“Whoever has the youth has the future.”
–Hitler in Mein Kampf
Fascism in its different forms has always thrived on attacking teachers, schools, critical ideas, democratic values, and allegedly unpatriotic groups while stifling dissent in the alleged name of freedom. Ron DeSantis is a religious, political, and ideological demagogue whose view of power is as ruthless as it is opportunistic. He views academic freedom and freedom of speech as liabilities to be stamped out, not unlike what happened in Nazi Germany. He has weaponized the government to punish industries such as Disney who challenged his “don’t say gay” bill. The dangerous nature of this precedent should be clear, particularly regarding how it resonates with tactics used in repressive regimes in the past. He has signed into law Bill 233 which requires Florida’s public colleges and universities to conduct annual surveys of students’ and faculty members’ beliefs in order “to determine the institutions’ levels of ‘intellectual freedom and viewpoint diversity’.” One can only assume that those with views at odds with DeSantis’s view of history, politics, and authority will be labeled as “unpatriotic” and will be pressured to conform to his indoctrinating pedagogy and policies or lose their jobs. This is not unlike what happened in the witch hunts conducted during the McCarthy era by the House Committee on Un-American Activities in the 1950s in which a number of faculty were fired for having alleged subversive views. In addition, DeSantis’s banning ideas, and entire fields of study–such as gender and race studies– aims to turn learning at the college and university levels into a form of stupidity, one whose ultimate goal is to undercut the ability of young people to think critically, learn from history, and make power accountable.
Every level of education is under siege in Florida. Regarding public education, DeSantis intensifies and expands a policy of erasure and manufactured ignorance that is endemic to the GOP which provides the driving momentum for a nationwide banning of books and restrictions on teaching about race and gender in public schools. As Julianne Malveaux notes, “More than 1600 books have been banned in 138 school districts in 33 states so far, as the momentum for ignorance is increasing. Among the banned books – Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye and Beloved; and Margaret Atwood’s, The Handmaid’s Tale.” In addition, as Sarah Schwartz points out in Education Week: “Since January 2021, lawmakers in 44 states have introduced bills or other policies that would restrict how teachers can discuss racism and sexism, according to an Education Week analysis. Eighteen states have imposed these bans.”
This is a pedagogy of repression in the service of fascist ideals. It is worth remembering that in Nazi Germany, teachers deemed “politically unreliable” were purged from the school system, books were burned. and selected groups were viewed as parasites. DeSantis embraces fascism is a form of political religion with its emphasis on theater, pageantry, and a cult-like celebration of top-down domination. His theocratic delusions were quite evident when he was described as being sent by God in one of his own campaign ads. His war on the ability of students to be taught to think, develop a historical consciousness, and cultivate a sense of engaged civic courage are features associated with demagogues. DeSantis wants to turn public and higher education into the new propaganda ministries not unlike Goebbels dream of controlling all facets of education in Nazi Germany. Stephen F. Eisenman writing in Counterpunch rightly assesses DeSantis’s policies as echoing many of the goals of the Nazi regime. He is worth quoting at length:
For a man with all the warmth of Adolf Hitler and none of his rhetorical skills, Ron DeSantis displays extraordinary conceit. He holds forth on critical race theory, intersectionality, trans identity, immigration, and voting rights, as if he knew anything about them. In fact, his ignorant harangues are attempts to bring critical intellectuals to heel and polish his swastika, that is burnish his far-right credentials. The word that comes to mind in this context is “Gleichshaltung”, the German term for “bringing into conformity” or “Nazification.” The goal of the Nazi regime from Hitler’s assumption of power in 1933 to the passage of the Nuremburg Laws in 1935 was to bring all organs of state and civil society into conformity with the will of the Führer. Control of the press, regimentation of everyday life, elimination of expressive freedoms, destruction of constitutional safeguards, control of trade unions, establishment of a dictatorial (one party) state and an end to the civil rights of minorities (especially Jews) were all key aspects of Gleichshaltung.
DeSantis’s policies are the endpoint of a capitalism that has lost its ability to defend itself and has morphed into a form of fascism. All the elements are in place to produce pedagogical forms of repression that include the denial of history, hence the emergence of a pedagogy of historical amnesia; a denial of the power of social structures to produce massive degrees of inequality in wealth and power; the utter individualization of agency and an ongoing attempt to depoliticize young people, especially through a pedagogy of manufactured ignorance; the refusal to acknowledge how social identities and structures meld into each other; a notion of community organized around fear and bigotry; and an obsession with power and its authoritarian implementation through the destruction of institutions that promote engaged citizenship.
His attack on public and higher education is part of a broader politics of white nationalism and racial cleansing based on the eugenicist tenets of white replacement theory. His notion of citizenship is reserved for white Christian nationalists and is rooted firmly in the ideology of white supremacy. As reported by Kathryn Joyce in Vanity Fair, the purpose of DeSantis’s administrative takeover of the progressive leaning New College of Florida is to turn it into a right-wing indoctrination mill designed to showcase Christian and classical education and “stem the tide of Marxist indoctrination.” The makeover prompted Cayeene Linke, who attended New College in the 1990s, to state “I feel like I am standing at the precipice of the Fourth Reich.”
DeSantis is a threat not simply to public and higher education but to democracy itself (already in freefall). His proposed bill to ban gender studies, destroy tenure, and turn the governing of higher education over to his political hacks is a mirror image of what unfolded in Nazi Germany and other totalitarian states in the 1930s and 1970s. There is little doubt that DeSantis’s educational policies echo those used by authoritarians in the past. As the historian, Ruth Ben-Ghiat, notes:
Strongmen disappear people, and they also disappear areas of knowledge that encourage critical thinking or that conflict with their ideologies and social engineering goals. In Hitler’s Germany, art criticism was forbidden. In Pinochet’s Chile, philosophy and sociology departments closed down. The film director Federico Fellini, who started his career during the dictatorship of Benito Mussolini (1925–1943), called such censorship “a system of violence” against “subjects it wants to bury and prevent them, indefinitely, from becoming reality.” In strongman states, where speaking out can bring professional ruin or physical harm to you and your family, self-censorship can be a survival strategy.
His recent HB 999 bill is designed to turn higher educational institutions in Florida into laboratories for fascism. The bill calls for the removal of entire fields of studies and programs, including gender studies, critical race theory, and other programs that deal with important social issues. It would ban teaching “identity politics,” and would require every student to take a general education course which would teach “patriotic values,” parading as “the values necessary to preserve the constitutional republic.” According to DeSantis, these banned programs represent what he has termed “zombie studies.” There is more at work here that a “regime of censorship.”
In true Orwellian fashion, DeSantis appropriates a language of freedom to defend repressive policies that destroy any viable notion of academic freedom, and the freedom to address important social issues. For instance, he bans books, tenure, dissent, and criticality in the classroom in the name of promoting “intellectual freedom.” He defends his policies as measures that elevate civic discourse, but in reality are merely tools of outright indoctrination. His notion of governance in higher education places power in the hands of political hacks who have the state sanctioned authority to not only hire and fire faculty, but also to eliminate tenure, squash academic freedom, and enact forms of pedagogy that will turn an entire generation of students into infantilized, uninformed, “patriotic,” conformists. Critical minded young people are a threat to DeSantis’s political ambitions and view of the world, as are those public institutions in which critical teaching and learning can be nourished. These same tactics were once aimed at German youth in Hitler’s Germany. Education in this world view is code for indoctrination and the destruction of memory, dissent, critical thought, democratic values, and civic courage.
DeSantis does not want students to hear about slavery, the 1619 Project, James Baldwin or Audre Lorde among others because it might make them uncomfortable. The last thing he wants is for youth to hear about the Black freedom movements and activists of the sixties that included SNCC, the Black Panthers, Angela Davis, Stokely Carmichael, Malcolm X, and Fred Hampton. What scares white supremacists and fanatical advocates of gangster capitalism such as DeSantis is that these movements not only fought systemic racism, they also attacked staggering levels of inequality. As Tom Hall incisively makes clear in LA Progressive, “After decades of work, each of them understood that racial justice could never exist without economic justice.” Put bluntly, the struggle against racism could not be removed from the struggle against capitalism.
Any mode of education that addresses crucial social issues and interrogates and learns from history is anathema to DeSantis. Not because he is ignorant, but because he benefits from capitalist power relations, values, and market driven ideology that thrives on greed, bigotry, and the politics of exclusion. What he rejects is any notion of critical pedagogy that unsettles students, engages knowledge that is troubling, questions commonsense assumptions, engages students in a culture of questioning, and teaches them how to hold power accountable. An education that matters does not begin with the language of comfort, echoing DeSantis’s belief that Students should not be made uncomfortable in the classroom! This position not only collapses the political and the public into the personal but refuses to align education with the meaning and search for justice, truth, and what it means for students to learn how to connect their lives to the mesh of knowledge and social relations that expand the sociological and public imagination. An education that matters should connect students to a higher purpose, the dynamics of mutual care, meaningful forms of solidarity, and a discourse of empowerment.
DeSantis has embraced a white supremacist ideology and ideology of authoritarianism that gave us Lester Maddox and George Wallace. For Maddox and Wallace, racism was enacted as theater and resulted in a brutal assault upon Black bodies. For DeSantis, the war on education represents another form of violence–an assault on the mind. It goes to the heart of what it means to kill democracy as an ideal by preventing public institutions from producing informed and engaged citizens. At the same time, the fascist element of his educational policies functions as a race and class sorting machine. At work here is an educational project in the service of not merely the suppression of academic freedom and education as the practice of freedom, but one also dedicated to the politics of disposability, disappearance, and erasure.
Welcome to the Nazification of American society.
 See, for instance, Ruth Ben-Ghiat, Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present (New Yor: Norton, 2020).
 See, especially, Ellen Schrecker, “Political Tests for Professors: Academic Freedom during the McCarthy Years,” University of California History Project (October 7, 1999).
 Sarah Schwartz, “Will Restrictions on Teaching ‘Controversial’ Issues Target Science Classes?,” Education Week (February 15, 2023).
 See Richard J. Evans, The Third Reich In Power (New York: Penguin 2005), especially pages 263-298.
 Jared Gans, “DeSantis releases new 2022 ad: ‘God made a fighter’,” The Hill (November 4, 2022); Amy Eskind, “Ron DeSantis’ Campaign Ad Says He Was Sent by God to ‘Take the Arrows’,” People (November 7, 2022).
 Suzie Null, “Attacking Teachers and Banning Books is the Point — Part I: The Fascist Playbook.” Medium [November 18, 2021].
 Areeba Shah, “Experts alarmed over Florida GOP bill that would ‘result in a regime of censorship’ at colleges,” Salon (February 27, 2023).
 Ruth Ben-Ghiat, “Ron DeSantis’s Dystopian Vision for America’s Youth.” Lucid Substack [February 7, 2023].
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