The critics of Casey DeSantis, wife to Republican presidential hopeful, Ron, can’t decide which derogatory stereotype they think best describes her. She’s been everything from a conniving Lady Macbeth in the carapace of a Disney princess, to a wannabe glamour puss betrayed by her trailer-park taste — a “Walmart Melania”, to quote a Daily Beast article. And her political persona makes for a fascinating Rorschach test. The same attributes that make her a hero to the Right — devoted wife, involved parent, professionally ambitious, cancer survivor — also made her the embodiment of contemporary female villainy on MSNBC this week, where one of her husband’s Republican adversaries christened her “America’s Karen”.
That we’re talking about Casey DeSantis at all speaks to how unusual she is. For a politician’s wife to be this involved, this early, is virtually unheard of: the primary season doesn’t kick off until early next year, and if current polls are to be believed, Ron doesn’t stand much of a chance. The likelihood that this is all for naught doesn’t seem to have pierced the fantasy, though. It’s tradition for First Ladies to have a signature issue, and on the eve of her husband’s inauguration as Florida Governor, Casey was asked what hers would be; she replied, “I’d like to pick more than one.”
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Her new campaign ad contains hints as to what these might be. It’s a fascinating piece of media: one that doesn’t just lean into the culture wars, but treats them with the urgency and gravitas of an actual war. A horror-movie soundtrack plays over washed-out footage of choice moments from the pandemic and beyond: toddlers weeping behind their government-mandated masks, a little girl patting the leather-covered head of a “puppy play” kinkster at a pride parade, a crowd of LGBT activists chanting, “We’re coming for your children!” The message, obviously, is that the only thing standing between us and this ultra-woke dystopia is Casey DeSantis’s husband, who is famous for being shaped like a concrete cinderblock with roughly the same amount of charisma.
Political wives on the Right tend to be supporting players, eschewing involvement except for when they’re called onstage, usually with a gaggle of children in tow, to humanise the candidate. (See, folks? He walks! He talks! He has procreative sexual intercourse!) Otherwise, they are noncombatants, and to strike out at them has always been considered a shot below the belt. Recall that in the early days of the 2016 campaign season — when it was still possible for Donald Trump to shock people — his threat to “spill the beans” about the wife of then-political adversary Ted Cruz was seen as an outrageous norm violation. Even once a husband has ascended to office, the wife’s involvement is viewed as more of a nice-to-have than a requirement. Melania Trump was so uninterested in the role of First Lady that theories began to circulate that it wasn’t actually her, but a stunt double at her husband’s side.
For a political wife to be involved and to also place herself in the line of fire, then, is a relationship model more reminiscent of the political power couples of the Left. Think of the Clintons circa 1994, or, to a lesser extent, the Obamas — both pairings in which the presence of a politically engaged wife gave rise to jabs (from the Right, this time) about who really wore the pants in the presidency.
And here’s where Ron DeSantis’s novel theory about why his wife’s ad triggered the “America’s Karen” barb might contain a grain of truth: “It shows my wife is an incredibly strong first lady, a fantastic mother and great wife, and that threatens the Left,” he said, on Fox News.
As expressed, this seems like baloney. And yet, if only by accident, it does point at something real: Casey DeSantis is not simply a woman, but an archetype of in-your-face femininity, in a way that is, if not threatening, certainly outré in progressive circles. For all the legit complaints one might aim at the first lady of Florida, the one her critics reach for most regularly is, “I mean, just look at her”. The gloves! The capes! The hair! The eyebrows! The criticism of her personal aesthetic finds two items of widespread consensus: the first is that she is trying to be Jackie Kennedy. The second is that she needs to stop.
Does she, though? Criticising a woman’s appearance seems like a strange way to register one’s objections in a political disagreement, particularly when you’re a member of the tribe which not long ago was decrying the practice as unforgivably sexist. But also: Jackie is the country’s most famous icon of poise, class and femininity. She is the aspirational model of political wifedom, at least stylewise (perhaps not so much the actual marriage). Why shouldn’t Casey DeSantis model herself on her? Because Michelle Obama did it first? Because her husband isn’t a Kennedy, making her basically white trash? Are we doing “stolen valour” on pastel-coloured shift dresses now?
Maybe we are. The candy-coloured capelet paired with forearm-length white gloves certainly hits differently today from how it did in the Sixties. Casey DeSantis’s femininity is of a kind that is often accompanied by the modifier “performative”, the implicit suggestion being that it’s something akin to female drag for women. It’s less an aesthetic, more a costume: a uniform you don before a busy evening of serving the patriarchy.
Here, I have a different theory: that Casey DeSantis’s wardrobe is not about patriarchy, but public service — or at least, I think she thinks of it this way. This is a woman who, as a local TV personality on the eve of her nuptials, held a contest in which she allowed viewers to choose her wedding dress. Casey understands better than most, and certainly better than the last few First Ladies, just what kind of magic can happen at the nexus of fashion and populism. One wonders, then, when people complain that she needs to stop trying to be Jackie Kennedy, what the source of the angst really is. Are they mocking her because she can’t pull it off? Or are they worried because what if she can?
In this sense, Casey DeSantis is a First Lady for the influencer era. Politically involved, wildly photogenic, and utterly cognisant of who her audience is and how to connect with them. That she’s also an exemplar of this unabashed, practically countercultural breed of femininity may or may not be something she did on purpose just to annoy progressives. But the fact that it does annoy them is undoubtedly beneficial to her, and by extension, her husband. Every time she steps out wearing one of those outfits, every time she invokes her status as a wife and mom on the front lines of the culture wars, two things happen. The first is that she makes Ron DeSantis seem not just human, but presidential: it’s “dress for the job you want”, when the job you want is First Lady of the United States.
The second is that she baits her husband’s political opponents, a group of people who would otherwise sincerely describe themselves as feminists, into calling her a tacky bimbo who needs to sit down and shut up.
That a politically engaged and outspoken woman can now be unironically denigrated as “America’s Karen” by members of the media elite speaks to a growing confusion surrounding how, exactly, we are supposed to feel about middle-aged women who kick up a fuss. Upper-middle class, educated, suburban white women who care more about policy, and family, than they care about party affiliation, were until recently seen as a powerful and respectable swing voting bloc. Politicians have been courting this demographic since at least 1996, when Bill Clinton won with 53% of the “soccer mom” vote by focusing on popular-with-the-ladies issues such as crime, education and family leave. (That Clinton was popular with the ladies himself probably also helped on this front, but we don’t like talking about that.)
But when the issues animating suburban women, from inflation to education to crime, are increasingly coded as Right-wing, so too are the women who mobilise and get loud to effect political change. Yesterday’s applause for the the politically active mom is today’s hit piece on why she’s actually a white supremacist. Yesterday’s icon of empowered feminism is today’s Right-wing termagant, marinating in ignorant privilege and demanding to speak to the manager. And if the progressive side doesn’t want these women, they might at least consider what will happen if its opponent successfully remakes itself as the place where women can go to have it all: a career, and a family, and an empowered voice in politics.
The thing about America’s Karen: she votes.