How To Decipher DeSantis’ Very-Online Campaign Message

Florida Gov. and GOP presidential candidate Ron DeSantis speaks during a Clive, Iowa, rally on May 30, 2023. Photo by Starting Line staff

By Ty Rushing

June 1, 2023

When you sit down at the kitchen table to discuss life’s biggest challenges with a family member, is your top concern Central Bank currency or gain-of-function research?

If so, you may be Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ target audience for his presidential campaign in the Iowa Caucus. If not… well, large parts of his initial pitch out on the caucus trail might be confusing for you.

DeSantis’ introductory message in Iowa this week vacillated between classic GOP candidate talking points—the US/Mexico border, lower taxes, taking down the elites—and more fringe topics only those deep in the internet trenches seem to care about. If a right-wing meme gained sentience and wrote a speech, it’d likely resemble major sections of DeSantis’ opening pitch.

But don’t worry—your Iowa Starting Line team is here to decipher the Florida Republican’s obscure references and acronyms for all the “normies” out there who don’t channel the spirit of @firstnamebunchofnumbers.

Here’s what he said in some of the more online elements of his speeches, what those things are about, and why he/certain segments of the internet don’t like them:

Central Bank Digital Currency

Quote: “We have signed legislation prohibiting the use of a central bank digital currency,” DeSantis said, to a perhaps-surprising amount of applause during his kickoff event in Clive on Tuesday.

On May 12, DeSantis did indeed sign legislation to prohibit the use of a federally adopted Central Bank Digital Currency (CBDC) as money within Florida’s Uniform Commercial Code (UCC).

What is CBDC: According to the US Federal Reserve, “CBDC is generally defined as a digital liability of a central bank that is widely available to the general public. Today in the United States, Federal Reserve notes (i.e., physical currency) are the only type of central bank money available to the general public. Like existing forms of money, a CBDC would enable the general public to make digital payments.”

Basically, think of crypto or other digital currencies—if they were centrally regulated. 

What’s the gripe: In March, DeSantis’ office outlined his opposition to federally-controlled CBDC. In that statement, he said CBDC is about the Biden administration wanting surveillance and control over people. The statement also said CBDC “is the most recent way the Davos elites are attempting to backdoor woke ideology like Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) into the United States financial system, threatening individual privacy and economic freedom.”

Reality check: The US Federal Reserve is years away from considering creating any sort of digital dollar and it wouldn’t do so without authorization from Congress, which means both the House and Senate have to agree on something and in overwhelming numbers. According to Politico, the anti-CBDC sentiments stem from the new FedNow instant payment system, which “is separate from the digital dollar, but both involve high-tech updates to the monetary system, making them similar enough in their broad contours that commentators seized on the former to air their grievances about the latter.”

As NBC News has reported, some far-right forums and figures have promoted the conspiracy theory that the US will replace paper currency with CBDC to prevent some people from buying weapons, gas-powered cars, or meat. Those who’ve boosted the anti-CBDC sentiment include noted conspiracy theorists Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Michael Flynn, the former Trump advisor and current promoter of an online community for “COVID-19 unvaccinated people” to find blood, sperm, and egg donors, as well as fellow “unvaccinated singles.”


Quote: “We will sign legislation to kneecap so-called ESG,” DeSantis said. “No special credit scores and no woke banking that discriminates against conservatives.”

On May 3, DeSantis signed a bill barring state officials from investing public money to promote ESG (environmental, social, and governance), and prohibiting ESG bond sales.

What is ESG: The acronym stands for Environmental, Social, and Governance and refers to those three key factors when measuring the sustainability and ethical impact of an investment in a business of a company, according to Market Business News.  

Basically, it’s an investment strategy for people who care how companies use their resources and treat people.

According to Morgan Stanley Capital International, “the practice of ESG investing began in the 1960s as socially responsible investing, with investors excluding stocks or entire industries from their portfolios based on business activities such as tobacco production or involvement in the South African apartheid regime.”

What’s the gripe: ESG critics, one of whom said it’s “more insidious than communism or the Nazis,” argue that companies putting too much effort into social causes and the environment aren’t focused enough on making profits.

Reality check: The ESG backlash emerged out of the climate change denial movement and has been pushed by conservative dark money donors. It ignores the mountain of evidence that the climate crisis has economic and business implications and that the way companies treat workers could actually have an impact on investors’ decisions. The anti-ESG movement is part of DeSantis and the Republican Party’s “war on woke,” which appears to mean using the power of the government to target any person, group, or institution that makes a values-based decision that conservatives don’t agree with—even if it’s a decision that’s good for business. Come on, do you think there is a single investment company— especially one largely owned by Morgan Stanley—that isn’t trying to make money? 

Gain-of-Function Research

Quote: “We protected medical freedom by banning mandates for COVID shots, and other MRNA emergency vaccines and by being the first state in America to ban gain-of-function research,” DeSantis said.

DeSantis signed the bill banning gain-of-function research on May 11 alongside other bills under the guise of “protecting medical freedom.”

What is gain-of-function research: According to the US Department of Health & Human Services, “Gain-of-function (GOF) studies, or research that improves the ability of a pathogen to cause disease, help define the fundamental nature of human-pathogen interactions, thereby enabling assessment of the pandemic potential of emerging infectious agents, informing public health and preparedness efforts, and furthering medical countermeasure development.”

Basically, gain-of-function studies allow scientists to research dangerous biological agents—think flu virus, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), or the novel coronavirus—to figure out a way to counteract them. This is how annual flu shots are developed.

What’s the gripe: Doing this type of research is inherently risky since scientists are working directly with potential biohazards, but it’s been conducted for years. This particular gripe ties into the theory that the coronavirus that sparked a global pandemic was caused by a leak at a lab in Wuhan, China.    

Reality check: “Gain-of-function” research can help save lives and prevent epidemics and pandemics. It helped lead to a vaccine for yellow fever, helped develop a melanoma treatment, and if you were alive in the early 2000s, you probably remember the original SARS outbreak, which was contained. If you don’t remember or never heard of it, you can thank gain-of-function research for the role it played in that. Despite the insistence of many conspiracy theorists and politicians, there is no conclusive evidence that the pandemic was caused by a leak at the Wuhan lab. But fears surrounding “gain-of-function” research continue to abound, as do other pandemic-era conspiracies.

mRNA Vaccines

Quote: See above.

What are mRNA vaccines: According to the Centers for Disease and Control, “mRNA vaccines use mRNA created in a laboratory to teach our cells how to make a protein—or even just a piece of a protein—that triggers an immune response inside our bodies. This immune response, which produces antibodies, is what helps protect us from getting sick from that germ in the future.” 

This is the method that was used to produce some of the COVID-19 vaccines including the Moderna and Pfizer shots.

What’s the gripe: This ties back into the growing anti-vaccine rhetoric that emerged during the pandemic. Some opponents of the vaccines refuse to accept the possibility that they’re effective or safe because they were funded by a public-private partnership between the Trump administration and the pharmaceutical companies that was nicknamed “Operation Warpspeed. Other anti-vaccine individuals falsely claim that mRNA vaccines alter your DNA and could be added to the food supply. Many of the attacks on mRNA vaccines echo conspiracy theories that emerged out of China and Russia during the pandemic. 

As part of his effort to protect “medical freedom,” DeSantis signed legislation that says “no patient is forced by a business, school, or government entity to undergo testing, wear a mask, or be vaccinated for COVID-19.”

Reality check: While mRNA entered the common lexicon more recently, work to develop mRNA vaccines goes back to the 1960s, according to the National Library of Health. The vaccines have also repeatedly been proven to be extremely safe and quite effective at preventing serious illness and death from COVID-19, and communities with higher rates of vaccination tend to have lower rates of deaths.

Woke Military

Quote: “It pains me when we see revered institution like our very own military become more concerned with matters that are not central whether it’s global warming or gender ideology or pronouns, morale is declining and recruiting is suffering,” DeSantis said.

What makes the military woke: According to a column titled “The Rise of Wokeness in the Military” that stemmed from Hillsdale College and was posted on the website for the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, a number of things are making the military “woke.”

Military wokeness indicators include the US Department of Defense’s strategy to reduce carbon emissions which includes transitioning non-tactical vehicles to electric power by 2035. Allowing transgender people to serve, allowing women to serve in combat roles, rolling back physical fitness requirements, reducing extremism within the ranks, and promoting diversity and inclusion efforts are also considered “woke.”

What’s the gripe: By focusing all of those things, it makes the military look weak therefore it makes the country look weak on the global stage.

Reality check: First off, let’s be clear about what “wokeness in the military” means. It means creating more opportunities for women, LGBTQ people, and Black and Latino people to serve in the armed forces and working to ensure they’re supported. That’s the core of what DeSantis and others are arguing.

Second, calling the military “woke” is a ridiculous oxymoron no matter how you parse it, but especially if you go by the original definition of the word developed by Black Americans. Furthermore, according to Sgt. Maj. of the Army Michael Grinston, there is just one hour of equal opportunity training compared to 92 hours of rifle marksmanship training during basic training for new recruits. So no matter what pronouns that service member uses or who they love, it sounds like they’re still going to be pretty well trained in the use of a firearm. 

Lastly, in that same CNN article, Air Force Chief Master Sgt. JoAnne Bass said political accusations are doing more damage to the military/military recruiting than perceived “wokeness.”

“The narrative that we are focused on that more than warfighting is what’s perhaps hurting us,” Bass said.


by Ty Rushing


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  • Ty Rushing

    Ty Rushing is the Chief Political Correspondent for Iowa Starting Line. He is a trail-blazing veteran Iowa journalist, an Emmy-nominated filmmaker, and co-founder and president of the Iowa Association of Black Journalists. Send tips or story ideas to [email protected] and find him on social media @Rushthewriter.

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