis surrounded himself with kids holding "Choose Life" signs when signing a ban on abortion after 15 weeks' pregnancy with no exceptions for rape, incest, or sex trafficking --a draconian measure that is out of step with the beliefs of most of his constituents.
In retrospect, that 2018 ad should have been a red flag that DeSantis possessed a strongman personality, down to the absence of a moral code and a ruthless desire to do whatever it takes to get ahead. We now know that DeSantis sees anyone, of any age, as a stepping stone for his career, and that he focuses on children because they are more easily indoctrinated. It's s one reason he's investing so much time and political capital to turn public education institutions in Florida into engines of far-right radicalization.
Take the use of Black children at DeSantis's April 2022 "Stop WOKE Act" signing ceremony. They were featured holding anti "CRT" (Critical Race Theory) signs. Having kids champion the banning of their own histories from school curriculums is exactly the kind of perverse spectacle that authoritarians revel in. Getting others to participate in their own humiliation makes such leaders feel powerful, and all the more if the individuals are of an "impressionable" age.
Children “demonstrating” against Critical Race Theory as Ron DeSantis stages his signing ceremony of the "Stop Woke Act,” April 2022. Daniel A. Verla/Miami Herald
Frank Cerabino of the Palm Beach Post's charge that De Santis's use of kids on this occasion is an example of him "grooming" children might seem exaggerated, until you realize that the Stop WOKE Act aims to emotionally retrain young people on a mass scale.
The "Individual Freedom" bill, which is part of that legislation, bans the teaching of histories that may cause students to feel "guilt, anguish or other forms of psychological distress." Yet the "freedom" he peddles is actually achieved by liberating Black children from knowledge of their own traditions and heritage and by "freeing" White children from dangerous feelings of solidarity with oppressed peoples.
What DeSantis calls "psychological distress" is the spark of empathy children and adults can feel from learning about the tragedies of others. The legislation also seeks to remove kids from situations that might lead them to feel a sense of injustice and want to better the world, following the path of civil rights activists in the US and anti-authoritarian resisters everywhere.
"We will never surrender to the woke mob. Florida is where woke goes to die," was DeSantis's sinister declaration in his Jan. 2023 inauguration speech, referring to those who are awake and alive to the wrongs of the world.
The history of Fascist violence speaks to what happens when generations have their sense of morality dimmed so that racist crimes can be perpetuated and tolerated. The children DeSantis uses as props exemplify the authoritarian's greatest goal and pleasure: getting people to act against their own interests —preferably from an early age.