This article is an Opinion piece.
Despite the glamor of the Cocaine Cowboys and the drama of government officials, Floridian politics have long been considered moderate. Unfortunately, hatred is rearing its ugly head, with extremists in government seeking to normalize their dangerous opinions across the peninsula. With anti-LGBT rallies, antisemitism on the rise and neo-Nazis projecting swastikas on buildings and the Floridian flag, the Sunshine State is looking pretty dark these days.
Florida has long been a diverse society since its founding in 1513, as the state is home to people of various races, cultures, languages, religions and ways of life. However, the ruling classes have not always been tolerant of those who diverged from what was deemed acceptable — whether it was Native Americans during the Spanish colonial period, Black people during the chattel slavery and Jim Crow periods or LGBTQ+ communities in the mid-20th century. While Florida has come a long way since those dark times, some individuals and groups are trying to drag it back to an age where exclusion was the norm and hatred was accepted.
Florida has recently become ground zero for extremism not only in the United States but the broader Western World. The shifting political paradigm in Florida has even caught the attention of politicians in other countries — the premier of the Australian state of Queensland went as far as telling local anti-LGBT protesters to “get to Florida,” comparing participants in the demonstrations to members of the Republican Party of Florida.
So, what happened, and how did we get here?
Florida is home to a number of hate groups, and some are feeling more emboldened than ever, with groups like Moms for Liberty, the Proud Boys, the Oath Keepers and National Socialist Florida. These groups are slowly garnering more attention, weaving their way into the mainstream political fabric. Their increased influence over politics in the state is partly due to the high levels of coordination between such groups.
The Anti-Defamation League noted that there now exists an unprecedented level of coordination among White nationalist groups in the state. Many groups also feel empowered to fully broadcast their ideologies in public forums because of the popularity of certain political figures, such as Gov. Ron DeSantis, who include far-right talking points into their rhetoric.
Notably, Nate Hochman, a now-fired staff member for DeSantis’ presidential campaign crafted and disseminated a pro-DeSantis video. The video placed him in the middle of the Floridian flag where the state seal was replaced by the Sonnenrad, an ancient Celtic and Nordic symbol appropriated by the Nazis. The video also heavily featured homophobic symbolism touting bills passed by the Florida Legislature which targeted LGBTQ+ rights, such as Senate Bill 1557 — the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill.
Sen. Blaise Ingoglia, R-11, also introduced Senate Bill 1248, which aimed to ban the Florida Democratic Party, though the bill died in committee, presumably due to its antidemocratic nature.
Additionally, as reported by The New Republic, leaked chats from the messaging platform Signal showed that DeSantis’ campaign committee was involved in the making and approval of such controversial videos, although there was no indication that DeSantis’ rapid response director Christina Pushaw, who was in the chat, approved of the addition of the Sonnenrad. DeSantis did not condemn or explicitly address the video.
Indeed, Florida has become a magnet for these types of extremists — 90 of the 855 protestors convicted of for the January 6 insurrection were from Florida, the highest number from any state. But the problem is growing across the country. An Associated Press poll conducted in 2022 found that 1 in 3 Americans now believe in certain aspects of the Replacement Theory, a debunked conspiracy theory which argues that liberal politicians are trying to replace White American citizens with non-White immigrants for electoral gains.
In an exclusive interview with Distraction, Florida Democratic Party chair Nikki Fried was questioned on the current state of Floridian politics. “For decades, the extremes of both parties were just that: the extremes. And they weren’t in leadership roles, they weren’t dictating policy perspectives, and they weren’t in a position to actually effectuate change in policy,” said Fried.
“But unfortunately, in Florida, over the last few election cycles, these types of individuals are getting into leadership roles and are crafting policies that are taking our state in a very dangerous direction, even though it truly does not reflect the people who are living here in our state,” she later added.
Fried also mentioned she considered DeSantis and former president Donald Trump to be not the root causes of the issue, but symptoms of it.
“There’s always been divisiveness in our state and in our country. And I take this example all the time that, look at Germany. After Germany lost World War 2, there were no remnants of the Nazi Party.” said Fried. “Whereas here, in America, when the Confederacy lost, they still had monuments celebrating Confederate leaders. We still have Confederate flags flying all throughout the state. What Ron DeSantis and Donald Trump knew, is that [they] knew how to teach the art of fear.”
These factors compound when accounting for the speed at which dis- and misinformation can spread in the digital age. Social media has become a powerful tool for extremist groups, allowing them to gain traction more quickly and appear as bigger threats than they truly are.
But how can hateful, fringe ideologies start gaining traction in such a diverse society? The answer lies in their adaptiveness. Hatred comes in many forms and is often tailored to current demographic realities. While the Ku Klux Klan and Nationalist Socialist Florida infamously employ overtly bigoted symbols and messaging, other groups remain more subtle, appearing inclusive on the surface.
One such example is Moms for Liberty, a Melbourne, Florida-based political action group founded by former school board members that has gained worldwide attention for its fight against what it refers to as “woke indoctrination,” as well as its involvement in removing certain books from public K-12 schools. The Southern Poverty Law Center describes them as a group that presents itself as a modern parents’ rights organization with chapters that perpetuate views that are aligned with anti-government conspiracies, anti-LGBTQ+ beliefs and anti-inclusive instructional practices.
The Anti-Defamation League similarly reports that antisemitic incidents in Florida have more than doubled since 2020, hitting an all-time high both in the Sunshine State and across the United States. The ADL recorded 269 incidents in 2022, a 42% increase from the previous year in Florida. The organization notes that the largest single source for the increase in these antisemitic incidents was activity attributed to right-wing extremist and White supremacy groups, with 118 related to political extremists.
There have been several controversial antisemitic incidents recently across the peninsula, with groups going across public colleges late last year spreading the message “Ye was right,” a reference to Kanye West’s 2022 antisemitic tirade on a podcast with White supremacist Nick Fuentes, expressing admiration for Adolf Hitler.
More recently, however, the Israel-Palestine conflict is being felt closer to home, with many people fearing a rise in Islamophobia and antisemitism. The Anti-Defamation League cites that antisemitic incidents are up by nearly 400% from this time last year, and college campuses across the country have become ideological battlegrounds with regards to the ongoing conflict in the Middle East.
UM student Ulysses del Pino, a junior political science major and local Floridian, said Florida’s shift to the right hasn’t entirely surprised him. “What does surprise me is the effectiveness and influence that individuals like Ron DeSantis and Donald Trump have in persuading people, especially in Florida, to believe that the legislation they support is foundational for the country, even though these legislations are intentionally negative toward women, BIPOC, and the LGBTQ+ community in our state,” he said.
On the other hand, a junior linguistics major and exchange student who wished to remain anonymous said that she has not noticed much of the extremism in her daily life and remains mostly unaffected. “I didn’t know about or notice these forms of extremism, so it hasn’t really influenced me,” said the anonymous student.
Just f*cking vote — for Democrats.
words&photo_matt jiménez. design_lizzie kristal.
This article was published in Distraction’s Winter 2023 print issue.
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