For months, the entire country has been watching the Florida gubernatorial race between Andrew Gillum and Ron DeSantis. Entering the final days, Gillum supporters were cautiously optimistic that he could win the race, as he had pulled ahead (within the margin of error) in most national polls.
If Florida, which elected President Donald Trump by a narrow margin in 2016, could now elect a progressive black man to lead the state, then perhaps we would be seeing the end of the age of Trumpian terror. If Gillum could win Florida, many believed, there was hope for the rest of the nation.
Those hopes were dashed Tuesday night when DeSantis defeated Gillum by 75,000 votes.
The issue is not that DeSantis won. It is the fact the he won by playing on the same racist and divisive tactics that too often decide American elections.
The issue, however, was not that DeSantis won. Rather, it was the fact the he managed to win by playing on the same racist and divisive tactics that too often decide U.S. elections. DeSantis’ victory was a reminder that racism is still an effective strategy in American politics.
On the first official day of the general election race, DeSantis and his cronies jumped right into the fray of racism through the use of racial dog whistles. DeSantis, who was a congressman at the time, appeared on Fox News to essentially warn voters about Gillum’s candidacy. In a live interview, he urged voters not to “monkey this up” by voting for his opponent, undoubtedly drawing on a long history of animalistic anti-black tropes.
Not to be outdone by anyone in the field of racial dog whistling, Trump sent out a tweet a week before the election that described DeSantis as “a Harvard/Yale man,” tacitly inviting a comparison of DeSantis’ Ivy League pedigree to Gillum’s graduation from FAMU. Trump understood that white supremacist logic often encourages people to assume that a highly esteemed HBCU like FAMU must be inferior simply because it is historically black. Less subtly, Trump also referred to Gillum as a “thief,” continuing his pattern of using stereotypes like “lazy” and “low IQ” to describe black people with whom he disagrees.
These dog-whistle tactics by the DeSantis campaign and the president of the United States garnered outrage from prominent black voices like Al Sharpton and Don Lemon. Unfortunately, their rightfully indignant responses only galvanize less extreme (i.e., casually racist) white voters to believe that Gillum ― and, by proxy, all black people ― are merely being “too sensitive” on issues of race.
DeSantis’ dog-whistle tactics put a spotlight on the white voters who remain casually racist or willfully ignorant.
In truth, DeSantis’ dog-whistle tactics not only played to the overt racist nature and fears of some Floridians, but put a spotlight on the many white voters in the state who remain casually racist and willfully ignorant of how much racial progress still needs to be made in Florida and in the U.S. as a whole.
And in case blatantly racist fearmongering weren’t enough, DeSantis and his surrogates also deployed the language of socialism as a way of casting a shadow over Gillum’s campaign. Of course, if Gillum actually were a socialist, that would be an exciting and welcomed turn in American politics for many voters. But his desire for $15 per hour minimum wage, Medicare for everyone and corporate tax hikes is hardly the stuff of Bernie Sanders, much less Trotsky.
Still, by framing Gillum as a socialist, DeSantis was able to play to the anxieties of Florida’s political exiles from places like Venezuela and Cuba, for whom socialism signals a very particular social and political reality. Through this language, he was able to frame Gillum as a shadowy outsider whose political commitments would undermine traditional (read: white) American values.
The DeSantis campaign attempted to further scare voters by pointing out his association to the Dream Defenders, a group of black- and youth-led Florida activists committed to social justice. Through TV ads and rhetoric on the campaign trail, the DeSantis campaign used Gillum’s relationship with the Dream Defenders to convince voters of his “radical ties.”
In reality, the Dream Defenders support restorative justice, sensible gun laws, and the end of for-profit prisons. Even if you disagree with these ideals, they hardly merit the type of trepidation that DeSantis’ campaign rhetoric invited.
Of course, this isn’t the first time that we’ve witnessed this tactic. In 2007, right-wing media (and the Clinton campaign) attempted to scare white voters away from Barack Obama by linking him to prophetic preacher Jeremiah Wright.
Strategies like this not only play on racial fears, but they attempt to deliberately damage the relationship between black candidates and their progressive base, challenging them to make a choice between turning away from their supporters or risking alienating white voters. Fortunately, Gillum, unlike Obama, refused to disavow his allies for political expediency.
The irony, of course, is that it is DeSantis himself who has the most dangerous and radical ties. From his refusal to return campaign donations from avowed racists to his willingness to speak at conferences hosted by white nationalists, DeSantis’ entire campaign was marked by a commitment to coddling and centering white supremacists.
And he won.
DeSantis won because of, not in spite of, his subtle and overt gestures to white supremacy. He won because we remain in a country that votes its fears, not its hopes or highest ideals. And there is little reason to believe that this will change anytime soon.
Marc Lamont Hill is the Steve Charles professor of media, cities and solutions at Temple University, a CNN political commentator and a former host of HuffPost Live.