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Bad Intentions
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Bad Intentions

Ron DeSantis, the left, and the Jacksonville massacre.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and his wife attend a vigil to honor the victims of a deadly shooting took place in Jacksonville on August 27, 2023. (Photo by Saul Martinez for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

On Saturday, an attentive security team spotted a white man behaving suspiciously on the campus of an historically black university in Jacksonville, Florida. Having drawn their attention, the man left and ended up at a nearby Dollar General store. There, he murdered three African Americans in cold blood before killing himself at the scene.

Responding officers found a swastika painted on one of his weapons. When they searched his home afterward, they found racist argle-bargle on his computer.

On Monday, at the White House, a reporter for NPR was keen to know how much blame, precisely, the governor of Florida bore for the attack.

The supposed blood on Ron DeSantis’ hands was a hot topic on the left all weekend.

DeSantis left the campaign trail and returned to Florida after the shooting, which was both the right thing to do and also unavoidable given the arrival of Hurricane Idalia this week. On Sunday, he spoke at a vigil for the three victims in Jacksonville and was received with the same enthusiasm he might currently expect at a Trump rally.

Angie Nixon, a state representative in Florida, stared daggers at him for the benefit of the cameras:

“It’s the audacity for me,” Nixon said on The App Formerly Known As Twitter. “Ron DeSantis is here and needs to apologize for his part in this.” After the governor spoke and called the shooter a “scumbag,” a pastor who followed him at the dais made a point of correcting him. “At the end of the day, respectfully, governor, he was not a scumbag,” he said. “He was a racist.”

On Tuesday, the Associated Press published its own report about the reception DeSantis received at the Jacksonville vigil. Steve Peoples, who co-wrote the piece, hyped it on social media by none-too-subtly implying that the governor’s policies had somehow—the mechanism isn’t clear—led to mass murder.

To a Blogger of a Certain Age, all of this seems familiar. And unfamiliar.

For my entire not-inconsiderable lifetime, a Republican politician addressing a black audience has been a hold-your-breath moment. Not if the audience is explicitly conservative, of course; an address to “African Americans for Trump” will be received as predictably as it would by any other “__________ for Trump” group.

But a prominent Republican addressing a general audience of black Americans? Awkwardness abounds. Friction is all but unavoidable, even on the most solemn occasions. No wonder it happens so rarely.

Blame Republicans for that. The so-called “southern strategy” that drew Dixiecrats from Team Blue to Team Red cemented the GOP as a heavily white party, willing to kiss off votes from the black minority by championing the grievances of the white majority. It was a ruthless yet fruitful trade-off in the medium term and it persists in some forms to this day. (See, for instance, the party’s dogged and dopey defense of Confederate iconography.) In the longer term, as America’s racial demographics have changed, it looks less fruitful.

Perhaps that’s begun to change under Trump as the GOP goes about remaking itself as a champion of the multiracial working class, ditching its “rich white guy” image. I wouldn’t bet my life on it, though. A populism that believes Trump’s mugshot is some sort of political masterstroke that connects with black voters is a populism that has a long way to go toward understanding unfamiliar constituencies.

We should, however, also reserve some blame for Democrats and their media allies for the GOP’s alienation from African Americans.

Because the parties now depend heavily on dominating different racial blocs, the modern left guards its enormous advantage among black voters jealously. Too jealously, in fact. Look no further than kindly grandpa Joe Biden viciously warning an African American audience in 2012 that Mitt Romney (Mitt Romney!) wanted to “put y’all back in chains.” Or the kindly grandpa’s current running mate flying down to Florida a few weeks ago to make the case that Republicans there are basically pro-slavery.

The left is never more cutthroat and demagogic than when it’s playing racial politics with the right—and it’s been that way for decades. The well is so poisoned that even if Ron DeSantis had spent the last four years governing like a smilin’ old-school Paul Ryan Republican, his appearance at Sunday’s vigil would have been tense. Decades of bad intentions across the political spectrum guaranteed the environment would be hostile during his appearance. That vibe was quite familiar.

Bad intentions also explain why DeSantis is being blamed for the massacre. That’s familiar too.

I’ve mentioned the near-assassination of Democratic Rep. Gabby Giffords in 2011 and its aftermath before, but, without writing at length, it’s hard to do justice to how much bad faith the left exhibited at the time in exploiting the shooting for political advantage. Giffords’ assailant turned out to be a barely lucid true-blue wackaloon; even so, in the hours after the attack many liberals coalesced around the idea that … Sarah Palin, of all people, was to blame.

Almost a year earlier, Palin had posted a map on her website emphasizing that certain Democratic incumbents should be targeted for defeat in the coming midterm elections. Giffords was one of them; the “targeting” symbol Palin chose to use was the crosshairs of a gun sight. In the hours after the attack, the map began to circulate among Democrats in the misplaced conviction that the attacker must have been inspired by it, proof at last that irresponsibly belligerent Tea Party rhetoric was going to get someone killed. Sarah Palin, the right’s most influential populist at the time, had blood on her hands.

But she didn’t. No evidence ever emerged that Giffords’ shooter saw the map or, if he did, that he gave it a moment’s thought. Liberals simply leaped to a political conclusion they wanted the wider public to draw—and were so insistent about it, and inspired so much media coverage of it, that Palin felt obliged to answer it in a video clarifying for the record that, no, she doesn’t support assassinations. She wasn’t governor of Alaska at the time, do note; she had already left that job. She put out the video as a private citizen, forced to try to hurriedly rebut an outrageous smear before the entire political world recklessly settled on the “fact” that she was a monster.

It didn’t work. The belief that Palin had inspired Giffords’ shooter remained so entrenched among liberals that it was still worming its way into New York Times editorials a decade later, when it almost (but not quite) resulted in a defamation judgment against the paper.

The point of Democrats’ Palin calumny was plain even at the time. Having just gotten wiped out in a Republican wave election, they feared and loathed the ascendant Tea Party movement and couldn’t resist an opportunity to try to turn the balance of American opinion against it. If conservative populism was hypothetically dangerous enough to inspire assassinations, it was clearly too dangerous to be trusted with power. Liberals waved the bloody shirt not because the mainstream right was radical but because it wasn’t, and they wanted it to be perceived that way. Guilt by association with a mass shooting for the Tea Party’s favorite politician was the means to that end.

The same thing is happening to Ron DeSantis now.

Because they can’t defeat his agenda on the merits at the polls, some Democrats are trying to demagogue it as kindling for domestic terrorism and hoping that that moves the needle against Republicans among swing voters. They’re leveraging an actual crime—an unusually horrendous one—to try to criminalize mainstream politics.

They have bad intentions.

As once before with Giffords and Palin, left-wing lawmakers and their media allies have scrambled to push this smear despite the lack of evidence that the murderer was inspired by any right-wing politician. There is evidence that, like Giffords’ shooter, the Jacksonville lunatic may have been less than lucid when he struck, having been involuntarily committed for a mental health examination once before. But insofar as his act was lucid and political, National Review asks a good question: By what logic do we assume that he must have been motivated by the policies of his state when racist massacres committed by whites continue to happen in very liberal states as well

Does it seem likely that someone who’s sufficiently far gone to have put a swastika on his gun would have remained peaceful if not for Ron DeSantis blathering about “wokeness” and DEI at press conferences? A racist 21-year-old with a computer and a modem will find inspiration online if he goes looking, but I’m guessing we’ll discover he was looking for it in darker places than the news section of the Orlando Sentinel.

If that’s so, then what, precisely, is the alleged ideological chain of causation between the governor and the man he’s derided repeatedly as a “scumbag”? Was mass murder simply “in the air”?

All of this is very, very familiar to a conservative who followed the Giffords/Palin saga.

But there’s an element of it that isn’t familiar. To me, at least.

In 2011, I was still naive enough about politics to believe that right-wing populists have basically good intentions. And why wouldn’t I have believed it? The Tea Party movement mouthed many of the same platitudes about smaller government that Reagan Republicans did. Less government would mean more freedom for everyone, they said. More freedom is always good.

But other political currents were swirling at the time, ones I should have paid more attention to. One was the weirdly cultish popularity of Sarah Palin.

You might not have grasped how intense her support was among right-wing activists circa 2011 if you followed politics through newspapers or television. If you followed it online via right-wing blogs, as I did, you knew. I assure you, Donald Trump is not the first Republican politician of the post-Bush era to enjoy a fan base willing to stridently defend his or her every utterance, no matter how stupid.

The Palin cult wasn’t as frightening as the Trump cult. It wasn’t as big, for one thing, and she isn’t remotely as corrupt as he is. But Palin’s sudden ascendance as the grassroots right’s supreme champion did feel like the triumph of a strain of anti-intellectualism that had flowered during the 2008 campaign. That fall, before the election, liberals posted videos showing Republican voters calling Barack Obama a terrorist and questioning his “blood line.” The Birther conspiracy was in full swing. At one of John McCain’s town halls, an older woman famously told the candidate that she didn’t trust his opponent because he’s an “Arab.”

Not all Tea Partiers were primarily concerned with smaller government, it turned out. I didn’t realize.

Either because she was unwilling or unable, Sarah Palin couldn’t exploit those sentiments and ride the tide to power. But someone eventually would.

Fifteen years later, I no longer presume good intentions by populist Republicans. Rather the opposite. That’s what’s unfamiliar to me about this strange reprise of the Giffords/Palin saga.

In particular, I think Ron DeSantis has too often had bad intentions as governor of Florida. So do some African Americans:

As governor, Mr. DeSantis sought to restrict enacting a popular referendum to restore the voting rights of many felons. After the George Floyd rallies, he signed legislation that many civil rights activists said criminalized political protests, as well as laws eliminating diversity and inclusion spending from state universities and restricting the teaching of the academic framework known as critical race theory. He also set up a new state police force to enforce election laws that arrested mainly Black people in a high-profile sweep and has seen many of its cases stumble in court. And he removed two elected state attorneys from office. Both were Democrats who supported criminal justice reform. One was Black.

We might defend any of those policies in isolation, on their individual merits. (I defended him over Florida’s new curriculum on black history just last month, in fact.) But in the context of DeSantis’ strategy for winning the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, it’s impossible to give him the benefit of the doubt on the purity of his motives.

His candidacy, after all, is premised upon wooing MAGA voters by out-Trumping Trump, and the way he goes about doing that is by making their enemies his enemies. Do you dislike “woke corporations”? Here comes DeSantis to smack Disney. Are you suspicious of vaccines? Here comes DeSantis with a criminal investigation of their manufacturers. Do you resent illegal immigrants for burdening America? Here comes DeSantis to all but airdrop them into the ritziest liberal enclaves in the U.S.

Everything he’s done as a national candidate-in-waiting has been geared toward making “the right enemies” to impress populists. So what are we to make of the fact that so many of his culture-war initiatives, from his crusade against “woke” hobby horses like CRT and DEI to “election policing” that targeted black Floridians disproportionately, have antagonized African Americans?

Some African American leaders have been suspicious of him for a while, believing that he’s trying to pander to the right’s worst elements by picking fights with them. “He attacks marginalized communities in general because his base doesn’t like them,” Angie Nixon told the New York Times. “Because that’s low-hanging fruit for him to gain even more points politically among a base of voters. That’s all he’s ever done—is to try to appeal to a base of people.” Is that not true? It precisely tracks his approach to exploiting the post-liberal populist zeitgeist. Your enemies will be President Ron’s enemies. He’ll keep the “wokesters” in line.

I don’t see why we shouldn’t arrive at the same conclusion as Nixon at this point, that his intentions in waging culture war are fundamentally selfish, demagogic, and bad. 

But of course that’s different than saying he should be blamed for a mass murder.

I don’t believe Ron DeSantis wants to see anyone dead. (Well, maybe one person.) And in the unlikely event that the Jacksonville lunatic found inspiration in the governor’s tired shtick about “wokeness,” I refuse to hold a politician morally culpable for what a psycho reads into otherwise mundane policy proposals—right-wing, left-wing, or otherwise. At the same time, I do understand why an audience of African Americans would greet DeSantis coolly, even at a moment when he’s keen to express sympathy and solidarity.

“You can’t take three or four years of his actions and then show up to the Black community saying, ‘I stand with you.’ No, you don’t,” one black state legislator in Florida told NBC News. They don’t trust a guy who’s bet all of his political chips on being perceived as “Trump but even more illiberal.” Can’t say I blame them.

Nick Catoggio is a staff writer at The Dispatch and is based in Texas. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 16 years gradually alienating a populist readership at Hot Air. When Nick isn’t busy writing a daily newsletter on politics, he’s … probably planning the next day’s newsletter.