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Welcome to Ron DeSantis’s 2024 Campaign Against “Wokes”

The Florida governor and potential presidential contender used his inauguration address to target his favorite bogeyman.

Phelan M. Ebenhack/The Washington Post/Getty Images
Governor Ron DeSantis throws out hats to supporters during a rally for himself and Senator Marco Rubio on November 7, in Orlando, Florida.

Governor Ron DeSantis went with “The Free State of Florida” as the theme of his second inaugural address, delivered on Tuesday. He was flanked by his presumably free-from-“woke”-ideology children and his wife, Casey, dressed in a long, shimmering, seafoam-green sheath gown with a matching cape and elbow-length white opera gloves. Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush stood alongside the DeSantis clan for the oath of office, and he clapped. Freedom lives in Florida, DeSantis declared in a halting litany. Florida is “the land of liberty and the land of sanity.” Florida is “freedom’s linchpin.” Florida is a “citadel of freedom, for our fellow Americans and even for people around the world.” Presumably that includes the recently defeated president of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, who, after losing to Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, head of the Workers’ Party, and bailing on the transfer of power, was spotted hunkered down at a Kentucky Fried Chicken in—where else?—Florida.

In his inauguration speech—and this is not meant as a compliment to either man—DeSantis so clearly lacked the kind of put-on butch bravado ascribed to Bolsonaro. DeSantis was bereft of the carnie cadence of the man it is presumed he will challenge for the presidency in 2024. The speech, nominally a statement of purpose for his next four years as Florida’s governor, was also a soft launch of sorts for the DeSantis Presidential Campaign, and he has declared he is running not against any other candidate but against “woke ideology.” “Florida will never surrender to the woke mob,” he promised, his voice rising, stabbing awkwardly at the next words: “Florida … is where … woke … goes … to die!”

DeSantis, like his fellow Republicans, is entirely uncommitted to what most people would call “governance,” instead favoring scapegoating and vigilantism, declaring war on an unoriginal, fairly outgunned list of enemies: trans kids and their teachers and librarians; queer and trans people generally and drag queens specifically; prosecutors who refuse to enforce the law the way DeSantis wants them to; school board members who refuse to fight the bogeymen DeSantis simply stole from other, more successful message-makers—“critical race theory,” “gender ideology,” and “grooming.” That’s what DeSantis is running on, pledging, “We will enact more family-friendly policies,” that “we will defend our children against those who seek to rob them of their innocence,” garnering the longest applause line of his inaugural address. It meant nothing, and it was the whole thing, with the governor pausing and nodding and waving like he wanted you to know he got the right answer, and to give people more time to rise for him from their seats.

DeSantis can call Florida “the free state” if he wants, but it isn’t—Maryland claims that, or was bestowed that, when the editor of the Baltimore Sun gave the state that moniker in 1923, after Maryland refused to pass its own law banning alcohol. Setting aside historical precedent, modern-day Florida is far from free. Not for a generation of LGBTQ kids and teens who will grow up in an environment of political and personal repression, with DeSantis propping up the contemporary equivalent of Florida’s 1970s orange juice queen and anti-gay activist Anita Bryant, a content creator cum propagandist named Chaya Raichik of the popular Libs of TikTok twitter account, who DeSantis invited to stay with him at the governor’s mansion after her identity was revealed. Nor is the state free for more than one million Florida voters, predominantly Black and poor, who are barred from voting due to unpaid fines associated with past criminal convictions, even after Florida voters took to the ballot box to restore those voting rights. Nor is Florida free for the voters DeSantis sicced an “election fraud” police squad on in an act of intimidation, arresting people who were eligible to vote. Florida is not free for the immigrants forced to play a part in a DeSantis publicity stunt at the expense of their rights and dignity, who were deceived by DeSantis administration officials with the promise of jobs and housing.

DeSantis has put $17 million in state funds toward waging his war on “woke.” Now, after handily crushing his lackluster Democratic opponent and garnering national hype as the future face of the GOP, DeSantis is pledging to keep going, making his state even less free for the people who could potentially keep him from further ascending in office.

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