The race between Republican Congressman Ron DeSantis and charismatic, African-American Democrat Andrew Gillum to be the next governor of Florida offers citizens the opportunity not only to reverse 20 years of Republican rule in the Sunshine State but also to elect their first-ever black governor. It has also featured some of the most toxic racism of the entire election cycle, and in last night's debate, Gillum got to lay it all out.
Ron DeSantis's Racism
DeSantis has a long history of stoking racial fires. Since his election to Congress, he has associated himself with far-right maven David Horowitz, host of the David Horowitz Freedom Center conferences. Despite Horowitz's history of horrendous statements against blacks, Jews, and Muslims, DeSantis attended and spoke at multiple iterations of this event, and offered praise to him and his organization in his speech to the 2015 conference. The day after Gillum's upset victory last August, DeSantis warned Florida voters on Fox News not to "monkey this up," a clear dog whistle to anyone who was listening. Gillum reminded voters that the phrase was "not commonly used," which is the politic way of saying that DeSantis made it up.
Shortly after the campaign proper began, an Idaho-based white supremacy group called Road to Power made a series of robocalls for DeSantis that featured a man impersonating Gillum in a minstrel show dialect. DeSantis, his campaign, and even governor Rick Scott condemned the calls, but that was not enough to dissuade the group, who made a new round of robocalls this week. This time, Gillum's name was accompanied by monkey noises in the background. Apparently, those who heard DeSantis's made-up phrase got the message loud and clear.
Then there is the matter of Steven M. Alembik, a DeSantis backer who called Obama a "Muslim [N-word]" on Twitter and then feigned ignorance when he was called out on it. Alembik, who had lined up a speech for DeSantis at Mar-a-Lago last February, had donated $20k to DeSantis's campaign. Although DeSantis disavowed his supporter's remarks, he did not return his donation.
All of this came to a head in last night's debate, when moderator Todd McDermott offered DeSantis the chance to address these criticisms, particularly those about his association with Horowitz. DeSantis tried interrupting him but McDermott held his ground, reminding him, "It's not a McCarthy game."
After confronting him with several of Horowitz's remarks, an exasperated DeSantis shouted, "How the hell am I supposed to know every single statement somebody makes?" This drew an audible gasp from the audience, as he launched into a disingenuous bromide saying that he would "represent all the people" if elected, but added:
"I am not going to bow down to the altar of political correctness, I am not going to let the media smear me like they like to do with so many other people, and I certainly am not going to take anything from Andrew Gillum."
Throughout this statement, Gillum had the same smile that 1988 vice-presidential Lloyd Bentsen had when his opponent, Senator Dan Quayle, compared himself to John F. Kennedy, allowing Bentsen to deliver his famous rebuttal. Now it was his turn to respond:
“Let me first say, my grandmother used to say ‘a hit dog will holler’ and it hollered through this room. Mr. DeSantis has spoken. First of all, he’s got neo-Nazis helping him out in this state, he has spoken at racist conferences, he’s accepted a contribution, and would not return it, from someone who’s referred to the former President of the United States as a ‘Muslim n****r.’ When asked to return that money, he said ‘no.’ He’s using that money to now fund negative ads. Now, I’m not calling Mr. DeSantis a racist. I’m simply saying that racists believe he’s a racist.”
As Slate columnist Jamelle Bouie tweeted afterward, "If I got roasted this bad on stage I would quit the race."
The brilliance of Gillum's response is that rather than calling DeSantis a racist to his face, he let the audience do the math. Since Trump's election, many have been forced to learn how racism operates, and Gillum spoke both to those who knew this already and those still learning for themselves. He also proved that he understood his supporters' fears that another demagogue in the mold of Rick Scott might win unless Gillum stood up to slay the giant.
What Does This Portend?
Although FiveThirtyEight gives Gillum a slim lead over DeSantis, this may end up being like last year's governor's race in Virginia between Democrat Ralph Northam and Republican Ed Gillespie. Gillespie ran a Trump-style campaign based on stoking racial divides, and many thought the polls would be close. But as the results came in, Northam won by nine points. That same year, Republican Roy Moore lost his Senate race in Alabama despite his Trumpian stances on racism, sexual assault, and Russia, handing the seat to Democrats for the first time in 25 years.
DeSantis and other candidates in this cycle have been campaigning as mini-Trumps, but so far, Trumpism has only worked for one person: Donald Trump. His run for president in 2016 taught many people how to detect, report, and comprehend racism (as well as a host of other vicious isms), and Americans have caught wise to the way these techniques play out on the campaign trail. Hopefully, this newfound understanding will translate into victories for candidates like Andrew Gillum, who will govern for the many instead of the few, and force racism back into the dark corners of society where it belongs.