Tired of wokeness? Move to Florida

Lunatics” is a comic novel published in 2012 by two American authors, Dave Barry and Alan Zweibel. The men wrote alternate chapters, making each more preposterous than the last. It starts with two suburban dads disagreeing over an offside call at a schoolgirls’ soccer game. Before long the dads have inadvertently hijacked a cruise ship full of nudists and overthrown the governments of more than one country. It is not until chapter 52 that Donald Trump tries to become president of the United States.

Twelve years ago “we both thought that was hilarious,” said Barry. He is the first to admit that, like many book-smart people, he underestimated his fellow Florida resident. Barry has spent nearly four decades poking gentle fun at the wackiness of the Sunshine State – the only place in America where mermaid impersonators are state employees (at Weeki Wachee Springs in Hernando County, if you’re wondering). But he never expected one of his punchlines to become the most powerful man in the world.

He still finds Trump funny, in a terrifying way. Looking around the café in Coconut Grove, a leafy neighbourhood of Miami, where we were sipping coffee in the February sun, he reflected on the former president’s extraordinary negative appeal. “Donald Trump is loathed by the same people that many people in America feel disrespected by: the intellectual and media elite. And they [his voters] love him for that.”

More column inches have been devoted to this topic than there are bugs in the Everglades, the swamp that covers much of South Florida. But as Trump runs for a second term, his adopted home state offers clues as to why his pitch – vote for me because liberals look down on me – works.

Florida used to be a bellwether in presidential elections. Between 1928 and 2016 it voted for the winning candidate 21 times out of 23. In 2000 a mere 537 votes (not counting plenty of “hanging chads”) in Florida put George W. Bush in the White House. Barack Obama narrowly carried the state in 2012. But since then it has shifted sharply to the right. Trump is expected to win it handily in November (he will gallop away with the Republican primary on March 19th).

The election for governor in 2022 may not be a reliable predictor of this year’s presidential vote in Florida – Trump was of course not on the ballot. But its outcome worried Democrats nonetheless. Their nominee was Charlie Crist, an old white man who has been a fixture of Florida politics for three decades (switching from Republican to independent to Democrat in the process). Only half of registered Democrats bothered to vote. Nearly two-thirds of Republicans did. Ron DeSantis, the Republican governor, was re-elected by nearly 20 percentage points, after campaigning largely on national culture-war issues. “Florida is where woke goes to die,” he declared last year.

It would be more accurate to say that Florida is where people go when they are fed up with wokeness. Nearly two-thirds of Floridians moved there from somewhere else; a fifth were born abroad. They come for many reasons, from the weather to the absence of a state income tax. But disillusion with the way their home states (or home countries) are governed plays an important role.

During the pandemic, Florida had some of the loosest lockdown policies in the country, attracting many Americans from states with stricter rules. “The people that moved here weren’t just old, rich people from the north-east,” said Susan MacManus, a political analyst. “You saw a lot of young families with kids that didn’t want their kids in lockdown; and an influx of younger people who came here because jobs were open.”

Taylor Strand, a marketing consultant in her 30s, moved to Clearwater, on Florida’s west coast, from California. She told me that she refused to get vaccinated against covid-19 because she reacted badly to a previous jab. In California, that meant she was barred from government buildings, many restaurants and some workplaces. “I felt like a second-class citizen,” she said.

In Florida, lockdowns ended early and firms cannot require staff to get jabbed. Strand started working remotely, as many new Floridians have, and then set up her own marketing consultancy. Starting a business involves less red tape in Florida than in California. She feels safer, too: after parts of California stopped prosecuting minor offences, street crime soared and her adoptive brother was robbed. She is a big fan of DeSantis.

Yet it is not only the obvious places that are changing – the big cities such as Miami and Tampa that suck in young jobseekers – but also Florida’s rural heartland.

Moore Haven, a small town in central Florida, is the seat of Glades County, a thinly populated expanse of cattle farms and canals. Older residents trundle about on golf carts. The county fair features bucking bulls. A canal invites anglers onto Lake Okeechobee, a vast, shallow body of freshwater that feeds the Everglades. One of the largest local employers is a prison. This is the Florida county where Democrats have lost the most ground since 2012: Obama lost it by 19 percentage points in 2012; Joe Biden lost it by a stunning 46 points in 2020. The only Biden sign I saw in Moore Haven read: “Biden: Making America Last”.

“I like Trump. He’s a badass,” said Eilen Arenas, who runs a café near the highway that bisects the town. Arenas escaped from Cuba in 2005, when she was 18. She worked in a Subway sandwich shop in Miami for six years, was promoted to manager but “wanted more”. After exploring various business ideas she heard about on social media, she and her husband decided to try their luck in a town where a trendy Cuban-style coffee shop stands out rather more than it would in Miami.

For a while they commuted 180km each way, bundling her children into the car at 4.30am, opening the café at 7am and then dropping the kids at school. “It was incredibly hard,” she said. So they moved to Glades County, where she and her husband can afford a house with a garden instead of a tiny apartment.

Arenas does not watch the news; it is too gloomy. She is a Republican because she likes “freedom, opportunity, possibilities”. When some Democrats talk glowingly about socialism she thinks: “It’s crazy; they don’t know what they are talking about.” She grew up with a ration book. Her cousin in Cuba called her during the pandemic to lament that she could not get hold of eggs.

Steve Schale, a Democratic consultant in Tallahassee, the state capital, said the language used by his party’s far left has had a “very negative impact” on its popularity. When Bernie Sanders praises socialism he may be thinking of Scandinavian welfare states; but to migrants from Cuba or Venezuela the word summons up memories of shortages, hyperinflation and dissidents tossed in cells. The Democrats should try harder to “meet voters where they are”, said Schale, adding that when Obama talked to Cuban exiles about why he wanted to open up ties with Cuba, he’d start by saying what a son-of-a-bitch Castro was.

Arenas, in common with most of the Floridians I met, is wary of wokeness. Her brother is gay, which she doesn’t have a problem with, but when she hears of schools that tell boys they can be girls if they choose, she is “very against that”. She “100% agrees” with DeSantis on this. (He has stopped schools from teaching children about gender identity or sexual orientation except as part of reproductive-health classes required by state standards, which parents can opt for their kids not to attend. Critics call this the “don’t say gay” rule.)

One reason why Republican attacks on “woke” ring true to many is that America’s cultural elite has moved well to the left of the mainstream on some social issues, and often dismisses those who disagree with it as bigots. Most Americans do not think that biological males should compete in women’s sports, for example, or that race should be taken into account when hiring people. Yet both these views are considered beyond the pale in progressive circles. A study of school libraries by the Cato Institute, a libertarian think-tank, found that 39% stocked a book by Ibram X. Kendi, a far-left academic who argues that an anti-racism tsar should be empowered to overrule any federal, state or local-government policy or appointment. (This would make him or her more powerful than the president.) Only 0.3% stocked a moderate rebuttal by John McWhorter, a New York Times columnist.

When radicals chanted “defund the police” during the protests and riots that followed the murder of George Floyd, Republicans could not believe their luck. It is “an idiotic idea”, said Stu Taylor, a beefy, imposing man who moved to Florida from Kentucky after selling a trucking business and is now chairman of the Glades County Republican Party. “My first line of protection in my home is me and my firearms. But if I need the police to get there, I want ’em to get there before I run out of ammunition.”

At the Moore Haven Yacht Club, a retirement village on the edge of town, houses in neat rows cluster around a lake with a lively fountain. Muscular cars and boats abound. Homes sell quickly, a local estate agent told me. “I like it here because it’s quiet, and I can catch up on all the fishing I missed during 22 years in the air force,” said Art Hodges, a retired technician who moved here from Texas. He praised the “close-knit community” with “very few problems”. Hodges, 81, was “a Democrat for ever”, but is now an ardent Trump fan.

“He’s a straight shooter. He tells it like it is. We’ve never had that [in a president] in my lifetime,” he said. Trump was a “strong commander-in-chief” who, unlike Joe Biden, won’t weaken the military with wokeness, he added. He takes an optimistic view of Trump’s fiscal conservatism. If America doesn’t re-elect him, “we’ll be in debt for the rest of our lives,” he said.

I met only one Biden voter in Moore Haven, a white middle-class woman who insisted on anonymity. She expressed utter bafflement as to how anyone could be taken in by Trump. “Why do the evangelicals support him? He’s cheated on all his wives. He’s admitted to being a sexual predator. He’s a charlatan, a felon and a completely self-absorbed sociopath.”

Like many Democrats, she dismissed the war on woke as scaremongering. “It seems like if you support minority groups, you’re labelled as ‘woke’.” She thinks her neighbours are living in a fantasy world, where Trump has their back and climate change is a myth. “I’ve never felt heat like I did last year: it was like opening an oven. And we seem to get category 4 hurricanes every year now,” she said, angrily.

Recent hurricanes, which have devastated parts of Florida’s coasts and caused a shortage of construction materials even in inland towns like Moore Haven, have narrowly missed Hodges’s house. But he shrugs off warnings about climate change. “I don’t fall in line with [this talk about] global warming. Mother Nature controls it.” He praised Trump for encouraging oil-drilling, and complained that under Biden the cost of refuelling his 250 horse-power Bass Cat boat has risen.

Life is less serene in other parts of town. Daniel Crowe, a Florida native, sat in a backyard strewn with bits of bicycles, which he finds, fixes and sells. “Bikes are a way of life around here. Everything’s flat,” he said. “I make $30-50 off each one. That’s the American dream: being self-sufficient.”

Crowe grew up catching an invasive species of python for which the state pays a bounty. “We’d jump on ’em and wrestle ’em into a bag.” He is creative, and good with his hands. He shows off a swamp buggy he made out of scrap: an old golf cart with an iron bed frame fixed on top, “so you’re sitting up high when you’re fishing”.

He has little time for Moore Haven’s prosperous retirees and the “old white money [that] don’t like helping poor people”. Like Hodges, he used to vote Democrat but now backs Trump. “I love him to death and I can’t stand him,” he said, flicking ash on the grass.

Crowe concedes that “that Cheeto says some stupid shit,” likening the 45th president to a bright-orange corn snack. However, “he stands for the people” and has “the fortitude” to lead. He’ll bring jobs back to America, Crowe reckoned. “We don’t need other countries. We can grow our own food.” He is sure that Trump will win in November, but that “they’ll steal it from him again.” As we spoke, a shiny car pulled up outside his home. “Shit,” he said. He was being evicted.

Robert Guest is deputy editor of The Economist