Demagogue Rising

Richard C. Gross
4 min readFeb 19, 2023

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BY RICHARD C. GROSS

“Without the truth of the people, politics degenerates into mere spectacle and democracy declines, leaving demagoguery and cynicism to fill the void.”

— Jerry Brown, Democratic California governor, 1975–1983 and 2011–2019

Rightwing Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis is overturning every liberal rock in his state of Florida because he’s running for president in a war against a woke America, aiming at books, institutions and sexual orientation he doesn’t like.

And not only is no one stopping this renegade self-appointed censor of some of the cream of American literature and life — Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn? C’mon! — but most libraries are bowing before him as Mr. Fahrenheit 451 of the book burning world. (Paper burns at that temperature.)

Fahrenheit 451 is a perfect sobriquet for a copycat hate-spewing Trumpist politician determined to create a model autocratic state as a mere governor before he gets a chance to do the same with the country as president of the United States. Good luck with that.

The country is filled with woke people who care about doing for people what they would like done for themselves. Americans have heart even if a many of them keep moving to the political right.

Copycat or not, DeSantis is a far more dangerous man and rightwing politician than is Trump, a fool who thrives in name calling and making fun of the disabled — a mean, vindictive individual who can’t let go of himself. He could have awakened into something serious, caring as president. He wasted four years.

Not DeSantis. He’s already a dictator in Florida, where he’s focused on overturning the best of America to create — I hate to say it because it’s so overused — a dystopia — a country of burned books, a history revised to create a false, conservative, white view of America that has nothing to do with the inclusive ideals embedded in its founding documents.

Down this rutted path, what will happen to “all men are created equal?”

Why Huck Finn, Tom Sawyer’s friend? Because the book has the “N” word in it. Why? Because it was published in 1884, when some folks referred to Blacks that way. Teachers merely would need to explain that in assigning the novel to their kids; that’s what teachers are for — to put things into perspective.

Librarians with their timid images don’t seem to be the type to rise up to confront DeSantis head-on with noisy demonstrations opposing book banning. Instead, there have been reports of librarians covering their controversial books with paper.

On the west coast of Florida, A Manatee High School history teacher, Don Falls, told the area’s Herald-Tribune newspaper, “If you have a lot of books like I do . . . it is not practical to run all of them [through the vetting process] so we have to cover them up.”

Better than discarding them. Times may change. Maybe.

DeSantis hasn’t pulled a Trump to announce his candidacy for the presidency in 2024 because he doesn’t have to: people with any political savvy can see what he’s doing right in front of their noses.

It’s not only books with DeSantis. He’s stampeding on a conservative crusade to get rid of anything that smacks of woke liberalism, which touches a wide area of learning in the public schools, including Black studies programs.

And he’s going after the most vulnerable: gay and trans kids, who have enough trouble figuring out who they are.

The best example I could find of a summary of DeSantis’ far-right rampage agenda to change the country to his view of “truth, justice and the American way” is a profile of him by Gabriel Sherman in Vanity Fair. They were taken from remarks by DeSantis in favor of the Republican nominee for governor of Pennsylvania, Doug Mastriano, before the midterms.

“In DeSantis’ telling, the honest people of Florida were besieged by a vast array of liberal scourges: Big Tech, IRS agents, George Soros, the Biden administration, the corporate media, illegal immigrants, Anthony Fauci, police defunders, Disney, China, communism, cancel culture, critical race theory, and woke gender ideology.

“Only Ron DeSantis was brave enough to confront these malign forces.”

It would be a joke, but none of it is funny. This is a reflection of Trump on steroids. Mastriano lost the election.

What’s missing from this long list of grievances is DeSantis, just elected to a second term, going after higher education. It’s not enough that he’s banned teaching gender identity and sexual orientation up to third grade, curtailed teaching about racism’s undercurrent in America, spurned math textbooks for mentioning critical race theory and outlawed an Advanced Placement African American studies course for high school students.

Florida’s education commissioner, Manny Diaz Jr., justified the Black studies ban as “woke indoctrination masquerading as education.” What crap.

If you’re woke, you wouldn’t want to move to Florida or put your kids through Florida’s schools and expect them to receive a well-rounded education. And you wouldn’t want to live under this governor, a blot on the American experience.

DeSantis needs to be stopped, in the courts, at the ballot box. Get rid of him before he becomes a Trump squared. America is no place for him.

Richard C. Gross, who covered war and peace in the Middle East, the Pentagon and was foreign editor of United Press International, served as the opinion page editor of The Baltimore Sun.

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Richard C. Gross

Correspondent, bureau chief and foreign editor at home and abroad with United Press International. Retired as opinion page editor of The Baltimore Sun.