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DeSantis done, 'anti-wokism' still here

A double Monday repost

In journalism, as in much of life, timing is everything: report a story or make an argument too late, and you’ve been beaten; someone else got the goods and everyone else has moved on. Less discussed is the penalty for being too early: reveal something or offer a take before people are ready, and all anyone will remember (if anything) is that you seemed off or wrong at the time.

Ben Collins offered this gripe over the weekend, after the New York Times’ Nicholas Confessore published a blockbuster investigation into the gutter racism and queerphobia underlying the so-called “anti-woke” or “anti-D.E.I.” moral panics—campaigns which both Times and Confessore had played a central role in legitimizing right up until the publication of the piece:

In that spirit, I’ve got two takes for you that I first offered in The Racket last year, both of which may be timelier now than when they were written. The first is a eulogy for Ron DeSantis’ presidential campaign from way back in April 2023, when it became obvious to me (and, in fairness, a number of people) that he had a snowball’s chance in Orlando of ascending to the White House. (He could have saved a lot of time and his donors $150 million if he’d read that one.) The core:

This all could have the political effect of turning DeSantis into a figure of pity: a sad, tryhard boy whose only crime was being a little cringe and eating pudding in an unorthodox way. And that would be a shame, because DeSantis is so much more than that. His story is of an elite who participated in generation-defining moments of American imperial brutality abroad, only to see the forces that brutality unleashed all but doom his political prospects at home.

The other is an op-ed that I tried to place in the Times, among other places, before posting in my newsletter. It’s about the true face of the supposed “anti-woke” movement, four months before the Times itself reported about how leading lights at the Manhattan and Claremont Institutes were privately ranting about “the low IQ 3rd world” and “gynocracy,” and stating flatly that the “core of what we oppose is 'anti-discrimination.'“ It also features cameos by DeSantis as well as another old Racket favorite. The TL;DR:

Hanania is being very clear: You can move from calling for elimination to gesturing toward exclusion without having to adjust the underlying logic. Yet in a way, his unmasking—as well as those of Hochman, Gonzalez, and other white-supremacist architects of anti-wokism—has done us all a favor. It shows us the traditions that many of the “new” opponents of diversity and equal rights are really coming from, and reminds us where their plans will lead.

The full text of each is below.

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The Imperial DeSantis

Originally published April 21, 2023

If the polls and pundits are to be believed, Ron DeSantis’ 2024 embryonic presidential run appears to be ending before it starts. Or, to put it in terms he’d understand: It’s falling apart so fast that it may be eligible for a legal Florida abortion. Right-wing donors are bailing. Never Trumpers are comparing his charm levels to Nixon’s. Following a disastrous pre-campaign trip to Washington, an anonymous “Republican ex-politician from New York” told Politico that the Florida governor should put his plans off until next cycle — which, given the speed of U.S. politics, is synonymous with forever.

The reason for this meteoric crash is mostly a combination of timing and personality: DeSantis’ political apogee was as an avatar of the “anti-lockdown” (a.k.a., pro-COVID-everywhere) movement, the memory of which is fading. And his primary opponent is a former president who, despite his many crimes, remains the unquestioned standard-bearer of the movement DeSantis hopes to lead. This leaves the Florida governor in the unenviable position of trying to defeat a man while furiously defending him, a position which results in self-owning campaign ads whose central message is: “Mr. Trump, stop being so mean to me, please.”

This all could have the political effect of turning DeSantis into a figure of pity: a sad, tryhard boy whose only crime was being a little cringe and eating pudding in an unorthodox way. And that would be a shame, because DeSantis is so much more than that. His story is of an elite who participated in generation-defining moments of American imperial brutality abroad, only to see the forces that brutality unleashed all but doom his political prospects at home.

DeSantis joined the Navy in his second year at Harvard Law School. It was 2004, during the brief interregnum between the capture of Saddam Hussein and the start of the insurgency when it appeared the U.S. had triumphed in Iraq. As DeSantis recounts in his new pre-campaign memoir: “One recruiter told me that the assumption was that the Iraq campaign would be over relatively quickly, and that there would be a need for military JAGs to lead prosecutions in military commissions of incarcerated terrorists at Guantánamo Bay.”

Unlike rank-and-file sailors, it appears DeSantis got his choice of deployment. According to service records examined by the Miami Herald, DeSantis was deployed to Guantánamo from March 2006 to January 2007, serving primarily as a trial counsel and administrative officer. A deep but somewhat overlooked slate of reporting has detailed young Ron’s stint in the torture bureaucracy, including this anecdote from a Washington Post article that ran last month:

Mansoor Adayfi, a Yemeni who was 19 when he arrived at Guantánamo, described the force-feeding process in his memoir, “Don’t Forget Us Here,” writing that “a male nurse forced that huge tube into my nose. No numbing spray. No lubricant. Raw rubber and metal sliced the inside of my nose and throat. Pain shot through my sinuses and I thought my head would explode.”

One day, Adayfi said in an interview with The Post, DeSantis watched from outside a fence as he was tied to a chair and force-fed. He recalled that DeSantis stood among several people who were “smiling” at him, which he said made him angry, so he spit out food at them, with some hitting DeSantis. “I did it intentionally,” he said. The Post could not independently verify the claim, and DeSantis’s office did not respond to a question about it.

This incident allegedly occurred during a protracted hunger strike among the detainees, in which they protested their dehumanizing treatment and the fact that the majority were being held without charges. DeSantis has described the protest — in which he acknowledges that several of the detainees died — as a form of “jihad,” a term that in the argot of the War on Terror almost always referred to aggression against the United States. Here’s how DeSantis himself described it in a 2018 interview with the CBS affiliate in Miami:

RON DESANTIS: And they would wage jihad any way they can. Now, they’re in a facility, so it’s limited. But some of the things they would do, they would do hunger strikes. And you actually had three detainees that committed suicide with hunger strikes. So, everything at that time was legal in nature one way or another. So, the commander wants to know, “Well, how do I combat this?” So one of the jobs of the legal adviser is to be like, “Hey, you actually can force-feed. Here’s what you can do. Here’s kind of the rules of that.”

Investigative journalist Jasper Craven plumbed deeper into DeSantis’ military record for The Baffler, in which Adayfi, the former detainee, tells the same anecdote in greater detail. He adds that the then 27-year-old lawyer came up beside him and taunted him:

While numerous humanitarian organizations, including the UN Commission on Human Rights, later characterized this force-feeding as torture, DeSantis seemed unperturbed. “We were crying, screaming. We were tied to the feeding chair. And [DeSantis] was watching that, he was laughing,” Adayfi recalled. During one session, Adayfi said, DeSantis approached the chair and told him, “You should start to eat.” He responded by puking on the young JAG’s pretty face.

Craven’s reporting then followed young Ron to Iraq, where he arrived as part of the 2007 “surge.” DeSantis served as a legal advisor “on the legality of covert missions undertaken by SEAL Team One and Army Green Berets, mostly across the western Euphrates River Valley.” He arrived in Iraq at roughly the same time as the Nisour Square massacre, in which American contractors with Erik Prince’s Blackwater company opened fire in a busy intersection, killing seventeen civilians. (The contractors were convicted of murder and weapons charges only to be pardoned by Trump during the lame-duck presidency.)

As Craven notes, “DeSantis hasn’t spoken publicly about the massacre, but he counts a major donor in Betsy DeVos, sister of Blackwater founder Erik Prince.” He also notes that, during a 2018 congressional hearing, DeSantis “vented to Sebastian Gorka about the many ‘restrictive rules of engagement’ that made it nearly impossible to kill the enemy when he was in Iraq.”

This blood- (and vomit-) soaked resume would be a central issue in any sane country’s presidential race. But it remains a peripheral issue at best in the discourse about the Trump-DeSantis race, such as it is; far below the profile of arguments about proposed cuts to Social Security, “wokism,” or the aforementioned pudding incident. As a kind of corrective, I highly recommend the recent discussion of both DeSantis’ pre-campaign memoir and general political outlook on the Know Your Enemy podcast. The hosts and guest Gillian Branstetter of the ACLU do a terrific job linking the glee with which DeSantis reportedly carried out his acts of brutality and dehumanization against America’s supposed enemies during the War on Terror with his ongoing campaigns of brutality and dehumanization, especially against trans and pregnant people in Florida.

The irony is that, having gotten his hands — and, allegedly, face — dirty in service of the empire overseas, DeSantis seems to be incapable of surmounting that empire’s resulting domestic politics. As I and others have written about elsewhere, the insatiable appetite for hurting, killing, and subjugating our supposed enemies in the reactionary post-9/11 wars translated seamlessly to a politics of violence and “owning” the supposed enemies of the reactionary right at home, splintering along the well-worn and predictable lines of class conflict and resentment of elites that always underpin such imperialist-fascist turns. Those are the dynamics that propelled Trump to power, and they are the dynamics that DeSantis hoped to harness in his absence — if he can get primary voters to forget his Yale/Harvard pedigree, or the fact that, once you get past the racial and gender resentments, deep down he embodies a pretty standard list of right-wing, pro-business-elite priorities.

It’s an endless irony that Trump — himself an Ivy League grad and gilded sometimes-billionaire — has been able to market himself as an anti-establishment ally of the (mostly white) working class. Trump’s imperial warmaking as president and initial support for the Iraq invasion don’t need to be recounted here either. But he has charisma, TV ratings, and a vociferous fandom that can drown all that out, at least for the length of a presidential primary. And DeSantis, simply, does not. As the KYE discussion highlighted, DeSantis’ sole real argument is that he is a bully for hire — that he promises voters nothing more than “cold efficiency and shared enemies,” as Branstetter put it, “like getting a moral lecture from a gun.” But Republicans already have an unrepentant bully to vote for. It is unclear why they would need, or want, another.

The Anti-Wokes are Doing us a Favor

Originally published Aug. 28, 2023

Six years ago this month, white nationalists descended on Charlottesville, Virginia. The gathering of neo-Nazis, neo-Confederates, and allied gangsters was organized by the so-called Alt-Right—a faction that dressed up old racist ideas in hipster garb and modern pseudo-intellectualism. They intended it to be a coming out party for the far right; a signal of the re-ascendance of explicit white supremacy in America. Instead, the bloody havoc of that weekend, which culminated in a neo-Nazi plunging his car into a crowd on Charlottesville’s pedestrian mall, ruined the Alt-Right brand and consigned its “dapper” leader back to society’s gutter. But racists are nothing if not persistent.

One of the earliest and most notorious writers for the Alt-Right’s online magazine, AlternativeRight.com, wrote under the pen name “Richard Hoste.” In posts that even some of his fellow white supremacists thought too extreme, this writer pushed myths of “racial intelligence” that had been discredited since before the Holocaust, and proposed genocidal solutions on their basis. “Hoste” argued for the forced sterilization of anyone he deemed “low IQ”—a category that he said included most Black and Latino people. He also inveighed against women, interracial couples, obese people, and what he called the “ugly, secular and barren White self-hating and Jewish elite.”

Earlier this month, the investigative journalist Christopher Mathias solved the long-running mystery of that extremist’s identity. “Richard Hoste,” it turns out, was none other than Richard Hanania, an influential “anti-woke” public intellectual who has contributed to many prominent publications, including the New York Times and Washington Post. Hanania bills himself as a centrist. Through his think tank, the innocuously named Center for the Study of Partisanship and Ideology, he has advised and won praise from some of the country’s most prominent figures in tech, politics, and academia, including Steven Pinker, Peter Thiel, Marc Andreessen, Elon Musk, and Republican presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy. HarperCollins is scheduled to release his first trade book, The Origins of Woke, this fall.

On his Substack newsletter, Hanania admitted having written the genocidal posts in question. He expressed a kind of remorse, writing that “over a decade ago I held many beliefs that, as my current writing makes clear, I now find repulsive.” But it wasn’t the racism he regretted. “The reason I’m the target of a cancellation effort is because left-wing journalists dislike anyone acknowledging statistical differences between races,” Hanania wrote in the same post. “My mistake in a previous life was assigning collective guilt based on certain undeniable facts.”

The mistake, as Hanania saw it, was his conclusion, not the racist assumptions that got him there. That is what he means by “undeniable” facts: that nonwhites (except for Asians) are inherently less intelligent than white people, that democracy doesn’t work, and so on. It’s just that now, instead of wiping out the next generation of nonwhite people as he encouraged before, he thinks it’s worth keeping some of them around; “that even if groups differ in skills or cognitive abilities, we can all still benefit from the division of labor.” (One might note that this was also one of the intellectual justifications for slavery concocted in the 1850s by one of the architects of modern white supremacy, George Fitzhugh.)

Through his non-apology, Hanania was trying to strike a distinction between calling for violence in the name of “natural” hierarchy and instead proposing other policies—such as allowing discrimination in hiring and public accommodations—based on the same. And look, he’s a smart media operator. He knows that, as far as a lot of mainstream publications are concerned, doing the former makes you a pariah. Doing the latter—with a few winks and euphemisms in the right places, and the violent implications left unstated—can make you a star.

Hanania’s virulent racism, antisemitism, and general bigotry have been clearly visible for years, in social media posts written in his own name. In May, he tweeted, "We need more policing, incarceration, and surveillance of black people." That same month he called Black people “animals, whether they’re harassing people in subways or walking around in suits.” Last year he posted: “If I owned Twitter, I wouldn’t let feminists, trans activists, or socialists post. Why should I? They’re wrong about everything and bad for society.” He has also kept up his obsession with Jews and what he sees as excessive philo-Semitism on the right. “Is there any sadder case of unrequited love than American conservatives and American Jews?” he proffered in 2021.

Nor am I the only one who sees little substantive change in Hanania’s underlying beliefs. In a post for the white-supremacist Counter-Currents magazine, Greg Johnson—who published “Richard Hoste” a decade ago—noted that he had never been a fan of Hanania’s writing, chalking him down as as “a libertarian who occasionally hinted at race realism,” but never went far enough down the road of overt fascism for his taste. On realizing that Hanania and “Hoste” were the same person, he revised his assessment. “The most charitable interpretation of Richard Hanania’s career trajectory is that he remained race-wise and Jew-wise, but edged up to the mainstream to inject good ideas and shift the Overton window,” the white nationalist wrote. “He was wildly successful.”

Indeed, Hanania’s cleaned-up image has gotten him richly rewarded by what has been called “Anti-Woke, Inc.” According to a search I performed of public tax filings, Hanania’s think tank—which consists solely of him and fellow right-wing academics George Hawley of the University of Alabama and Eric Kaufman of the University of London and Hudson Institute—took in at least $1.2 million from 2020 to 2022. Hanania pocketed at least $297,500 of that. CSPI’s donors include the libertarian Mercatus Center at George Mason University and the internet sex site mogul Andrew Conru. His biggest benefactor is hiding from public view through the use of a so-called donor-advised fund. But we know he has received effusive praise from anti-woke billionaire Peter Thiel and hundred-millionaire David Sacks for his upcoming book. (Thiel says the book will show how to use “the sticks and stones of government violence to exorcise the diversity demon.”)

He has also been a lecturer at Bari Weiss’ venture capitalist-backed University of Austin, as well as a fellow at the Salem Center for Policy at the real University of Texas down the road, both of which receive significant funding from Harlan Crow. Among other recent and upcoming speaking engagements include the Yale Federalist Society and Stanford School of Business. And Substack co-founder Hamish McKenzie featured him on the platform’s flagship podcast, offering encouragement as Hanania recommended other white supremacists and “entho-nationalists” to the audience. (A spokeswoman for UATX said that they “were completely unaware of his pseudonymous, racist writings. Had we known, we would not have invited him.”)

In other words, Hanania is still enacting the Alt-Right playbook—repackaging racism as rationalism—that spilled blood on the streets of Charlottesville six years ago. And while the revelation of those ties was too much for UATX’s “Forbidden Courses”—and possibly the Salem Center, which quietly dropped Hanania from their website this week—other stalwarts of Anti-Woke Inc. are standing by him. Bryan Caplan of the Mercatus Center posted, “I stand by my friends.” Substack CEO Chris Best boosted his non-apology, praising it as a “genuine self-critique.” HarperCollins shows no signs of pulling back on the book, delivering new graphics for Hanania to promote it on his social media feeds during the height of the controversy. Elon Musk sent Hanania $737 over “X.”

Nor is Hanania doing this alone. Several prominent “anti-woke” figures have been unmasked as harboring deeply bigoted positions in the last few months. Pedro Gonzalez, the politics editor of Chronicles magazine and an outspoken supporter of Ron DeSantis was revealed to have regularly espoused antisemitic and racist sentiments to his friends, often in a group chat called “Right-Wing Death Squad.” (Those posts were revealed by rivals in the Trump camp, who were almost certainly making similar responses in kind.)

And in July, the DeSantis campaign fired speechwriter Nate Hochman—another rising right-wing star—when he got caught making and distributing an underground campaign ad that not only featured a Nazi symbol, as was widely reported, but was patterned—beat for beat and note for note—on a neo-Nazi video template. Hochman’s resume includes jobs with the National Review; prestigious fellowships with the American Enterprise Institute, Claremont Institute, and Fund for American Studies; and has contributed a guest essay to the New York Times. His video, shared on a feed run by senior DeSantis spokeswoman Christina Pushaw, also got effusive praise from other members of the DeSantis campaign, including director of research and data, Kyle Lamb, who commented: “This belongs in the Smithsonian.” (Lamb was also laid off in what the DeSantis campaign billed as a restructuring.)

Writing under his own name, Hanania has defined wokeness as the belief that “any disparities in outcomes favoring whites over non-whites or men over women are caused by discrimination.” It once seemed obvious to say, but the idea that there are inborn differences between groups that cash out as disparities in income, employment, achievement, and so on, is straightforwardly the animating logic of racism and sexism. Hanania is being very clear: You can move from calling for elimination to gesturing toward exclusion without having to adjust the underlying logic. Yet in a way, his unmasking—as well as those of Hochman, Gonzalez, and other white-supremacist architects of anti-wokism—has done us all a favor. It shows us the traditions that many of the “new” opponents of diversity and equal rights are really coming from, and reminds us where their plans will lead.

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