Trump’s race rhetoric puts Republicans – including Gov. DeSantis – on the spot

By: - August 7, 2019 7:00 am
Trump and DeSantis

Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis. Ron DeSantiis campaign web site photo

Gov. Ron DeSantis has yet to join other Republican officeholders in Florida in openly decrying white nationalism following a weekend marked by mass shootings in Dayton and El Paso – the latter by an avowed racist and immigration opponent.

DeSantis hasn’t faced questioning from news reporters since the attacks. Aides did not respond when asked whether he planned to denounce sentiments described in an online “manifesto” posted by the accused El Paso gunman – whose words echoed President Trump’s often inflammatory language, such as comparing immigration an “invasion” by Hispanics.

They did point to initiatives DeSantis has taken to prevent such violence, including ordering the Florida Department of Law Enforcement “to develop a comprehensive threat assessment strategy that will aid law enforcement in identifying persons who are on the pathway toward violence and prevent tragedies from occurring.”

“The goal is to have recommendations for Florida strategy ready by the end of the year,” communications director Helen Aguirre Ferré said via email. “Florida is the first state in the country to pursue such a comprehensive threat assessment strategy.”

As for gun control, including the possibility of tightening background checks or banning assault weapons, the governor has not said anything following the weekend’s carnage – although he did sign legislation earlier to arm classroom teachers under some circumstances.

Meanwhile, Florida House Speaker Jose Oliva – a Republican like DeSantis – marshaled sterner words in reaction to the shootings. “Racism, including white nationalism, is a vile, disgusting, un-American ideology,” Oliva said.

Senate President Bill Galvano promised the Senate would investigate mass shootings. “This includes white nationalism, which appears to be a factor not only with regard to these recent mass shootings, but also with other acts of violence we have seen across the country in recent years,” he said.

Republican Rob Bradley, chairman of the powerful Appropriations Committee in the state Senate, also offered a full-throated denunciation: “The ideology of white supremacy is evil,” he tweeted. “It is the antithesis of what our country stands for and it offends God. It must be confronted aggressively so that it cannot metastasize further.”

DeSantis issued a tweet on Saturday lamenting “the tragic and senseless loss of life” in El Paso and Dayton. “Florida stands committed to do all that is necessary to support law enforcement efforts for the safety and security of our residents and visitors. May we pray for those who grieve and remember always that we are a resilient nation,” he added.

The governor spoke along similar lines Monday in remarks to the Florida Health Care Association convention in Orlando. “After the events over the weekend, Florida stands with our friends in Texas and Ohio,” he said. “I’m so fortunate to be able to work here in Florida with a lot of great first responders – and you see some of the people who were putting their lives on the line,” he said.

Republican political strategist Rick Wilson – no friend to Trump – argues that GOP leaders face increasing pressure to put daylight between themselves and the president’s increasingly overheated rhetoric about immigration and race.

“I don’t think of Ron DeSantis as a Trumpist white nat[ionalist]. I don’t consider him within that same category, because I think, frankly, he’s run a pretty up-the-line traditional Republican administration rather than a Trumpist version – so far, at least,” Wilson said in a telephone interview.

“When he [Trump] calls inner cities vermin-infested, and says no human would want to live there; when he talks about the invasions and the caravans and the shit holes, and they all clap and jump up and down and go, ‘Oh, he’s brilliant – it’s brilliant politics, this is a brilliant strategy’ – well, when that strategy blows up in their faces he’s not going to save them. They have to save themselves,” he said.

Right wing extremism most definitely is on the rise. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) reported in January that at least 50 murders had been linked to such extremists during 2018, more than in any single year since 1995 – the year Timothy McVeigh blew up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City and killed at least 168 people.

That represented a 35 percent increase over 2017. As for 2019, FBI Director Christopher Wray reported in Senate testimony that, as of late last month, the agency already had made as many domestic terrorism arrests as it had last year. “A majority of the domestic terrorism cases that we’ve investigated are motivated by some version of what you might call white supremacist violence,” he said at the time.

Florida, of course, has experienced mass shootings not linked to white nationalism, including the episode at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub, which killed 49 people in 2016, and at Marjory Stoneman Douglass High School in Broward County, which killed 17 students and staff. It also was home to Cesar Sayoc, a Trump fan who sent mail bombs to CNN offices plus Democrats including former President Obama and Hillary Clinton. The Dayton gunman, meanwhile, may have had left-wing and anti-police views. He killed nine people. At least 22 died in El Paso.

The situation poses political dangers for Republicans, according to Wilson.

“There are a lot of folks, including inside the Trump camp, who understand – whether they’ll tell you or not – that Donald Trump has built a hideous machine. And that machine, at the base of the party, has been very, very, very, very dedicated to following everything that Donald Trump says – immediately holding everybody else to that same standard,” he said.

“If I were counseling a Ron DeSantis, I would tell him, ‘Save yourself. Put a marker out there. Don’t be that guy who blindly follows Trump over the cliff on an issue where the nation is clearly breaking hard against the racial separatism that’s inherent in a lot of Trump’s anti-immigration message – and that has been perceived in the past couple of weeks as part of his racial message against members of color in Congress and cities governed by African Americans.’”

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Michael Moline
Michael Moline

Michael Moline has covered politics and the legal system for more than 30 years. He is a former managing editor of the San Francisco Daily Journal and former assistant managing editor of The National Law Journal. He began his career covering the Florida Capitol for United Press International. More recently, he wrote for Florida Politics.