In Trump vs. DeSantis 2024 culture war, Black and LGBTQ people will pay the highest price

It was inevitable that less than two weeks after Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis asked a dozen colleges for detailed medical information on transgender students, his latest move to restrict care for transgender people, former President Donald Trump would feel the need to attack transgender rights and health care at a South Carolina rally, release a video bashing “Left-Wing Gender Insanity” and vow that “under my leadership, this madness will end. ”

The shape of the contest between the Republican Party’s top 2024 White House aspirants is already clear: When one goes low, the other goes lower.

The GOP race so far not only turns Michelle Obama’s high-minded advice on its head, it gives new life and meaning to the phrase “punching down.” Why attack the rich and powerful, the white, the heterosexual, the Christian, the Ivy Leaguers and those who don’t have to worry about not fitting in or not being safe, when you can go after people who are simply trying to be themselves in a society that makes that uncomfortable and even dangerous?

DeSantis expanding control of Florida

DeSantis, whose wife once posted a video portraying him as sent by God to save Florida or America or maybe the world, has taken Trump’s 2016 “I alone can fix it” pitch to impressive new heights as he ponders and prepares for a 2024 race. In education, DeSantis dove into local school board races to shape them to his liking. At New College in Sarasota, he is turning a small, unconventional college into a small, Christian conservative college, starting with new trustees who include critical race theory agitator Christopher Rufo.

New College of Florida: My daughter found her perfect campus. Now DeSantis wants to destroy it.

Black history is American history: DeSantis is stealing our students' freedom to learn it

Florida's Republican legislature just finished a special session expanding his powers. That special self-governing Disney tax district he eliminated last year? A new law will replace local property owners with five supervisors named by DeSantis to oversee Disney’s theme parks. (That makes Disney the governor's "political prisoner," said Democratic state Rep. Anna Eskamani.)

That new election police force DeSantis created to arrest Floridians for voting? Another new law will make it easier to prosecute election crimes. That time DeSantis had a few dozen confused migrants flown from Texas to Massachusetts' Martha’s Vineyard? The legislature also authorized him to “relocate” migrants anywhere he wants from any state he wants using Florida taxpayer money.

DeSantis months ago banned or limited classroom teaching and conversation about LGBTQ people and Black history, and tried to limit the First Amendment right to protest. Now he’s trying to ban diversity, equity and inclusion programs at Florida universities.

President Donald Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in Canal Point, Fla., on March 29, 2019.
President Donald Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in Canal Point, Fla., on March 29, 2019.

Trump opens with fighting words

Trump opened his 2024 campaign with fighting words on transgender issues and CRT, a college-level framework for analyzing systemic racism. "We're going to stop the left-wing radical racists and perverts who are trying to indoctrinate our youth, and we're going to get their Marxist hands off of our children," he said in South Carolina late last month. "We're going to defeat the cult of gender ideology and reaffirm that God created two genders: men and women.”

Speaking in a “packed foyer” at the statehouse, Trump reprised his 2015 attacks on immigrants as undesirables. “They're coming from prisons, and they're coming from mental institutions, and they're coming from a lot of bad places, that's going to cause us a lot of problems," he said. In New Hampshire, he told GOP leaders: “I’m more angry now and I’m more committed now than I ever was.”

Oh joy.

You would think some Republican prospects might provide respite from election lies and cultural warfare. For instance, former South Carolina Gov. and United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, 51, who is announcing her presidential bid Wednesday. The daughter of Indian immigrants, Haley was the first woman and first ethnic minority to be governor of South Carolina, and as U.N. ambassador in 2017, she was the first Indian American in a Cabinet-level position.

'She should definitely run': Will Nikki Haley 2024 presidential race benefit Republican Party – or Donald Trump?

Big Lie and culture war detours

She was governor when white supremacist Dylann Roof murdered nine Black people in a shooting rampage at a Charleston church. She had backed the Confederate battle flag at the state Capitol but after the massacre led the drive to remove it. In a 2010 New York Times article that called her “the different one,” she talked about navigating race, religion and gender throughout her life.

Other governors (Chris Sununu of New Hampshire, Glenn Youngkin of Virginia) and former governors (Larry Hogan of Maryland, Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas) also seem like they could bring a degree of fact-based moderation to the primary campaign. But almost every GOP prospect, Haley included, has made disturbing detours into Big Lie territory, supporting and sometimes campaigning for 2022 election deniers like Arizona’s Kari Lake and New Hampshire’s Don Bolduc.

Most are not sitting out the culture wars, either. Youngkin banned CRT and set up a tip line to report “divisive” teaching, but it closed down for lack of use. He also supports restricting abortion but has been thwarted by Democrats and reluctant Republicans.

President Donald Trump and Nikki Haley, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, at the U.N. General Assembly on Sept. 24, 2018, in New York.
President Donald Trump and Nikki Haley, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, at the U.N. General Assembly on Sept. 24, 2018, in New York.

Haley recently called Democrats “extremists” on abortion. And though as governor she dealt with both the church massacre and the killing of an unarmed Black man by a white police officer, she recently tweeted that “CRT is un-American.” How is that not denialism?

Trump and DeSantis are the pair most animated by the culture wars. It’s easy to see Haley as a running mate for either of them. But it’s hard to see her or anyone else dislodging them from the headlines and their pole positions. Even once and possibly future Trump critics are hedging their bets.

Charlie Sykes, editor in chief of the Never-Trump Bulwark website, calls them “maybe-Trump Republicans” performing “normie Kabuki theater” to avoid having to swear off Trump forever. Just in case.

Biden is a welcoming contrast to GOP

There’s a deep fear among conservatives that a splintered field would be 2016 all over again – so many Trump rivals that no one consolidated enough support to beat him. Sununu recently said “yes” when CNN recently asked whether he were considering a 2024 run, only to provoke a plea from conservative Jim Geraghty to set a GOP example and stay out.

Yet a large field could be the least of the GOP’s problems. The American story, as President Joe Biden said in his State of the Union address, is "progress and resilience" and seeing each other as "fellow Americans," from Republicans who didn't vote for him to "LBGTQ Americans, especially transgender young people," who want to "live with safety and dignity."

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The goal is to give everyone the space and opportunity to live their best life by their definition. Not mine. Not yours. Not Biden's.

Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, responding to Biden for the GOP, conjured phantom threats of "woke" mobs, radicalism, indoctrination and children taught "to hate one another." This is the Republican identity now, and the Trump-DeSantis battleground. It’s going to be a long campaign – especially for people who, with good reason, fear what might happen to their American dreams if Trump or DeSantis becomes president.

Jill Lawrence is a columnist for USA TODAY and author of "The Art of the Political Deal: How Congress Beat the Odds and Broke Through Gridlock." Follow her on Twitter and Post.News

More from Jill Lawrence:

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Trump vs DeSantis: Trans rights, Black history are key battlegrounds