Even before Florida Governor Ron DeSantis had begun ramping up his campaign for the Republican nomination in the 2024 Presidential Race, he had attracted national headlines with an aggressively reactionary political agenda that he calls his “war on woke.” He’s enacted an extensive anti-LGBTQ legislative agenda, reduced the influence of Black voters in Florida elections, opposed federal legislation protecting women from domestic violence, banned childrens’ books, defunded diversity and inclusion programs in state colleges, watered down the teaching of African American history, and defended (and allegedly participated in) torture at Guantanamo Bay, where he served as a Navy Judge Advocate General before running for congress. Most recently he has been willing to terrorize families of mixed-immigration status and risk a quarter of his state’s gross domestic product to bolster his anti-immigration credentials. With a candidate like this there’s no need to seek out times he’s said racist things or shared the stage with white nationalists: his record makes clear that he intends to run for President on the promise of homophobic, transphobic, xenophobic, and anti-Black politics. And now his campaign is promoting his agenda using Greco-Roman antiquity.
At the end of Pride Month, 2023, the “DeSantis War Room” Twitter account, as well as the official account of DeSantis’ campaign, promoted a video that escalates the Republican party’s cynical culture war against transgender people. It celebrated news headlines such as “DeSantis signs ‘Most Extreme Slate of Anti-Trans Laws in Modern History’” and promoted quotes from pundits such as “Florida’s anti-LGBT laws are unwarranted and un-American” to argue that voters should support DeSantis because he has been more hostile to queer people than his Republican primary opponent, Donald Trump (which is saying something). This text appeared over a montage of images symbolizing hegemonic masculinity intended to represent DeSantis as a “real man” in comparison to anyone who supports equal rights and protections for transgender people. The video shows images of flexing bodybuilders, the logo from the film Top Gun adapted to describe DeSantis as the “Top Gov,” and DeSantis with laser eyes, a meme that symbolizes strength and control. Observers from across the political spectrum condemned the video as homophobic, but that was the point, right? DeSantis said it was “totally fair game,” although the video was “quietly deleted” soon afterward.
The imagery of the video spoke to DeSantis’ conception of himself as a heroic warrior for his cause, making numerous visual comparisons of DeSantis to characters from film and television who symbolize a form of masculinity — beloved in both mainstream culture and far-right politics — that is simultaneously popular and rebellious: Christian Bale as serial killer Patrick Bateman in American Psycho; Leonardo DiCaprio as financial criminal Jordan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street; Cillian Murphy as the gangster Thomas Shelby in Peaky Blinders; and, of most interest to Pharos, Brad Pitt as Achilles in the 2004 film Troy.
One image of Pitt’s Achilles is juxtaposed with a headline boasting that DeSantis’ “Protection of Children Event” led to the cancellation of a “Pride Event in St. Cloud[, Florida].” It is more likely that the event was cancelled because of threats of violence from people emboldened by laws such as DeSantis’. Such threats against gay and trans people may be one of the things about which “this governor does not care,” according to the headline that precedes the next image of Achilles, which is in turn followed by a picture of Time Magazine’s cover story “What Ron DeSantis Means for America” (tl;dr: more demonization of the marginalized, more dictatorial abuses of political power). The intended message of the video is clear: if you want a “real man” to lead you in the fight against the (non–existent) threat that you believe gay and transgender people pose, DeSantis is the fearless warrior you want.
It may be tempting to retort that ancient tradition (and not just The Song of Achilles) tells us that Achilles and another Greek warrior, Patroclus, enjoyed an erotic relationship with each other recognizably similar to those that DeSantis wants to vilify: in a fragment of Aeschylus’ play The Myrmidons, Patroclus mentions their “thigh bond,” referring to intercrural sex, and the “countless kisses” they’ve exchanged (fragment 135). But such a response confuses DeSantis’ target — gender identity — with sexual orientation, and furthermore runs the risk of invoking the homophobic cliché that you can’t be “real man” if you’re gay or of implying that such a comparison is unflattering to DeSantis. Plus, the editor of the white nationalist site Counter Currents, Greg Johnson, has argued, in an article that begins with an image of an ancient vase showing Achilles tending the wounds of Patroclus, that white nationalists should welcome (white) gay people into their movement, because “some of the manliest men in history and legend,” including Achilles, had sexual relationships with other men. Achilles’ sexuality does not compromise his potency as a symbol of hegemonic masculinity.
The invocation of Achilles also aligns the video’s politics with white nationalist conceptions of Homeric heroes
We’d be better off reflecting on what other political movements this video attempts to reach. Politico has helpfully parsed the links between many of the images and symbols that the video employs and the meme culture of the misogynist “manosphere” online, such as the “Yes Chad Wojack” and “GigaChad,” which even has its own entry on the “Incel wiki” that Pharos recently documented. Pharos has been documenting that community’s fascination with ancient warriors since the beginning. But like the video’s images of DeSantis with the “laser eyes” that were, for a time, a favorite meme of the so-called “Alt Right,” the invocation of Achilles also aligns the video’s politics with the strain of white nationalist thought that regards Homeric Heroes like Achilles as the prototypes for white male resistance against the supposed degeneracy of the contemporary world. It’s the same message as DeSantis’ more familiar tirades against the creep of “wokeness,” with a Classical twist. “Bronze Age Pervert” is perhaps the best known example of a celebration of ancient violence against modern multiculturalism; the outrage white nationalists (and many members of the general public) expressed when Netflix and the BBC cast David Gyasi to play Achilles in Troy: Fall of a City is another index of the racial investment that Achilles in particular inspires. Commenting on a classicizing video produced by Richard Spencer that Pharos has documented, a contributor to Spencer’s now defunct Radix wrote that “we are descendants of Achilles and Odysseus, Aeneas and Caesar, Charlemagne and Dante, and yes, even John Smith and Hernán Cortés.” It’s a comparison that takes pride in the genocidal conquest of the western hemisphere, just as the DeSantis video takes pride in the persecution of LGBTQ communities.
It’s bad enough when violent Greco-Roman masculinities are invoked by those operating outside of or against mainstream political institutions. What about when they become touchstones for the transphobia of an elected representative of tens of millions of people? Or of the entire nation?
We have not linked above to any hate sites. The following are archived versions of those we referenced:
“We are descendants of Achilles” at Radix
“Homosexuality and White Nationalism” at Counter Currents