DeSantis Knows Path to Victory Runs Through Right-Wing ChurchesRoundup
tags: churches, religious right, Evangelical Christianity, Christian Nationalism, Ron DeSantis
Katherine Stewart is the author of The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism.
When he ran for Senate in 1950, 37-year-old Richard Nixon referred to his political opponent, the California Congresswoman Helen Gahagan Douglas, as “The Pink Lady.” The point was to cast her as unfit for public office by emphasizing her femininity and insinuate that she was a Communist sympathizer. Nixon was also a race-baiter; in the last days of the campaign, thousands of postcards were mailed to voters in California’s white suburbs that bore a message from a fabricated organization: “Vote for Helen for Senator, We are with you 100%. The Communist League of Negro Women.” Nixon won that election with nearly 60 percent of the vote. He also made clear just what kind of leader he was going to be: dirty, divisive, and despicable.
Ron DeSantis has told us in many ways what kind of leader he intends to be. He shows us who he is when he repeatedly denounces “the radical left,” “communism” and “Marxist-type ideology” on the campaign trail; when he had his press secretary label supporters of LGBT rights as “groomers”; and when, during the 2018 gubernatorial election, he warned voters against supporting his opponent, Andrew Gillum, who is Black, telling them, “Don’t monkey this up.” He showed us when he promised to create a grand jury to “investigate” vaccines and “oversee the medical establishment” and said, “We choose freedom over Fauci-ism.”
The big question in American politics today is whether the Republican Party will continue its march toward authoritarianism or whether it will moderate. If DeSantis is indeed the front-runner for the Republican nomination—as much of the conservative media breathlessly repeats—then the answer is clear. Former President Donald Trump certainly knows it. That’s why he came up with one of his few actually clever nicknames for his new rival: Ron DeSanctimonious.
As Trump made clear throughout his troubled presidency and his failed coup attempt, authoritarianism may come to America on three wheels: a style of politics that emphasizes grievance and performative cruelty, the support of a critical number of self-interested and hyperwealthy individuals, and an alliance with the Christian nationalist movement.
It’s the third wheel of Trumpist politics—the alliance with the Christian nationalist movement—that gets the least attention. But it’s the one that matters most. This is why Trump is so enraged by the prospect of competing with DeSantis for the GOP nomination—and why he came up with the “DeSanctimonious” label.
It’s worth remembering that the turning point in Trump’s campaign wasn’t the descent on the escalator in Trump Tower; it was the moment in early 2016 when Jerry Falwell Jr. (then president of Liberty University, since disgraced) blessed Trump’s candidacy. Fellow Christian nationalist leaders promptly anointed the former reality-show star as “God’s man”—even if, as all present seemed to agree, he wasn’t exactly a godly man. You may not remember that moment, but chances are Ron DeSantis sure does.
An ad for the governor, released by his wife just before the midterm elections, makes his own bid for anointment official. “On the eighth day, God looked down on his planned paradise and said: ‘I need a protector,’” an off-screen voice intones as we take in DeSantis in heroic poses. “So God made a fighter.” As Trump and DeSantis understand equally well, the path to power in today’s Republican Party passes through an “endorsement” from the Almighty. Fortunately for DeSantis, blasphemy is not (yet) a crime in America.