The Anti-Trans Crusade Was Supposed to Make DeSantis President. What Happens Now That He’s Gone?
In its desperation for a successor to Trump, right-wing media promoted the pet political cause of an uncharismatic pudding-fingered meatball.
Hey everyone, a quick note from Parker here.
I’d planned to try to write something about Ron DeSantis dropping out of the presidential race, but I’ll be honest: anything that requires diving head-first into the anti-trans world (as most things involving DeSantis do, by necessity) takes a pretty massive toll on my mental health. That’s why I was grateful to see one of my favorite trans writers, Evan Urquhart over at Assigned Media, had penned a perfect piece that touched on a lot of the questions I had about “Meatball Ron” and his ongoing nationwide campaign to demonize trans people.
It’s a great piece, and I want all of you to see it. Evan was kind enough to allow me to reprint it in today’s newsletter, which you’ll find below. Now, without further ado…
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How did attacking a harmless minority, one few Americans care about or even really understand, become the top policy priority of one of the two major political parties in the U.S.? The answer isn’t complicated, and it has nothing to do with trans people at all. The anti-trans moral panic was manufactured to sell Ron DeSantis as the savior of the Republican party after Trump. Everything else ultimately stems from the miscalculation that tried, and failed, to bring us President Meatball Ron.
Let’s start with what the moral panic over gender was not. Anti-trans legislation certainly never represented an attempt to address Republican voters’ actual concerns. We know because, in poll after poll, even Republicans place trans issues relatively low on their lists of concerns. Trans panic as a wedge issue also hasn’t been electorally successful, as the midterm elections of 2022 and the off-year elections in 2023 both showed. So what was the point of making it the top priority and overwhelming obsession of the right? Anti-trans politics had just one thing going for it, at least in the minds of Republican consultants: attacks on trans people were what differentiated Ron DeSantis from Donald Trump.
And the Republican establishment really, really wanted Ron DeSantis to beat Donald Trump.
Over the weekend, Ron DeSantis ended his campaign for president. However, as recently as the final RNC debate on December 6, he was still trying to use attacks on trans people to distinguish his campaign. Lying openly, DeSantis claimed that parents of trans kids were “cutting off their genitals” and used the word “mutilation,” referencing procedures that are only available for trans adults.
This desperate performance, in the waning days of a failed presidential campaign, represented the culmination of years of work DeSantis put in as governor of Florida to make his name synonymous with the most extreme anti-trans legislation in the country. During his governorship, he pushed for, and got, a full ban on trans children’s healthcare (not genital surgeries but hormone therapy and puberty blockers for kids whose doctors and parents agree that these were necessary steps). He also heavily restricted trans healthcare for adults, censored educational material about LGBTQ+ people for school children in K-12, banned trans teachers from explaining their transition to their classes, banned trans people from using appropriate restrooms in public buildings, and even attempted to ban drag performances in the state.
All of that work just to wind up as an also-ran who dropped out of the race before New Hampshire. It would be funny, except for the consequences of attempts by the establishment to anoint him the future of the Republican Party will be felt by the trans community across the country for years, and perhaps decades, to come.
Mainstream dissections of what went wrong with Ron DeSantis’ campaign are in full flood today, and they all follow much the same script. DeSantis was initially feted by donors and others of the Republican establishment. In the end, however, was perceived by MAGA voters, hopped up on Trumpism, as a weak-sauce alternative to the real Trump. These discussions usually mention DeSantis’ anti-LGBTQ+ record, but briefly, as a throw-away.
In Republican politics, however, the attempt to elevate DeSantis’ anti-trans policies into the national spotlight shaped the output of every right-wing think tank, every news outlet and two-bit blog, and every Republican-controlled legislature in every state.
We know that Republican elites wanted DeSantis, and wanted him bad. Emails uncovered by the Tampa Bay Times through freedom of information laws exposed how desperately Fox News courted the governor, requesting appearances so often that sometimes four or five requests would come in on a single day. One Fox producer even openly told a DeSantis communications director, “We see him as the future of the party.” Early donations also went wild, and even many mainstream pundits began taking note.
And, while Fox News was raising the profile of the governor directly with hour after hour of airtime, they and others in the Republican establishment clearly sought just as hard to raise the profile of his signature issues. In the early days of DeSantis’ shadow campaign for president, the focus was on anti-mask and anti-vax posturing, with vaccines being considered a key weakness for Trump, who touted the vaccine as one of his accomplishments even despite the anti-vax conspiracies that rocked his base. However, as COVID-19 faded from prominence (however prematurely and unwisely), the Republican establishment began pushing anti-trans attacks in parallel with their attempts to elevate DeSantis to the national stage.
Anti-trans propaganda in the right-wing media has been the main focus of Assigned Media, so regular readers won’t have to be told that at the height of the anti-trans moral panic conservative websites were running dozens of stories on trans issues a week. These ranged from outright falsehoods, like the claims that in Loudoun, VA, a boy who raped his classmate in a girls’ bathroom was a trans girl or the claim that a young adult saw the penis of a trans woman who had no such organ in a locker room in CA. It also included a huge range of distortions, half-truths, and empty pontificating, some of which were taken up by the mainstream media as conservatives relentlessly touted this issue above all else. The hyperfocus on trans issues, and only trans issues, was so intense and overriding on the right that conservative groups who had been formed in response to the previous moral panic over “CRT” cracked up under the pressure to retool themselves to focus on gender instead.
Slightly behind the media obsession came the legislative obsession with passing anti-trans laws in red states, an effort that is in its second January of being the number one priority of state legislatures dominated by the GOP.
Why was this focus on the trans community so sudden, all-consuming, and intense? While reporting has focused on the activists pushing anti-trans laws, it doesn’t really explain why the right blew up a niche issue, beloved mainly by religious crackpots. Why did Republicans want this to be the center of their messaging and policy strategy nationwide? For that, you need to understand that DeSantis was supposed to be the guy.
In order for DeSantis to win the Republican primaries, as the Republican establishment desperately wanted him to do, Republican voters needed to be primed to see his signature issue as being of paramount importance. Looking past the primary, the Republicans needed the wider US public to start to recognize the issue too. They needed trans people as enemy number one, replacing the immigrants who’d served as the primary scapegoat for Donald Trump. This is speculation, but having trans people as a scapegoat may also have made economic sense to the wealthy donor class who floated the DeSantis campaign. American businesses don’t run on trans workers, but many of them quietly, secretively, run on migrant labor. From the perspective of capitalists, trans rights likely seemed a much more frictionless sacrifice to make to MAGA rage.
Of course, DeSantis has been belligerently anti-immigrant as well, as have all serious Republican contenders, but no candidate can hope to out-racist Donald Trump. What DeSantis thought he could do was run to Trump’s right on issues relating to LGBTQ+ rights. DeSantis never attacked Trump on his authoritarianism, lawlessness, or hate-fueled rhetoric, but they did try desperately to paint Trump as insufficiently fueled by anti-LGBTQ hate in ads.
The effort failed, partly because the bulk of GOP voters remain much more racist than anti-LGBTQ+, but largely because no one seriously believes a candidate who claims he can out-nasty Trump. Whatever minority the GOP base wants attacked, they know Trump is happy to oblige. In fact, the anti-trans portions of Trump’s stump speech have even more perfectly attuned themselves with the prejudices of his base, making cis women their main target, and using trans people merely as a vehicle for mocking cis women in sports.
DeSantis failed, and the elevation of trans issues has not succeeded in winning either elections or hearts and minds. It has been successful in passing legislation making life immeasurably harder for trans people in many states, though, and the lackluster defense of trans rights from the left has left the future for ordinary trans people very much in doubt.
Thus, the whimpering end of Ron DeSantis’ presidential campaign which started the anti-trans moral panic is far from the end of Republican attacks on transgender rights. Already 2024 has seen more legislation attacking the trans community than 2023 had at this time, which itself was much more than 2022, which was more than the country had ever seen before. Now that the beast has been fed, it will rampage out of control, and no one can predict when, or if, the destructive politics of hatred DeSantis’ candidacy unleashed will end.
Still, as DeSantis fades into irrelevancy, you cannot understand the current state of trans rights in the US without understanding the GOP’s attempt to sell Ron DeSantis as “the future of the party” among the GOP elite. In order for the party to have a future after Trump, they needed to have a candidate. In order for them to have a candidate, their candidate needed to have an issue. In order to have an issue, they needed to sell a moral panic. Now the candidate’s balloon has burst, but the panic rages on.