What is America? The answer to that simple question can get you into a lot of trouble. Or it can propel you to the Oval Office.
You can try to run away from the question with adverbs. ‘Well, historically, America was the name a European mapmaker slapped on the unexplored continents across the Atlantic.’ Maybe Amerigo Vespucci, that mapmaker, had Florida in mind, though Vespucci would have struggled to imagine a future figure such as the 46th governor of the state, Ron DeSantis.
Or, ‘Linguistically, America is an abbreviated form of the United States of America, a political union that traces itself to a local rebellion of thirteen British colonies in the 18th century, which grew into territorially aggressive entity.’ Eventually these practitioners of settler colonialism found their way to the western extremity of the continent, revolted against Mexican rule and founded the California Republic, which was soon subsumed into the United States where it became the personal vineyard of the entrepreneur who the founder of PlumpJack wine store, Gavin Newsom.
Other adverbs come to mind. What is America politically, culturally, geographically, musically, economically, militarily? It is an open book exam. But don’t forget the Articles of Confederation, Gilligan’s Island, and Afghanistan.
Putting on my anthropologist hat, I’d point out that the measure of any society is what divides it, and a culture consists of the most meaningful disagreements among people who have to pay attention to one another. To take a famous literary example, when Jonathan Swift’s intrepid explorer Gulliver washes up on the island of Lilliput, he finds the inhabitants committed to the practice of breaking their eggs on the little end. Yards away lies the island of Blefuscu, similar in every respect to Lilliput except that Blefuscian tradition decrees that eggs should be broken on the big end. War between Big Enders and Little Enders has persisted for generations. To outsiders like Gulliver – and presumably Swift – these poignant differences seem trivial. But that’s bad anthropology. The perpetual war over which end an egg should be cracked first is vital to the lives of these islanders.
Some Europeans contemplating the United States these days have a similar difficulty understanding our conflicting passions over gun ownership, prayers at football games, and pronouns. To which the proper anthropological response is: Butt out Big Enders. We know what we are doing.
We’re having arguments over important things such as the locus of control in society and how to balance self-determination with acknowledgement of greater goods. And those arguments can be summarised in a fashion by the two governors.
What is America? It is the place where the former Navy Lieutenant and SEAL advisor in Florida faces off with the former wine retailer and parking commissioner in California. If you know how to unpack that sentence, you probably don’t need anything else to place both men in their respective positions in the American psyche.
DeSantis embodies that combination of steely self-discipline and cunning appraisal of his foes that makes him the embodiment of unstoppable resolve. If he were a businessman, he’d be a Vanderbilt, Gould, Carnegie, or JP Morgan. If he were a movie heavy, he would be Charles Bronson, to whom he bears a certain resemblance: perhaps the deadly figure known only as Harmonica in Sergio Leone’s 1968 shoot-‘em-up, Once Upon a Time in the West. DeSantis definitely has his softer side, but that’s not what defines his character on the national stage.
Newsom embodies the glamour of coastal California. Handsome, relaxed, poised, and in control of the situation. He has always been a hard worker, driven to succeed, but somehow capable of seeming unstressed. A fourth generation native of San Francisco, he floats in the breeze like spinnaker – a sail especially designed for going in the direction of the prevailing breeze. As a politician, he is unexcelled at adopting such positions, decriminalising pot, putting transgender inmates in the prisons of their choice, and authorising same-sex marriages in San Francisco years before they were legal. If he were a military man, he might be the Union general George B. McClellan, who was good at logistics but not much of a fighter. Like McClellan, Newsom shows well. If Newsom were a movie star, he might be Kevin Kosner, perhaps playing countercultural Lieutenant John Dunbar in the 1990 movie Dances with Wolves. Tagline: ‘In 1864 a man went looking for America – and found himself.’
Any worthwhile definition of America would have to be big enough to encompass not just the well-stacked policy positions of Republican DeSantis and Democrat Newsom, but also the ways in which each picks up and amplifies parts of the American cultural ethos.
DeSantis has those fluid judo moves where he turns his opponents’ energy against themselves. When Disney CEO Bob Chapek charged in declaring that the company would oppose HB 1557, the ‘Parental Rights in Education’ bill, and would work with the courts to have it struck down, DeSantis promptly ushered through a second bill cutting off Disney’s special tax treatment in the 39 square mile Reedy Creek Improvement District. It was a deft way to deal with a blustering opponent: action not rhetoric. It savoured a little of Ronald Reagan abrupt firing of the illegally striking 11,359 Air Traffic Controllers in August 1981. In an instant, the country understood Reagan as a man unafraid to use his authority. DeSantis attained some of that charisma. Defeating your opponent so decisively makes for permanent enemies, but it also etches permanent respect among those who seek clear leadership.
Not that DeSantis ignored the rhetorical side of the controversy. He, more than any other public figure, put into circulation the term ‘groomers’ to label the LGBTQ activists who are strangely eager to teach very young children about the mysteries of sexual attraction. The term perfectly captures the sense that the activists want to prepare the ground for sexual experimentation and, at a minimum, encourage ‘fluidity’ of sexual appetites. To call these would-be sex-ed teachers ‘groomers’ is to spotlight their bad faith. They say they are doing this for the sake of the children, but to most of us it looks like they are doing it for the sake of an ideological movement and sometimes acting on their own mordant desires.
That DeSantis captured this in one word is a triumph of concision. Not many parents want their children consigned to groomers. The left’s opposition to the ‘Parental Rights in Education’ bill came down to sneering at it as the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill, which gained traction with hardly anyone outside the ranks of the activists. Newsom nonetheless jumped aboard. In March he tweeted that ‘the door is open’ to Disney employees in Florida to move to California to escape the horrors of the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill. California being ‘the state that actually represents the values of your workers.’
I’m not clear that portraying the Disney workers in Florida as having these particular ‘values’ was helpful to the entertainment company, but it surely was helpful to Newsom in furthering his national profile as a progressive advocate in step with leftist gender politics.
To say that DeSantis has emerged as a leader with conservative charisma is to take nothing away from Newsome who has the opposite charisma. Newsom doesn’t for a moment care what his critics might say. He just goes ahead and authorises gay marriage or legal pot, figuring that the voters and the country will catch up with him. Newsom’s Fourth of July ploy of running a 30 second television ad in Florida on Fox (‘Freedom is under attack‘) likewise had that tone of insouciant arrogance:
‘It’s Independence Day. Let’s talk about what’s going on in America. Freedom? It’s under attack in your state. Republican leaders? They’re banning books. Making it harder to vote. Restricting speech in classrooms. Even criminalising women and doctors. I urge all of you living in Florida to join the fight – or join us in California, where we still believe in freedom – freedom of speech, freedom to choose, freedom from hate, and the freedom to love. Don’t let them take your freedom.’
The transcript cannot begin to do justice to Newsom’s bravura performance or the cascade of visuals accompanying his words. But the high point is certainly that pivot, ‘join the fight – or join us in California.’ He smiles and throws his hands back to his chest in a ‘who me?’ gesture that invites a reciprocal smile from the most hard-bitten Republican stalwarts.
Newsom’s ad was a pitch-perfect way to win him presidential attention outside his home state by taking his flag to the centre of the enemy camp. Of course, at the moment the only office Newsom is running for is re-election as governor, where for all practical purposes he is unopposed. DeSantis likewise is running for re-election this fall.
But what’s going on is more than shadow boxing. The narratives, the personalities, and pertinent clashes are taking form. We of course may end up with a presidential election on 2024 without either of these figures. But if that happens, we will nonetheless be playing on their respective beaches.
California and Florida are far more than sand and surf, but those features count for something. They give both states allure and make them destinations for Americans from everywhere else. In a broad brush, they conjure relaxation and fun; and in a slightly deeper way, they evoke the transitory. Beach life is for the young and the old. It is not about the serious business in between. Newsom’s beaches, however, are increasingly compromised as havens for the permanent temporary: the homeless who have moved in and won’t leave.
Homelessness is presumably one of Newsom’s real vulnerabilities. It is a blight in all of California’s cities, including the inland ones, and Newsom seems entirely ill-equipped to deal with it. Most of his steps have only made matters worse. His ability to appear unperturbed by the state’s problems plays him false here. We already have a president who seems perpetually unconcerned about the miseries of ordinary people. When Newsom, like other governors, shut down the state during Covid, he promptly ignored his own rules by holding a lavish birthday party for a Sacramento lobbyist at a high-end restaurant, the French Laundry, where he dined maskless. That was in November 2020. He apologised and moved on, but in the last few days whenever I have spoken to New Yorkers about Newsom, the episode has been the first or second thing they bring up. It has become one of those little instances that characterises the man: heedless, privileged, self-excusing.
Newsom’s lavish tastes probably don’t hurt him in American eyes, and California’s voters clearly forgave him his ‘foibles’ when they turned back the effort to recall him in a special election in September 2021. Voters opposed his recall in a landslide: 62 to 38 per cent. Which is to say that there were enough voters to force a recall election, but not nearly enough for anything else.
DeSantis has much less of a home state advantage. Recent polls show him with an approval rating of about 55 per cent, but some polls show him running neck and neck with or slightly behind his Democrat opponent, former governor Charlie Crist. Outside Florida, polls show DeSantis as among the most popular elected leaders in the country.
DeSantis has not taken these polls as reason to moderate his confrontational style, which has solidified his support among conservatives, and perhaps given Newsom his opening. This a tough guy versus nice guy contrast for low-information voters. For progressives, it is mean bastard versus enlightened champion. When it comes to his Florida election this November, however, the focus is likely to be where DeSantis has chosen to put it. He has set himself up as the defender of families, small businesses, and the individual against the overweening power of experts, corporations, and ideological movements. On the question of who controls the big decisions in life, DeSantis is the voice for Americans who distrust the authoritarian left, or who at any rate are exhausted and disenchanted with it.
Florida is the state that more or less stayed open during the pandemic and thrived in its defiance. California epitomises the state that chose harsh conformity instead. As a result, Florida is growing; and California is watching an out-migration of the wealthy, the middleclass, and major employers. Newsom so far has shrugged off these losses as he has shrugged off most political problems. Likeability joined to progressive self-satisfaction goes a long way but it is hard to see that California’s economic and social problems won’t get worse during Newsom’s new term.
That may even the odds if we ever face a national SEAL advisor versus wine merchant presidential race. These days, lots of sober observers wonder about America coming apart: red state and blue state divorce or some more chaotic disintegration. The contrasts between Florida and California, and between DeSantis and Newsom provide the ink blot for that imaginary outcome. But in truth, these two extremes need each other. We don’t want our daddy figure and our mommy figure to split. For sure, we expect them to fight, and to disagree all the way to the edge of the Continental Divide. ‘Freedom? It’s under attack in your state,’ says Newsom. Actually it is under attack in both states, but with dramatically different ideas of freedom entails. Some of us want to be free of bullying by know-it-all authorities. Some of us want benevolent authorities to keep the ignorant masses in their place.
America’s the place where that conversation never ends.
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