A South Carolina heckler called Ron DeSantis a “fucking fascist” on Friday. In response, the Florida governor and Republican presidential candidate said: “Yeah, well, thank you, thank you.”
Then DeSantis went on the attack.
“We’re not gonna let you impose an agenda on our kids,” he said, to cheers from the Lexington crowd. “We’re gonna stand up for our kids. We’re gonna make sure to do it right.
“Those people like that in Florida are the people we beat every single day on policy. We do not let them win. We win all these battles. We’re not letting them indoctrinate our kids, not on our watch.”
The audience jeered and booed the heckler.
DeSantis is a clear second to Donald Trump in Republican polling but most averages put the gap around 30 points.
On Friday, DeSantis was campaigning in the state of two other candidates, the former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley and the US senator Tim Scott.
When the heckler struck, the governor was discussing policies including restrictions on the teaching of race, gender and LGBTQ+ issues.
“Parents have a fundamental right to direct the education and upbringing of their children,” he said. “The school systems are important, but they’re there to support that community.”
Saying he had enacted “protections for parents such as curriculum transparency, so that they have a right to know what books are being used”, DeSantis claimed: “And unfortunately, there’s bad stuff that’s getting into the schools. There’s the pornography that’s getting in schools, the parents had to blow the whistle in Florida.”
The heckler, a woman, shouted: “What about the parents’ rights to healthcare, to their kids’ healthcare? You’re a fucking fascist.”
DeSantis recently signed a law barring gender-affirming care for transgender children. In South Carolina, he launched his broadside.
DeSantis’s perceived lack of interpersonal and retail political skills has been widely noted, amid awkward interactions with voters and reporters. Reporting the Lexington event, the Associated Press noted that DeSantis’s wife, Casey, joined him onstage “for a more lighthearted chat”.
DeSantis’s education policies have attracted attention. A potentially costly fight with Disney grew out of the entertainment giant’s opposition to a so-called “don’t say gay” law applied to public schools.
Controversial book bans have proliferated. Recently, one mother’s objection led to The Hill We Climb, by the young Black poet Amanda Gorman and read at Joe Biden’s inauguration, being removed at a school in Miami Lakes.
The mother was reported to have links to rightwing extremism. DeSantis appeared to support her, claiming a “ridiculous poem hoax”.
Many observers have discussed whether DeSantis can fairly be called a fascist.
For the Salt Lake Tribune, Tom Huckin, a University of Utah emeritus professor, turned to the author Umberto Eco’s 14 tests for fascism, which include “contempt for the weak”, “fear of difference” and “appeal to social frustration”.
Huckin concluded: “What we are witnessing in today’s polarised politics does indeed include fascism, embodied and promoted by DeSantis and others on the far right.”
Last August, the Guardian columnist and Berkeley professor Robert Reich asked: “Is it useful to characterise DeSantis’s combination of homophobia, transphobia, racism and misogyny, along with his efforts to control the public schools and universities and to intimidate the private sector (eg, Disney), as redolent of fascism?
“America’s mainstream media is by now comfortable talking and writing about ‘authoritarianism’. Maybe it should also begin using the term ‘fascism’, where appropriate.”
On Friday night, the Florida congressman Maxwell Frost took a direct approach to the question. Joining the band Paramore onstage in Washington DC, the 26-year-old shouted: “Fuck Ron DeSantis! Fuck fascism!”