Opinion: As culture war issues dominate, Florida is becoming a haven for fascism

It’s up to regular citizens, not politicians, to turn back the tide.

In recent years, extremism has cast a dark shadow on the Sunshine State
Florida Grunge Flag by Free Grunge Textures - www.freestock.ca is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

In recent years, extremism has cast a dark shadow on the Sunshine State “Florida Grunge Flag” by Free Grunge Textures – www.freestock.ca is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

In recent years, Florida has often been painted by conservatives as the “Freedom State.” A place where “woke goes to die” and liberty reigns supreme in an age of cancel culture. Yet Florida is attracting extremists with ideologies that are vehemently authoritarian and hateful. 

Take Jacksonville for instance, where a group called National Socialist (Nazi) Florida has been using laser projectors to display hateful imagery on buildings. They’ve projected things like Swastikas and messages praising rapper Ye West’s statements on Jewish people.

And that’s just one of hundreds of incidents of far-right actors spreading hate in Florida and across the country. The Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish advocacy group, reported 3,697 incidents of anti-semitism took place in the US last year, the highest number since they began keeping track in 1979. 269 of those incidents took place in Florida, the 4th highest of any state.

This spike in anti-semetism should be frightening to us all. Even if you’re not Jewish, ideas like Nazism and other forms of facism are a threat to everyone’s civic liberties like freedom of speech and freedom of religion. They seek to enforce hate through violence and intimidation, and will trample over anyone to do so. As such, it’s important to try to understand these trends so that we may fight against them.

Open fascism isn’t particularly popular on its own. Most people don’t like their freedoms restricted for the sake of bigoted authoritarians, and fascists know this. That’s why historically and over the last few years, fringe groups have tried to gain legitimacy by tying themselves to mainstream conservative movements.

The Miami-based Proud Boys gained notoriety back in 2020 when former President Donald Trump said to “stand back and stand by” in a debate gaffe. The far-right group, whose members carry guns and wear body armor to protests as a form of intimidation, immediately made the then President’s message into a slogan and used it to give themselves legitimacy.

Last year online white supremacist Nick Fuentes made headlines when he and West were invited to a dinner with Trump at his resort in Mar-A-Lago. Before that more illustrious meeting, Fuentes was known to harass conservative events to try to push anti-semetic and white supremacist talking points.

Even National Socialist Florida tries to appeal to mainstream audiences while pushing more extreme views. The group’s founder, Josh Nunes, has credited most of their recent growth to messaging around drag shows.

“Why are child friendly drag shows legal? @ Ron DeSantis,” read one of the messages the group projected onto a building near an NFL playoff. 

The message is playing on anti-LGBTQ+ panic that has dominated conservative politics as of late. Many politicians have made claims that drag shows expose children to sexual content or that gender-affirming care for transgender youth is dangerous, both of which are largely false. Drag shows have age ratings to prevent children from seeing explicit material, gender-affirming care is endorsed by the vast majority of doctors, and other such messaging is similarly rooted in myths.

Most far-right groups are already anti-LGBTQ+ to begin with, but the fact that such hateful rhetoric based on blatant disinformation is going mainstream is particularly helpful for extremists. Bigotry is ultimately based on lies, so if people are already being primed to believe myths about one group, it becomes easier to spread hate against others.

This is not to say that people who vote Republican are fascist or even far-right. Many conservative beliefs like small government and respect for the constitution are directly at odds with fascism. But it’s clear that many politicians prefer far-right rhetoric to constructive policy, creating a gateway for extremists to gain influence.

As scary as this may seem, it’s important to remember that most Americans are not fascists. Most of the fringe groups we’re talking about still have to lurk in the shadows or, in the case of the Proud Boys, face trial for seditious conspiracy. Last year’s midterm elections showed that divisive culture war issues don’t play well for conservatives, as many further right GOP candidates lost what were expected to be easy elections. Florida was an exception; however, as Gov. Ron DeSantis won in a landslide after spearheading such issues.

If politicians are content with enabling fascists, then that puts the responsibility on ordinary citizens of all political stripes to stop it. Any action to combat fascism, big or small, is crucial right now. Whether it’s demanding that politicians abandon hateful rhetoric, counter-protesting Neo-Nazis on the street, or simply educating yourself and others about the dangers of extremism, everything helps. That’s what democracy is all about.