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How Elon Musk and Ron DeSantis Accidentally Exposed White Supremacy
Lessons from the Cancellation of Pedro Gonzalez, Nate Hochman, and Richard Hanania
For those of us who spend too much time following our national political soap opera via Twitter, the last two months have featured a recurring story arc. One after another, les enfant terrible of the Neo-Right have been exposed for promoting white supremacy.
First, in June, Newsweek columnist and Ron DeSantis supporter Pedro Gonzalez was outed for sending anti-semitic and white nationalist text messages. Then in July, former National Review staff writer and DeSantis speechwriter Nate Hochman was revealed to be the creator of a campaign video including fascist imagery. And now in August, right-wing Substack pundit Richard Hanania was exposed for having an alt-account filled with eugenicist, racist, and misogynistic posts (and a main account with slightly moderated versions of the same).
Of course, the American Right has long had a problem with an overtly hateful fringe — from the Groypers to the White Citizens Council — but it was mostly that: a fringe, albeit one that waxed and waned. Sure, a former klansman like David Duke could temporarily pretend to have given up their racist views in order to win office as a Republican in the Louisiana state legislature. That’s not good, but I just yawned at the man’s irrelevance even while writing that. “Find the kooky state legislator” is a political staple; and the fact that even in the reddest of red districts Duke had to ameliorate his racism in order to get his foot on the starting rung of local politics is a reminder of his impotence. He was horrid but marginal.
By contrast, Gonzalez/Hochman/Hanania — or GHH from here on out — were up-and-coming political operatives on the national scene. They parlayed their popularity among the Terminally Online alt-Right into positions at mainstream conservative periodicals and on major political campaigns. Despite holding or promoting views just as reprehensible as anything David Duke believed, they were on the path to consequence on the national conservative political scene.
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The closest historical corollary might be Pat Buchanan, a successful career operative in the Nixon and Reagan administrations whose racist and anti-semitic statements had largely relegated him to the paleoconservative margins of right-wing politics by the 1990s. Yet like cow patties sprouting toadstools after a spring rain, little embellished turds are popping up all over conservative politics once again.
Of course, all of this is downstream from the ongoing surge of ethno-nationalist sentiment on the right. That has created more space for those with previously unacceptable attitudes on race in mainstream conservative institutions. But that’s been an incremental story, a slow but steady shift over the last two decades.
Thus, the most pressing question to consider in light of the exposure of GHH’s white supremacy is not where their views came from but why, at this particular moment, they’re being exposed as such. Why not in 2021 out of resentment about Trump’s defeat? Why not in 2018 after the Trumpists finally flushed out some of the last congressional Never Trumpers? Why now?
The timing, I would argue, is a function of two factors: 1) Ron DeSantis’s decision to go with a far right base turnout strategy and 2) Elon Musk’s relaxation of content moderation and account unbanning on Twitter.
As others have already noted in some detail, DeSantis opted to position himself to Trump’s right on a variety of issues from gay rights to the pandemic response. At this point, it’s the general consensus that his “Trumpier than Trump” gambit was a huge miscalculation. By adopting the opposite strategy and peeling off college-educated, anti-Trump voters, complete political dark horse Vivek Ramaswamy has positioned himself as the leading non-Trump/DeSantis option.
Present regrets aside, in service of that strategy DeSantis needed campaign staffers who would help him appeal to young, alienated male voters who have been trending towards the far right over the last several years. Move over soccer moms of ‘96; the hot voter segment of the ‘24 GOP primaries is Andrew Tate fans.
So DeSantis courted online edgelords like Pedro Gonzalez and Nate Hochman (and did so even after Hochman had made headlines for his fawning interview with open white nationalist Nick Fuentes). They were his youth outreach strategy, conversant in wink-wink online meme culture and able to act as surrogates between the campaign and previously untapped segments of the far right.
But that strategy made DeSantis vulnerable to attacks from Trump surrogates on extremism grounds. And given that all these cretins were once on the same team — sharing emails, IMs, listserves, etc — they had massive stockpiles of compromising ammunition to draw from.
All it took was a few selective leaks of texts by pro-Trump operatives to the pro-Trump outlet Breitbart during a news down cycle, and BAM! Bad headlines for days forcing DeSantis to respond to queries about Gonzalez’s anti-semitic text messages rather than attacking left-wing boogeymen or whatever else gets right-wing donors to open their wallets these days. Of course, the pro-Trump operatives probably had those texts because they were sent to them when they were friends or allies of Gonzalez; but that was then, this is now, and all’s fair in love, primaries, and war.
Thus far, I’m not saying much that’s new. The DeSantis campaign’s choice to play footsies with white supremacists is well-covered. But what is new, I think, is the role that Elon Musk has unintentionally played in this story.
DeSantis’s political implosion might end up being the most spectacular since Scott Walker’s flareup and flameout in 2016, but Musk seems determined to achieve something even more impressive: pouring $44 billion into Twitter only to ride it, in a blaze of glory, towards a pending fiscal cliff. [Note: I’m just going to keep calling it Twitter because I’m not a late-90s punk who watches eXtreme sports any more.]
While the accuracy of Musk’s self-description as a “free speech absolutist” waxes and wanes as a matter of personal convenience, it is undeniable that he has relaxed content moderation restrictions. Musk also unbanned a host of accounts that had been suspended for hateful content; and for every celebrity account with hundreds of thousands of millions of followers unbanned, there were thousands of pseudonymous accounts with a few dozen or hundred connections now being thrown back into the discourse. As a result, there has been a surge in racist speech. Anecdotally, as someone who checks Twitter daily, that certainly feels true. My FYP is much uglier than under l’ancien regime de Jack.
But now think of the incentive this created for the DeSantis campaign. Twitter was suddenly refilled with a decades’ worth of unbanned accounts — particularly those which paid for Twitter Blue — and which were now crowing about their newfound ability to post misogynistic, homophobic, and racist content without consequence.
That was the community which the DeSantis campaign had decided to target. It was larger and louder than ever. But now that the racist background noise had been turned up, the older, higher pitched dogwhistles wouldn’t work quite as well. It wasn’t enough to just fawn over whichever white-man-of-the-week had killed a black man or left-winger. How quaint. No, now was the time to go full fascist. And thus Nate Hochman, desperate to differentiate himself from the dogwhistling pack, dug up a literal Nazi icon, and slapped it over an image of DeSantis reviewing a jackbooted parade.
This explains Gonzalez and Hochman quite well, but Hanania less so, or at least, less clearly. Yet while Hanania is not so directly connected to the DeSantis campaign, my guess is that his exposure came because the sharks sniffed Hochman’s/Gonzalez’s blood in the water. Someone like Hanania, who even on his main account posted at least borderline racist and misogynistic content on the regular, would be a natural target for any journalist on the “right-wing extremism” beat such as Christopher Mathias. I also wouldn’t rule out the possibility that Mathias was tipped off by a pro-Trump operative eager to remove yet another DeSantis booster. After all, it’s otherwise a bit strange that just now someone would go digging through a decade old data breach and know to look for one Richard Hanania DBA “Richard Hoste.”
In any case, what should we learn from all this?
Thankfully, it appears that overt white supremacy is still a political liability, although the fact that this was ever in doubt is a sign of just how repugnant so much of right-wing discourse has become recently. Then again, the pessimist in me can’t help but note that but for the particulars of the DeSantis - Trump feud, these white supremacists might have continued climbing the career ladder, perhaps all the way to the White House. If we’re relying on Donald Trump’s campaign to be the consistent, moderate voice of reason on race relations, then we’ve still got a problem!
It is a win for free speech. Critics of free speech once pointed to the coarsening of Twitter discourse as evidence that free speech promotes hatefulness and thus should be balanced against other considerations (ie, limited). Yet free speech defenders have long argued that tolerating hateful speech actually works to improve the discourse by enabling more effective rejoinder. While that looked like a sucker’s bet for the first couple of months of Musk’s ownership, by resurfacing formerly suppressed hateful speakers, Elon Musk’s free(r) speech policies unintentionally made it easier to expose GHH.
Think of it in a very practical way. When hateful speech was banished to the dark, crusty-sock-festooned corners of 8kun or Reddit, the incentive for journalists to expose sock puppet accounts was relatively minimal. But when those voices were then back on Twitter, it brought them into proximity to journalists, political campaigns, and operatives. The incentives, and coverage, shifted. And it also pushed Hochman out over his skies with his astroturfed, Twitter-focused, white supremacist meme campaign.
Is that good for Elon Musk’s aspirations to turn Twitter into a WeChat knockoff? Probably not. Most consumers don’t much enjoy sharing social media space with the dredged up denizens of the ugliest corners of the internet. But what’s been bad for Twitter’s bottom line appears to have been good for American politics in at least this regard.
And perhaps we’ll learn not to do it again. Maybe. Maybe not.
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