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Ahead of an expected White House run, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has found few foes he won’t quarrel with in the hopes of winning plebes in his looming culture war. He’s taken on college sports for allowing transgender athletes in the pool; Ben and Jerry’s for not making its ice cream more supportive of Israel; even Mickey Mouse for having the gall to (eventually) oppose his anti-LGBT “Don’t Say Gay” policies.
The 2024 hopeful’s latest target may excite his base, but could leave millions of students with fewer options to prepare for their future. DeSantis announced on Monday that Florida might “reevaluate” its relationship with the College Board, the educational nonprofit best known for administering the SATs and Advanced Placement curriculum. The College Board’s sin, it seems, is having an AP course on Black history that, well, taught a fulsome version of the subject that critics said bordered on Critical Race Theory.
The threat is a potential P.R. win for DeSantis with parents who think outsiders set the curriculum for teachers and thus oppose it out of hand. But beyond being fodder for a GOP base fixated on self-victimization, AP courses allow students—and universities—to broaden educational opportunities and offload some entry-level courses onto local schools’ budgets. DeSantis supporters unhappy about AP African American Studies may be less thrilled about him coming after AP Bio and Spanish.
For a Republican looking to lead a party that has historically framed itself as pro-business and –local control, DeSantis’ meddling in so many boardrooms and classrooms would seem like a self-sabotaging route. The picture becomes clearer as you look at his other decisions, like his championing an anti-scientific approach to Covid-19 that made him a hero to the right and subsuming a small college’s board in service of fighting Wokeness. And in all honesty, would any of DeSantis’ predecessors—all elected as Republicans in this century, it’s worth noting—have thought it was a good idea to punish the state’s largest private employer by ending Walt Disney World’s autonomy to decide if it should build another waterpark?
This all seems shocking, at least until you realize DeSantis’ efforts are all in service of catering to a base he believes endures an aggrieved life beset by The Wokes who want to police political thought. When you recognize that—and remember that he is chasing a presidential nomination against Donald Trump, the victima maximus of the Republican Party—DeSantis’ moves suddenly make more sense.
Picking a fight with the culture has seldom been a losing strategy since the 1960s. Richard Nixon—coached by fellow Trumbull County, Ohio, native and Ohio University alumnus Roger Ailes who went on to helm Fox News—won his campaign on behalf of the so-called “silent majority.” Trump, with the help of another Roger with roots in the Nixon era, reprised that trope to bookend an era that saw politicians of both parties perfect the art of demonizing “welfare queens,” rap music, pop-music profanity, even the presidency itself.
Voters, though, should take a beat and appreciate the peril in such instant gratification. When DeSantis first picked a fight with Disney, his initial effort would have ended up costing the parks’ neighbors more than $2,000 in added taxes to pick up the tab that Tinkerbell previously carried. (DeSantis ended up redrawing his battlelines to dodge the accurate ledger.)
Such backtracking reveals how symbolic political wins can have limited value. With the College Board as his latest crusade target, DeSantis is dinging an organization largely seen as a functionary of the privileged who can take the smart courses and sit for college entrance exams. It’s the exact battle DeSantis thrives in, the kind that triggers the working-class id of the modern Republican base. Sticking it to the man, after all, can be fun. DeSantis has done it to students who dared compete on sports teams that match their gender identity, to Disney for not being a yes-man to his efforts to remove talk about LGBT individuals from schools, and maybe even now to an education giant for daring to teach the truth about Black history.
It may carry DeSantis to the starting line of the 2024 campaign as its culture warrior, but all of that armor and weaponry may be too clunky for him to go the distance in a nation increasingly exhausted from the screaming.
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