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The biggest problem with Ron DeSantis’s announcement wasn’t Twitter

Can a governor in the grip of “woke derangement syndrome” break through to a larger audience?

DeSantis photographed mid-speech, speaking into a small podium microphone with his hand raised in the air.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during an event at Sioux Center, Iowa, on May 13, 2023.
Rebecca S. Gratz/The Washington Post via Getty Images
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

The obvious story of Ron DeSantis’s campaign announcement on Twitter was the series of embarrassing technical failures that marred the event. But what DeSantis actually said — at least, when I could hear him — revealed a potentially bigger long-term problem for his campaign: He’s obsessed with all the wrong things.

Throughout the event, DeSantis and Elon Musk talked endlessly about wokeness and its various purported evils — often in language that would be utterly alien to anyone who isn’t saturated in the cultural obsessions of the online right. The word “woke” passed DeSantis’s lips more times than I could count. He relitigated the details of YouTube’s decisions on content management during Covid, claimed Disney “obviously supported” injecting gender ideology in elementary school,” and warned of a (seemingly fictitious) Biden administration plot to “regulate [Bitcoin] out of existence.”

An entire question was devoted to ESG — shorthand for socially conscious investing that considers environmental, social, and governance factors, an approach that has become reviled in certain corners of the right. But most Americans have barely heard of ESG and don’t really care about it. In his answer, DeSantis never even bothered to say what the acronym stood for.

This is not a one-off problem for DeSantis. Last month, the Bulwark’s Tim Miller, a former Republican operative, analyzed DeSantis’s public pronouncements and noticed all the same problems — right down to the yammering on about ESG without telling the audience what it was. This led Miller to compare DeSantis’s campaign to Elizabeth Warren’s in 2020: a huge hit with the educated elites on their side of the aisle, but one that has trouble speaking in a register that connects with the normie voters who decide elections.

As if to prove the point, DeSantis fell into the exact same trap in a Fox News interview immediately following the Twitter event. “The woke mind virus is basically a form of cultural Marxism. At the end of the day it’s an attack on the truth. And because it’s a war on truth, I think we have no choice but to wage a war on woke,” he told host Trey Gowdy.

What was on display in the DeSantis launch was a candidate so gripped by the right’s vision of apocalyptic culture war that he may have strayed too far from the ordinary voter’s reality. Call it “woke derangement syndrome” — a condition that could doom DeSantis’s candidacy before it really gets started.

Woke derangement syndrome is real, and Ron DeSantis has a bad case

“Woke derangement syndrome” is not the same as being generically “anti-woke.” There are plenty of pundits and academics who have presented cogent and reasonable criticisms of the dominant approaches to identity politics on the contemporary left — ranging from Adolph Reed Jr. on the socialist left to my former colleague Matt Yglesias on the center left to Glenn Loury on the center right. Their ideas merit serious engagement rather than dismissal.

Rather, woke derangement syndrome is an obsessive focus on the evils of wokeness that warps one’s worldview. The afflicted’s participation in the culture war has, in one shape or another, distorted their judgment and weakened their hold on reality.

Elon Musk is an especially vivid example. He was once primarily known as a visionary tech founder who helped pioneer commercial electric vehicles; now his public fixation with “the woke mind virus” has defined his public persona and pretty much blotted out every other issue for him. The obsession has curdled into an increasingly conspiratorial worldview and a flirtation with outright bigotry.

DeSantis’s governance of Florida has shown a similar tendency to see everything through the woke lens. Whether it’s his attempt to transform a small public college into a right-wing academy, his seemingly unconstitutional effort to punish social media companies for content regulation, or the “Don’t Say Gay” law restricting education on LGBTQ topics in primary school, the culture war has dominated DeSantis’s agenda.

Nowhere is this clearer, or seemingly more counterproductive, than his never-ending war with Disney. After the mega-corporation put out a mild statement criticizing the Don’t Say Gay law, DeSantis went nuclear — stripping some of the company’s special tax privileges and leading to an escalating fight that played a role in Disney’s decision to scrap a $1 billion new office development in the state (a loss of about 2,000 Floridian jobs).

Polling numbers suggest this might not even pay off politically. A recent Yahoo/YouGov poll found that two-thirds of Americans had not heard much about the DeSantis-Disney fight, and those who had paid attention were much more likely to be liberal MSNBC viewers than conservative Fox watchers.

In the long arc of his political career, DeSantis has displayed a fairly impressive ability to morph his identity in a manner that fits the moment. At various points, as my colleague Andrew Prokop shows, he has been a Tea Party libertarian, a fawning Trump supporter, a quietly pragmatic purple state governor, and a hardline opponent of Covid lockdowns and school closures. The throughline is his ambition and adaptability: DeSantis figures out what kind of Republican the political moment calls for and becomes it.

Right now, he perceives the moment calls for DeSantis, the anti-woke warrior. There’s some evidence supporting him: The Yahoo/YouGov poll found that 71 percent of Republicans believe “wokeness” is a major problem for the country, a finding consistent with political science research that the culture war really is at the heart of America’s political divide.

But it’s one thing to care deeply about cultural issues like race, immigration, and gender — and another thing altogether to communicate about it in the bizarrely specific way that DeSantis does. He has become so conversant in the online right’s lingo, so in the weeds on the various different obsessions of the anti-woke world, that he risks leaving behind a large swath of the voting public. The very decision to announce on Twitter, a platform plagued by technical issues and used by relatively few Americans, underscores the problem.

Contrast DeSantis’s approach to culture war with Trump’s visceral, angry, populist attacks on the elites. Nattering on about ESG and DEI is very different from saying “build the wall” or “lock her up.” DeSantis speaks to the culture war’s generals; Trump is speaking to its foot soldiers.

To be fair, Trump lapses into his own conspiratorial world with its share of characters and plots that only the diehards can follow. But that’s perhaps the weakest part of his public persona, one that DeSantis could theoretically take advantage of during the primary — if he weren’t suffering from a similar problem.

Whether DeSantis truly believes what he’s saying is almost immaterial; what’s clear is that his endless participation in the culture war has convinced him that performing an arcane version of Trump’s shtick conveys competence rather than weirdness. This is the problem with woke derangement syndrome in a nutshell: It twists people’s authentic judgment. They become so obsessed with the alleged evils of “the woke” that they cannot tell true from false, helpful from hurtful, proportionate from disproportionate. DeSantis may not even believe that he needs to change the way he acts and talks to beat Trump.

DeSantis still has time to return to reality. But if he really has been afflicted with the same kind of brain worms as Elon Musk — and his decision to announce alongside the Twitter owner very much suggests he has — then he’s in even deeper trouble than his crashing poll numbers suggest.

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