Bill Cotterell: Unforced errors continue to hobble DeSantis presidential campaign

It's hard to believe the governor is stumbling on Nazis and slavery but here we are, our Capitol Columnist writes.

Republican presidential candidate and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis hits the stage at the Republican Party of Iowa 2023 Lincoln Dinner on July 28, 2023 in Des Moines.

Republican presidential candidate and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis hits the stage at the Republican Party of Iowa 2023 Lincoln Dinner on July 28, 2023 in Des Moines. Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

There are two horrible things so instantly poisonous to any political campaign that any smart candidate should recoil, in shock and horror, from the mere mention of them.

The toxic two are Nazis and slavery. And Gov. Ron DeSantis last week managed to get his presidential campaign badly tarred by both of them — just when the he was stumbling through a staff reorganization (think layoffs) and continued erosion of his poll standing against former President Donald Trump.

Recent columns by Bill Cotterell 

It’s one of the cruelties of American politics, in this social media age, that a candidate doesn’t have to do anything personally to get tarred with a horrifying gaffe. A visual image or a poorly chosen word in a Tweet (or do we say 'Xeet' now?) can bring down the wrath of irate activists who seemingly live to be offended.

The image mavens hired to package political messages now need to consider not just what they say, but how it will be heard by those who hate their candidate.

If I were a campaign consultant, I would advise clients that they have only one reaction when they hear any mention of America’s history of human bondage or Hitler and the Holocaust. That would be utter disgust. It's not just accurate and appropriate, it’s absolutely mandatory for any public figure.

There is no “yes, but” for these subjects. Even an unintended, unconscious allusion to such vile crimes against history will be pounced on by political opponents and exploited by, I admit, a cooperative news media.

The biggest blunder for our governor’s campaign was his state Board of Education's adoption of teaching standards regarding the history of slavery in Florida. One part of those directions mentioned that slaves learned some skills they could use to support themselves, presumably in later life after the Civil War.

Related coverage – Black lawmakers seek changes to Florida education standards backed by Gov. DeSantis

But another section said that when mentioning racist pogroms like the Ocoee and Rosewood massacres, in which white mobs murdered black residents with impunity, teachers ought to mention that some black people killed or injured whites, too.

Yeah, that can happen when defending against racist murderers. 

The classroom checklist did not say slaves benefited from their enslavement. Nor did it say they attacked white people. But that’s how the message came across because, quite reasonably, no discussion of race in American starts with, “Yes, but you gotta remember….”

DeSantis wasn’t even in town. He was out in Utah, where he lamely told inquiring reporters they should ask Board of Education members — his picks — about the teaching standards. He also fumbled something about how a slave might learn blacksmithing skills that might be useful.

No, Governor, just don’t. There is no way anyone can find even a glimmer of good in slavery. 

And then there’s the sonnenrad.

If you don’t know what a sonnenrad is, don’t feel bad. Very few people, except for scholars of ancient European cultures and Nazi lunatics, are familiar with the “sun wheel” symbol —12 hooked spokes that stood as a symbol in old Norse and Celtic cultures. Hitler adopted it too.

Previous coverage – DeSantis staffer fired for posting Nazi symbol had recurring focus on fascism

Knowing that bit of history or not, a now-former DeSantis campaign staffer included the sonnenrad in an online post, complete with a marching army. DeSantis is a proud Navy veteran and linking him even remotely with the monsters who caused World War II is a bum rap.

But every time a dozen or so morons drape a swastika flag on a highway overpass or stage a protest in some town square, the media and the Democrats (pardon the redundancy) are sure to crank out social media posts saying this is what happens in DeSantis’ Florida.

So he’ll be asked to comment on ugly events neither he nor any other responsible public officials knew anything about. He can shrug it off, but that won’t stem the Facebook and social-media-platform-formerly-known-as-Twitter taunts.

Nowhere is Ronald Reagan's political adage, “If you’re explaining, you’re losing,” more true than in quibbling over history. But given his record of rooting out critical race theory and diversity, equity and inclusion programs from Florida government, this was the worst kind of no-win proposition for DeSantis.

Bill Cotterell is a retired capitol reporter for United Press International and the Tallahassee Democrat. He can be reached at bcotterell@cityandstatefl.com

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