The First Lady of Florida showed up on the campaign trail in Iowa this weekend wearing a ghastly black leather jacket—American flag on the front, an alligator and the silhouette of her state on the back, with the sneering words, “Where Woke Goes to Die”—that brought to mind nothing so much as the racks of a Red State big-bin store where it would be retailing for $24.99.
To be fair, Casey DeSantis wore the bomber to a charity biker rally and I’m sure the campaign intended it to be a viral moment, like Melania Trump’s infamous “I Really Don’t Care” coat that the former First Lady donned to check out the border crisis.
The message on Melania’s coat, like the one-time model herself, was sphinxlike. Was it a sign to the outside that Melania dreamed of escaping her boorish husband, the stuff of a thousand Resistance Twitter fever memes? Was it the physical manifestation of the Trumps’ casual cruelty? After all, Melania was flying down to where the administration locked up little kids in cages and tore them from the arms of their desperate parents. Did it mean nothing at all, like her spox insisted—maybe like Melania herself, a cipher whose eyes seem to betray an inner emptiness, like the infinite refraction of mirrored light off of all those gold-plated Trump Tower bathroom fixtures?
By contrast, Casey DeSantis’ coat is just like her husband Ron DeSantis’ campaign: Crude. Grasping. Saying the ugly part out loud. Whereas Trump would wink-wink at the fascists—who can forget his dog whistle to the “very fine people on both sides” at Charlottesville—DeSantis wants to peel off Trump’s base by being even more explicit about who he intends to target. You can see it right there on his wife’s jacket: DeSantis’ Florida is where the woke go to die—and a lot of other people die as well.
Florida under DeSantis has had one of the highest COVID death rates in the nation, even as he’s exulted in his anti-mask policies. And as the governor whips up anti-LGBT sentiment and bans books on race, Casey’s jacket and its message of death also bring to mind the horrific Pulse nightclub mass shooting in Orlando, not to mention the state’s shameful history of Jim Crow-era lynch mobs and the Rosewood massacre. But of course, DeSantis and his cronies want to prevent kids from learning about any of that by censoring their library books and AP curricula.
The jacket, then, is a warning: Watch out, America.
It’s hard to say one is reading too much into a coat that’s so explicit—and anyways, as The New York Times noted in a fawning profile, Casey DeSantis is definitely trying to make a political statement with what she wears, with her aspirations of “Camelot-meets-Mar-a-Lago.” But while Casey may be trying to position herself after Jackie Kennedy (good luck) and even Melania, if this weekend is any indication, she’s falling far short. It doesn't matter how many times she wears that ice-blue Badgley Mischka cape dress. The DeSantises will never be Camelot. Jackie and JFK symbolized the opposite of vulgar pettiness—they embodied youth, energy, a commitment to moral progress in the struggle for Civil Rights, and a country fresh with idealism. Not an America that was obsessed with banning books about male seahorses and rainbows, or nuking the latest Disney movie.
Ron and Casey will also never be the Trumps. For one thing, the Trumps have all that wealth to retreat into, not bothering themselves with the lives they wrecked along the way. Like Tom and Daisy Buchanan, just over in West Egg, not East Egg. For another, Trump manages to command attention naturally, whereas the governor’s attempts to make headlines always feel forced. Whereas Donald Trump is terrifyingly, inexorably himself, the DeSantis’ are more like poseurs. Fake Birkins. Mar-a-Lago imitators. They rail against the elites but Ron went to Harvard. They wear black leather jackets to a biker rally—regular folks!—but they really prefer to be mingling with Elon’s tech bros and wearing those designer duds. They want it way too much and it shows. Why else would Ron whine so bitterly about his wife being jilted by Vogue?
Still, as they appear on the campaign trail, we are seeing clues as to who the DeSantises are at heart. We’ve got a Sunshine State Lady Macbeth, in her green cape and white gloves, with her middling husband and her thirst for the crown—and we’ve got a guy who wants to be sitting in a corner, mumbling about the Federalist Papers and gobbling pudding off his fingers.
Trump would never eat pudding with anything other than a gold spoon—while pressing the button for his 20th Diet Coke of the day and trying to bomb Iran on a whim. Put another way, Trump is the danger of raw, chaotic id. DeSantis, meanwhile, is the little jerk who's going to make all of us pay for how he had no friends in third grade, or whatever his particular villain origin story is.
Whether the GOP’s base will respond to DeSantis and his wife trying to imitate Donald and Melania—whether they’ll be happy buying the knock-offs—is an open question. I’m sure many MAGA-types love a jacket that so blatantly sticks it to the libs. Still, we’re told that the average GOP voter doesn’t like feeling that elites are talking down to them (like someone nerding out about the Federalist Papers?), even though one suspects that they actually want to be the rich guy eating off the golden spoon. Will Red State primary voters see more of themselves in strivers like Ron and Casey—or in their old, brash, filthy-rich ‘God Emperor’ and his supermodel spouse?
Of course, neither Melania Trump nor Casey DeSantis could ever embody the class and effortless elegance of Michelle Obama or Dr. Jill Biden. Those First Ladies have used fashion not as a punitive tool to stick it to political enemies—nor as a bored, nihilistic shrug—but as something generous and welcoming. Think the pure sweetness of Michelle’s Jason Wu floral gown for the Obamas’ first inaugural ball, or Jill’s pastel blue coat that echoed the colors of Ukraine’s flag when Volodymyr Zelensky visited the White House. In those moments, we remembered that fashion is not only a way to look and feel great, but a way to be inspired to help other people feel great about themselves, too. We remembered that fashion is a joyous extension of who you are and a symbol of what you want the world to know about you and about what you stand for. Think Bernie Sanders in his woolen Inauguration mittens. Think poet Amanda Gorman in her radiantly cheerful yellow coat that day, the color of sunshine and hope.
So what does Casey DeSantis want us to know about her? What does she stand for? Well, we know she’s a woman who has high ambitions for her awkward husband. We know she’s a woman who understands the power of the image. We know she’s a woman who has overcome the great trials of a breast cancer diagnosis. Anyone going through that must have strength and grit. Still, we’ve all met people who stared death in the face and came out the other side incandescently glowing with life and with love.
Perhaps that is the case in Casey DeSantis’ private and personal life, but on the public stage, with that black leather jacket, she’s telling us she stands for something else. She’s telling us she is cheering on a spouse who gets his kicks off targeting his fellow Americans. She’s telling us she’s down with his message of division and dehumanization. She’s telling us they are ready for far more power. She’s incandescent in her black leather jacket, at her husband’s side—both of them seething with hate.