In his take no prisoners crusade to out-Trump Trump and be the next occupant of the White House, Ron DeSantis has donned a right-wing superhero cape as America’s self-anointed Number One Culture Warrior. Touting Florida as the state in which “woke comes to die,” he has forced through a compliant legislature a series of laws for which the term “conservative” is inadequate. His legislative record, the cornerstone of his presidential campaign, is undeniably impressive, in quantity at any rate.
In addition to the “Don’t Say Gay” law, which first banned classroom discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity through the third grade and was later extended to cover all grades, DeSantis signed a bill prohibiting abortions after six weeks of pregnancy, and another that prevents school staffers or students from being required to refer to people by pronouns that do not correspond to their sex at birth, as well as barring school employees from asking students what pronouns they use. Furthermore, public colleges can no longer use state or federal funds for diversity, equity, and inclusion programs.
Then, there was the “Stop WOKE Act,” which constrains race-based discussions in schools and businesses. This is compounded by another law that prohibits school curricula from casting whites as historically racist or that they should feel guilty for past actions aimed at racial minorities.
Thanks to DeSantis, Floridians can now carry concealed firearms without a permit, meaning neither a background check nor training is required. Not satisfied with half-measures, the governor favors allowing these same people, even if they are potential mass murderers, to openly and proudly flaunt their weaponry in public. To balance that out perhaps, death sentences will no longer require a unanimous jury.
This is all in addition to his feud with Disney, which had previously been largely thought of as a company founded by a right-wing racist and likely anti-Semite. There has been so much attention paid to these laws individually that few have taken a step back to examine just what kind of society DeSantis is trying so frenziedly to create, and what parallels to it might exist in American history. There is one, and it is an eerie match for DeSantis’ policies—the 1950s sitcom. And like DeSantis’s political and historical narrative, it is made up.
Father Knows Best is the perfect example. That television series, featuring the lovable, attractive Anderson family, ran for seven seasons, ending the year John F. Kennedy was elected president, and was so popular and idealized that the Treasury Department commissioned a 30-minute episode to help sell United States savings bonds.
The cast would have found a warm place in Ron DeSantis’s heart—assuming he has one. Avuncular Robert Young—who later brought a similar persona to Marcus Welby, MD—is dad Jim, who always has the right answer and never loses his temper; Jane Wyatt is mom Margaret, who could not be happier spending her days cooking, cleaning, and being a warm, wise, and reassuring presence to the couple’s three children. Said children, nicknamed Princess, Bud, and Kitten, do not work, never get in fights, never fail a course in school, and live, albeit grudgingly, on limited allowances. Jim works as an insurance agent. The family, which lives on a street called Maple Avenue, eats dinners together, and goes to church every Sunday; they never swear, question authority, nor seem to have any need for government service. They are always well-dressed and well-groomed, and, although sex could not seem further from anyone’s mind, including mom and dad, all are clearly and blissfully heterosexual.
In those years, American families could sit at home, watch Father Knows Best and other shows like it, and feel that all was right with the world, their world. But it was not. The real Father Knows Best world was as phony as the one DeSantis wants to foist on the people of the United States. The illusion begins with the cast. Robert Young was an alcoholic who also suffered from depression, and it was often difficult for him to complete a day’s shooting upright. When the show ended, he went into rehab and joined Alcoholics Anonymous. Billy Gray, who played Bud, admitted to having gay sex and smoking marijuana from age 14. “Princess” Elinor Donahue became anorexic. “Kitten” Lauren Chapin was molested by her father at age sixteen and later became a heroin addict and prostitute. Each of the cast members seems to have successfully straightened out their lives, but it took a level of hard work and commitment that none of the Andersons needed because all their problems were conveniently solved by script writers.
Even worse was what these slices of cardboard American pie did not show. No one was poor, no one had an unwanted pregnancy, no one was unfairly stopped by the police, no one was denied the right to vote, no one was bullied in school, and no one but no one was a person of color, except perhaps for a cheerful domestic worker. While Father Knows Best was reassuring America’s white population, Black Americans were being beaten and lynched, uncloseted gay people were discriminated against, women were often treated as incapable of holding either a real job or a real thought, and those who were transgender were forced to spend every single day living an excruciating lie. That is the world to which Ron DeSantis would happily return, one where helpless, vulnerable minorities are sacrificed so that the majority can live in smug security. DeSantis’s phony world is different than the phony world of sitcoms in that the cruelty is not offstage, but rather right out there and even celebrated. Being meaner and more cruel than Donald Trump is no easy task, but DeSantis is giving it his all. Although sitcoms are very much alive, the Father Knows Best variety is not. America has grown up, at least a little. And sitcoms, such as Modern Family, have evolved along with it.
Too bad Ron DeSantis has not.
(Lawrence Goldstone’s latest book is “Not White Enough: The Long, Shameful Road to Japanese American Internment.” Learn more at www.lawrencegoldstone.com)