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In a moment of progress in America, everyone can win

DeSantis is elevating a Confederate myth to reach voters who are down with a lost cause

Republican presidential candidate Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis delivers remarks on June 9 in Greensboro, N.C.
Republican presidential candidate Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis delivers remarks on June 9 in Greensboro, N.C. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

It’s one of those moments that theater fans live for: A performer delivers a monologue or a move or a song that stops the show — literally. Strangers become friends, applauding as one in the dark, all thinking the same thought: “Start writing your Tony Award speech now.”

One of those moments happens when the character of “Lulu” explains her philosophy of life to a gob-smacked conman who has invaded the lives of the citizens of Cobb County in the Broadway musical “Shucked.” (Judgment of the show depends on your tolerance for a relentless stream of puns, many involving corn.)

But on one thing those who have seen the show could agree: Once Alex Newell finished the final notes of “Independently Owned,” it was just a question of when, not if, they would hold Broadway’s most prestigious award, a Tony for best featured actor in a musical. Newell, who identifies as non-binary, said at the recent awards show: “Thank you for seeing me, Broadway.” Mom got a shout-out as well, “for loving me unconditionally.” 

It was a scene that triggered cheers in the house and some jeers in other quarters, predictable in a time when red states are rushing to pass laws to restrict the rights of non-binary Americans.

But it shouldn’t have, at least not from the folks who bleat about the loss of meritocracy in America. They should be applauding, too, because, with all due respect to the talented nominees, the best person won.

All the reactions to history-making scenes surface the hypocrisy of those afraid of an America they increasingly do not recognize. The so-called changing country has always been there, just hiding — well, forced to hide. And that worked, unless you were the one in the closet or at the back of the bus.

If you were someone with a race, gender, creed or identity who was barred from jobs, schools and neighborhoods or the Broadway spotlight, you spent so much time worrying about presenting a non-threatening façade — with the stakes often your survival — not much energy was left for living out your wildest dreams.

If you were put in that box, you lost, but so did the world, deprived, at least in Newell’s case, of infectious joy.

Speaking as an observer, that’s something Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and his fan base could use a lot more of. He doesn’t so much smile as smirk, droning on about “where woke goes to die” as he tries to sell his Sunshine State solution, one that would dampen Newell’s smile — and so much more.

Republican candidates on the campaign trail mostly seem an unhappy lot, especially when they complain about the progress the country has made, while championing exclusion.

Maybe they’re afraid of the competition.

Many do, however, find some comfort when bullying the most traditionally powerless among America’s citizens while looking to turn back the clock.

DeSantis and another one of the countless Republicans who want to best Donald Trump without criticizing him too harshly, the former president’s former vice president, Mike Pence, embarrassed themselves with one of their latest pandering promises, made while speaking to the North Carolina GOP.

They got applause, all right. But not the joyful noise Newell’s roof-raising vocals elicited. The loud approval from the assembled, revealing their own collective character, came when both men called the renaming of Fort Liberty “political correctness,” and promised, if elected, to restore its previous name, Fort Bragg.

Never mind that military leaders and Congress — including a Republican-controlled Senate that overrode a Trump veto — favored the renaming of military bases honoring Confederate generals.

Never mind that a Gold Star mother suggested the name “Liberty,” or that enslaver and traitor Braxton Bragg was a truly terrible general.

These two seeking to lead all Americans seem to think the U.S. military is a John Wayne movie instead of a cohesive American unit, made up of all kinds of people who deserve having their stories, lives and histories respected. Besides, John Wayne only pretended to be a soldier, usually in parts he won in part because fellow actors were off fighting World War II for real.

The Florida governor is not just erasing the teaching of Black history or anything he judges as a “diversity” effort, he is elevating Confederate myth to reach voters who are down with the cause — the Lost Cause.

They are doubling down on myths that America has told itself, ones that harm.

They have company in Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, signing legislation forbidding any diversity, equity and inclusion efforts in the state’s higher educational system, even as the newest federal holiday Juneteenth is celebrated. Many Texans, including Abbott I’ll wager, had scant knowledge of the holiday rooted in his state’s history of justice denied when enslavers attempted to hold back progress in the country they professed to love.

But you can’t hold back the truth forever — Juneteenth’s triumph proves that.

That hasn’t stopped leaders in today’s GOP from trying. It’s what you do when you know you’ve lost, and in this case, those who want a fictional “Leave It to Beaver” America realize they have lost the culture.

Despite court rulings and gerrymandered districts that give the minority power and laws that judge drag shows more dangerous than unfettered gun access, “the people” will not obey or retreat, as the ignominious Bragg was known to do.

So, you hang on to what you have, what you feel slipping away, in this case privilege born of a system with inequities baked in. You waste so many precious minutes grabbing books off shelves, upending displays at Target and enforcing “cancel culture” rules, there’s no time for enjoying America as it is now, with people being their authentic selves and making the world much better, and certainly much more fun.

The historic Tony wins of Newell and non-binary performer J. Harrison Ghee, lighting up the stage in the musical “Some Like It Hot,” prove that talent will out.

When Ghee sings “You Coulda Knocked Me Over with a Feather” to their longtime friend and partner, revealing the character’s own surprise at putting on the garb of “Daphne” to elude gangsters, and liking it, it’s a revelation — to the character, the partner and the audience.

All of us delight in Daphne’s liberation. And, yes, it’s one of those moments.

In their Tony speech after winning as leading actor in a musical, Ghee said: “My mother raised me to understand that my gifts that God gave me were not about me; to use them to be effective in the world; to help somebody else’s journey.”

See what happens, moms, when you support your kids? You get name-checked at the Tonys.

If the scowling, begrudging GOP contingent would let themselves go, maybe they would see not just a performance, but also the significance of an America looking to the future, one that gives everybody the opportunity to win.

If not, it’s their loss.

Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer, as national correspondent for Politics Daily, and is a senior facilitator with The OpEd Project. She is host of the CQ Roll Call “Equal Time with Mary C. Curtis” podcast. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.

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