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In April, conservative activist Christopher Rufo flew from his home, near Seattle, Miami, to meet with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, and participate in the public signing of the Stop WOKE bill. A former documentary filmmaker and senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, Rufo was the lead protagonist of last year’s rampage over public “critical race theory” lectures in public schools and helped the governor advise on Florida law aimed at limiting discussion of racial history and identity. in schools and workplaces. Rufo was especially delighted with how much DeSantis was personally invested in politics. “He shows up on the runway at 6:30 in the morning. with a Red Bull energy drink, ready to go through policy documents, ”Rufo said. The bill did not come from the governor’s advisers or citizens: “He is initiating it.”

Rufo also came to think that the issue he helped raise – national conservative resentment over progressive teaching and training on race and gender – had reached a new, stronger stage. At the same session of the legislation, a law on parental rights in education was drafted, which its democratic opponents condemned as the “Don’t speak gay” law, which prohibits schools from teaching anything about sexual orientation and gender identity to students under the third grade. which such instructions accompany at any age the requirements to be set by the state board of education, make parental permission a prerequisite for a range of mental health counseling and interventions, and give parent groups broad freedom to sue school districts if they believe teachers or administrators are not. adhere to. On Fox News, the story of Leah Thomas, a transgender swimmer at the University of Pennsylvania, aired non-stop; for members of a conservative educational movement such as Rufo, the shift from race to gender issues — which combine the rhetoric of parental control with old-fashioned sexual panic — seemed to offer a huge political promise.

The parental rights movement took root before the Supreme Court decision last week to overturn Roe v. Wade. But the same pattern within social conservatism that has shaped the struggles over educational control — namely, the willingness to move forward with laws that are deliberately opposed, even if poll numbers oppose it — is likely to reappear in the post-Roe struggle over abortion. Kevin Roberts, president of the Heritage Foundation, said the Florida bill would “be a calling card for conservative education reform efforts” and described Rufo as “an icon of this movement.” A spokesman for Heritage Action for America, the political-advocacy-action branch of Roberts’ think tank, told Reuters that, among the basics, the issue generated “the most energy (among Republicans) since the Tea Party.”

After the Supreme Court upheld the equality of marriages in the case of Obergefell v. Hodges, in 2015, the general political wisdom was that issues concerning the rights of homosexuals were more or less resolved. Even Donald Trump has largely avoided this topic. Religious affiliation in the United States is steadily declining, a part of the country that is both white and Christian is declining sharply, and there is no organization like the Christian Coalition of the past. In other words, this pattern is a little different: the policy of social conservatism is growing, with no visible cultural movement toward traditionalism.

Writing recently in the Times, Nate Hochman of the National Review argued that personalities like DeSantis, Rufo, and Tucker Carlson are building a new brand of social conservatism, one that has risen from the ashes and materially deviated from the religious themes of generations before. “Instead of an explicit biblical focus on issues such as school prayer, no-fault divorce, and homosexuality, the new coalition is focused on issues of national identity, social integrity, and political alienation,” Hochman wrote. “We are just beginning to see its impact. Laws against critical race theory, laws against transgender people, and parental rights laws that have gripped the country in recent years are the introductory blows of the movement. ”

In American politics, ideology is often a smokescreen for individual ambitions. We have movements, but we really have movers. The situation is particularly pronounced in the right wing of the Republican Party, where post-Trump chaos has left several permanent factions, and loyalty is constantly being renewed. Even the most basic questions were vague in Florida, including whether this type of anti-indoctrination campaign hit most voters as needed. A non-partisan poll conducted by the University of Florida found that forty percent of voters were in favor and forty-nine percent against. But another, Republican firm Public Opinion Strategies, found a completely different result: sixty-one percent for and twenty-nine percent against.

In such a situation, the concrete steps taken by DeSantis were important. One was obvious from afar: he and his allies described their political opponents not only as leftists, but also as “friends” – a slogan that indicated that the Democratic Party was in some way an accomplice in pedophilia. On March 4, while the debate was still ongoing, DeSantis’ press secretary, Christina Pushaw, announced on Twitter, “If you’re against the anti-grooming law, you’re probably a hairdresser, or at least you don’t condemn grooming 4- 8-year-olds.” In an official statement, DeSantis celebrated the signing of the law, in part saying that parents “should be protected from schools that use classroom instruction to sexualize their children from the age of five”. (The rhetoric has since spread: MP Elise Stefanik, a third-ranked member of the Republican leadership team in the House of Representatives, tweeted that “common pedo cheaters” have failed to respond to a lack of infant formula.)

Since there is no evidence to support claims of a widespread increase in sexual abuse in schools, and since DeSantis and his allies described the problem so generally, there was nothing concrete that Democrats could refute. It is even claimed that allegations of grooming are unfounded in some way raised their profile. Some Democrats have seen only a set of well-known interest groups: as Florida Progressive Representative Anna Eskamani told me: “The school selection movement is, like, one hundred percent invested in things like this, because they benefit from public education attacked as extreme or inappropriate, because this leads to parents taking away their children. ”

As a result, Democrats ‘statements also tended to be very general: calling DeSantis’ program “authoritarianism and censorship”; suggesting that it was a “homophobic” program; or that the anti-grooming campaign in schools has led to “gaslighting”. Meanwhile, the specific rhetoric of grooming was getting louder. Citing a new conservative group of citizens involved in quarrels over schools, Carlos Guillermo Smith, a progressive legislator in the Orlando area, told reporters in early April: I need to stay away from children. It’s independent. “

A well-known way to look at allegations of widespread grooming is that they act as a signal to supporters of the QAnon conspiracy, which cites a broad, secret network of pedophilia organized by Democratic Party leaders. Sarah Longwell, a Republican strategist affiliated with the Never Trump movement, told me that the claims about grooming also solved a more secular political problem for Republicans. “There’s a very important psychological aspect to defending Donald Trump if you’re a Republican, and that means Democrats have to be worse.” Trump’s attempted coup against the government on Jan. 6, Longwell said, raised the stakes. “You have to believe that Democrats are worse than trying to overthrow the government, and if they are worse than that, it means they want men to play women’s sports and nurture young children.”

DeSantis made another significant move during the debate on the bill, which Rufo particularly emphasized: the governor has escalated. C.E.O. from Walt Disney Company, Bob Chapek, told shareholders at an annual meeting in early March that he was against the law and called on DeSantis to say so; DeSantis retaliated with a new draft that stripped Disney (Central Florida’s largest taxpayer) of certain special legislative benefits it had enjoyed since its inception, half a century ago. “At the time, I remember one conversation,‘ Oh, DeSantis will never be able to beat Disney, Disney is too powerful, too loved, ’and at the time Disney had 77 percent public favor,” Rufo told me. He attributed two insights to the Governor of Florida: “A, that the law is popular, and B, that although Disney is an economic and cultural force, it is actually a new political force, and, as many people say, don’t get undressed. , leans into the fight, I think, brilliantly. ”

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