As white supremacists from as far as Canada revel in intimidating Sunshine State residents, critics blast DeSantis for his silence
The march represented a merger of two neo-Nazi hate groups with different styles — the hard-edged BloodTribe, aka Blutstamm, whose Maine-based leader Christopher Pohlhaus has a runic face tattoo goes and goes by the name “Hammer”; and the Goyim Defense League, a meme-savvy group whose antisemitism is steeped in layers of irony, led by Jon Minadeo II, who calls himself “Handsome Truth.” This was the largest, but only the latest, of a series of high-profile neo-Nazi actions in Florida.
More than 50 members of both groups joined together on Sept. 2 — wearing red shirts and dark shorts, with most covering their faces with black masks. Some toted massive swastika flags, and their hate march culminated with a demonstration on a freeway overpass in Altamonte Springs, where the neo-Nazis performed stiff-armed Hitler salutes and shouted antisemitic threats like, “Jews get the rope!”
Many of these haters were not Florida natives. As detailed on the livestream, they’d traveled from as far Canada and California, spending thousands of dollars on flights and hotels to participate in this show of intimidation in the Sunshine State. And this joint mobilization was augmented, on the same day, by a third neo-Nazi group that rallied just a few miles away, outside DisneyWorld. Members of the Order of the Black Sun staked out an entrance to “the most magical place on Earth,” holding placards reading: “Have you thanked Hitler today?”
Florida has in recent weeks been something of a magnet for hate, amid burgeoning neo-Nazi activity nationally. The dark rhetoric about hanging Jews followed just a weekend after the mass killing in Jacksonville, Florida, where the gunman, who scrawled a swastika on his AR-15 style rifle, murdered three Black victims at a Dollar General, before killing himself.
At each of the Labor Day weekend neo-Nazi events near Orlando, members trollishly invoked the name of the state’s governor, Ron DeSantis. The DisneyWorld Nazis waved a “DeSantis 2024” flag; a GDL member on the freeway overpass mockingly declared: “We’re all DeSantis supporters!” before adding, “Fuck Ron DeSantis!”
Yet, unlike other Florida GOP leaders, DeSantis has not condemned the nauseating displays of hate — continuing a yearslong pattern of conspicuous silence. Critics, including the head of the Florida Democratic Party, insist that DeSantis’ unwillingness to decry such neo-Nazi actions is making him “complicit” in the state’s rising tide of hate. As the GOP governor has fashioned Florida into the place where “woke goes to die,” they insist, DeSantis is fostering an environment where hate comes to thrive.
”Talk to anybody from any of these marginalized communities. There is a fear on the ground,” says Nikki Fried, who was the highest ranking Jewish woman in the history of state government, stepping down from her cabinet post at the beginning of this year to lead state Democrats. She tells Rolling Stone she’s floored to be living through a moment of American history where she has to “denounce Nazis in my home state — and have a governor who refuses to do so.”
According to the Anti-Defamation League, Florida has seen a sharp rise in antisemitic acts. From 2019, when Desantis first took office, to 2022, incidents of anti-Jewish harassment, vandalism and assault soared from 91 to 269 according to an annual, state-by-state accounting by ADL. Antisemitism is surging nationwide, however the 196 percent increase in Florida is far greater than that of other large U.S. states with big Jewish populations, including New York (which saw a 35 percent increase) and California (57 percent).
Combating this surge in bigotry is complex. But the top recommendation from an 2023 ADL report about countering “Hate in the Sunshine State” insists that: “Elected officials and community leaders must all strongly and consistently condemn antisemitism and extremism, whenever and wherever it occurs.”
But that is advice Governor DeSantis’ camp has, at times, found difficult to follow. In Jan. 2022, a group of hardcore haters staged a rally in Orlando, chanting slogans like “the Jew is the devil” and hoisted hateful banners over freeway overpasses. But when called on to condemn them, Team DeSantis first lofted a false-flag conspiracy theory, instead. In a since-deleted tweet, spokesperson Christina Pushaw asked: “Do we even know if they are Nazis?” and suggested that the hate mongers could have been, “Dem Staffers.”
DeSantis eventually insulted these neo-Nazis as “jackasses” during a press conference — but doubled down on the notion that the threat was overhyped by his political opponents. He blasted the “Democrats who are trying to use this as some type of political issue to smear me, as if I had something to do with it.” He added: “We’re not playing their game.”
The governor has since observed a strategy of silence in response to neo-Nazi actions in the state — even when hate groups have invoked his name and political imagery. In July 2022, a group of neo-Nazis set up camp in front of a right-wing youth conference in Tampa, holding lightning bolt ‘SS’ flags, Nazi posters, and a banner reading “DeSantis Country.” One held a sign trolling DeSantis as “our glorious leader.”
Following the Tampa episode, Charlie Crist — then DeSantis’ top rival for governor — sought to turn the Republican’s lack of a response into a campaign issue, tweeting nearly a dozen times to denounce the “terrifying” and “dangerous” development, and demanding that DeSantis “condemn the Nazis.” DeSantis never did so — but it did not cost him politically; he won a landslide victory in November.
In an incident sparking national headlines this past June, neo-Nazi members of the Order of the Black Sun first positioned themselves outside Disney World, waving swastika flags and a banner from DeSantis’ current presidential bid. DeSantis again kept any criticism of the neo-Nazis quiet — in sharp contrast to his predecessor, the current U.S. senator Rick Scott, who responded on Twitter: ”This is not what Florida stands for,” adding: “We will ALWAYS stand with the Jewish community in condemning heinous displays of hatred like this.”
No one is suggesting DeSantis is a neo-Nazi sympathizer. Nor that the Nazis themselves are earnestly enamored of the governor. DeSantis has made a pair of ceremonial trips to Israel to sign state legislation, most recently in April giving law enforcement new tools to prosecute crimes of hate, including antisemitism, and vowing that perpetrators “will be punished.” On Tuesday, state police arrested a neo-Nazi for “criminal mischief” for hanging antisemitic banners over an Orlando freeway during a June 10 hate action.
Ben Popp, an investigative researcher for the ADL’s Center on Extremism, says that Florida’s neo-Nazis, who amplify DeSantis, along with their swastikas, are really just hoping to popularize their hatred of Jews. “Their number one goal is to garner as much public attention, media attention as possible,” he says. “Because, to them, that’s the way they can normalize their antisemitism.” During a broadcast this past week, the antisemite Minadeo insisted of neo-Nazis who say they support DeSantis: “It’s a total troll,” adding in a conspiratorial tone: “Everyone knows who DeSantis serves.”
The DeSantis presidential campaign did not respond to a request for comment from Rolling Stone. The staff of the governor’s office did not respond directly to questions about why DeSantis doesn’t follow the clarity of Rick Scott’s example. Instead, Deputy Press Secretary Julia Friedland highlighted DeSantis’ legislative record, his support for Israel and insisted, “The Governor is focused on punishing criminals and supporting the Jewish community.” The media, including Rolling Stone, she insisted, “has been focused on smearing the Governor.”
DeSantis himself gave a similar answer in response to a Jewish voter who questioned him directly about neo-Nazis sporting his flag, during a “conversation with the candidate” that aired in early August in Manchester, New Hampshire. Without directly condemning the haters, DeSantis bragged that he’d made Florida the most “pro-Israel state in America,” spent millions on security for Jewish day schools, and vowed to “defeat the scourge of anti-semitism.” As for the neo-Nazis waving his banner: “Those are not true supporters of mine,” he said. “That is an operation, to try to link me to something so that it smears me.” DeSantis added: “They are trying to divide, by using that as a weapon against me.”
DeSantis is shameless for “playing the victim,” says Fried, noting the governor faces no personal fallout from his constant escalation of the culture wars. “As a member of the Jewish community, I every time I drive home mine, I hold my breath for a couple of seconds to make sure there’s not a swastika drawn on my front of my house,” she says.
The dark truth is that white identity politics and scapegoating of minorities is now part and parcel of the MAGA agenda. Trump made his corner of the GOP a safe space for racists by popularizing the birther conspiracy; slandering Mexican immigrants as “rapists” and “drug dealers”; pursuing a “Muslim ban;” and by insisting that the tiki-torch bearing Charlottesville marchers — who chanted “Jews will not replace us!” in 2017 — included “good people.”
Fishing in similar political waters, DeSantis has made a politics of intolerance central to his brand. He championed passage of the state’s infamous “Don’t Say Gay” law, muzzling teachers from discussing LGBTQ topics with students, with Pushaw blasting opponents of the measure as “groomers.” DeSantis has also banned “Critical Race Theory” in state classrooms — claiming it was “teaching kids to hate their country.”
The NAACP, in May, issued a travel advisory warning that “Florida is openly hostile toward African Americans, people of color and LGBTQ+ individuals.” DeSantis blasted the action as a “total farce” and a “political stunt.” But his relationship with Florida’s Black community is now so damaged he was booed when he tried to speak in Jacksonville following the Dollar General massacre — with one heckler even shouting, “Your policies caused this!”
The dividing line between the furthest right wing of the GOP and the extremist fray of white supremacists has always been fuzzy. As the recent firing of a young DeSantis staffer, who had affiliated with Holocaust denier Nick Fuentes and then reportedly made a meme video for the DeSantis online operation featuring a Sonnenrad demonstrates, the barrier is porous.
The difference between the two, however, remains meaningful. Modern Republican politicians are all-too-often content to accept support from bigots to secure electoral power. Neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups, by contrast, “are not interested in electoral politics,” says Popp. “They believe Jews are controlling politics to begin with. They don’t see it as an effective means of initiating the change that they want to see.”
In short: Republicans are offering political solutions. Neo-Nazis are offering final solutions. But both are identifying persuadable adherents among some of the same Americans. A 2022 poll found that six in ten MAGA voters believe in the “great replacement” conspiracy theory that holds that powerful interests are attempting to erode white power by flooding America with immigrants of color.
Rep. Cory Mils is a Trump-backed MAGA Republican who represents the Orlando suburb where GDL and Blood Tribe marched. His reaction to the neo-Nazis was far from “normal” but illustrated how simple condemning hate can be. Mills played to the conspiratorial base — tweeting, “I believe the recent events were orchestrated with paid actors,” — but the congressman nonetheless called the march, “a reminder of the bigotry and hatred in America that we must root out.” He added: “I wholeheartedly condemn any racist or anti-Semitic hatred, or harassment in our communities.”
Popp insists that it’s crucial to counter neo-Nazi hate speech in the political arena. “There needs to be pushback from our elected officials,” he says, citing their “cultural and social power.” Popp adds: “We need all elected officials to acknowledge the hate — that these are indeed white supremacists, they are indeed antisemitic — and call it out. That it needs to stop.”
DeSantis — to be clear — does call out other flags when it suits his political calculus. After a White House pride ceremony displayed the colors of the rainbow this summer, the Florida governor was quick to raise objection, complaining (incorrectly) that the administration had violated flag protocol. “When they had at the White House, this transgender flag as the precedence [sic] over the American flag,” DeSantis said, “that’s wrong!”
Ironically, the rationale for vocal denunciation of neo-Nazis by DeSantis is perhaps best phrased by his media maven, Pushaw. She once tweeted, in a different context: “Silence is complicity. This is how it works, Democrats, and I didn’t make the rules.”