When Jesse Helms attempted to maneuver his way onto the 1980 presidential ticket, Republicans considered it a joke. Helms, even then, was not taken seriously by most national Republican elites, and the concept of this Tar Heel rabble-rouser accompanying Ronald Reagan into November provoked RNC delegates to dismiss the proposal outright. Why, then, do today’s adore Florida’s version of the old Carolina bigot?

Governor Ron DeSantis boasts a profile given far more respect than Helms ever managed to win even when Helms wielded influence as a major committee chair. Perhaps it’s his educational pedigree or the innate stature of an executive. Whatever the case, DeSantis in fact practices a style of truculent cultural demagoguery that resembles Jesse Helms and that may nix his prospects for attaining the Republican presidential nomination. Much has changed about the Republican Party since Jesse Helms joined it in the late 1960s, but certain threads of right-wing populism have remained constant. We see them in DeSantis’s relentless campaigns against the types of cultural foes Helms presented as a menace to the good order of the Southern home.

DeSantis evoked the greatest controversy of his tenure by inflicting repressive exclusion on LGBTQ people. The governor proudly signed his legislature’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill, which has been replicated in Republican-ruled states across the country including our own. After the bill exploded into a contretemps, DeSantis heightened his political belligerence. Showing a willingness to bring down the power of the state on entities that would not comply with his political crusades, he revoked tax privileges from the Disney corporation. Helms never had this power. But in both substance and tone DeSantis was deeply congruent with his spiritual forerunner, Jesse Helms.

In the late 1980s, Helms viciously demagogued LGBTQ people in education. With the assistance of the North Carolina Congressional Club, this sitting senator polled and proposed a ban on gay teachers in public schools. Shamefully, a large majority of the voters supported the exclusion of gay people from teaching jobs. Like DeSantis, Jesse Helms dredged up some of the ugliest lies about gay people in an effort to collect votes from–and to scare–religious-conservative voters.

If “Don’t Say Gay” was DeSantis’s signature policy, his bullying posture toward the media is what has made him famous. DeSantis berates reporters, usually female ones, and in his aggression delights conservative voters. Here, again, Helms was the trailblazer. Despite a background in television commentary, Jesse Helms demonized the press and used this cynical hypocrisy to build a bond with voters at a time when trust in journalism was collapsing.

The broad picture that emerges here is one of a DeSantis who has built his career on scapegoating and contempt–just like Jesse Helms. This is hardly auspicious for the Florida governor’s presidential dreams. Helms, despite his following on the New Right, could never have won the presidency. He was too mean-spirited, too much of a zealot. If Helms’s radicalism exceeded what Reagan would tolerate, DeSantis seems unlikely to win the presidency in a country far kinder, and far better, than the one Jesse Helms sought to transform.


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