In that moment, Trump was leaning into the issues animating the conservative base most fervently — and his aides took note of the enthusiastic response he received on his trip. With schools at the center of GOP complaints about the way Americans discuss race and gender, the debate over these topics is expected to be a focal point of the 2024 presidential primary, according to party activists and strategists.
But some conservatives said they see Trump as a latecomer on this front, where state-level leaders wield more power and his record as president was thinner by comparison. They point to potential rivals such as Ron DeSantis, who as governor of Florida has used executive actions and legislation to limit discussion of race and gender in schools; made it easier to remove books that parents find objectionable from school libraries; and announced plans to block diversity and inclusion programs at state colleges. Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, another possible presidential candidate, has drawn national GOP attention for a similar, if less sweeping, agenda.
“Trump is kind of playing make up,” said Florida-based GOP strategist Alex Patton, who said he is not behind any one candidate for 2024.
The dynamic underlines a new challenge for Trump at the outset of his third run for the White House. Although he has been at the forefront of energizing conservatives in past campaigns with calls to build a border wall, attacks on some immigrant groups and a rejection of multinational trade pacts, some Republicans see him as scrambling to catch up with ambitious GOP governors who have made fights over schools more central to their political identities.
The actions of these governors, particularly DeSantis, have alarmed civil rights leaders, Democrats and other community leaders who say their moves are discriminatory and could have far-reaching, chilling effects on discussions of racism, gender and sexual orientation.
“It’s a total attack on marginalized people in Florida,” said state Sen. Shevrin Jones (D), who is Black and in 2020 became the first openly gay member of the Florida Senate. “There is an energy that is being spewed and being asserted in the name of politics or in the name of religious freedom or parental rights, but all in all it’s racism and discrimination at its core.”
The race to the right raises questions about whether Republicans will pay a price in the general election by alienating moderate voters. But the GOP actions and rhetoric have proved massively popular in conservative circles.
Nearly 70 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning adults support banning public school districts from teaching about gender identity in elementary schools, according to a 2022 Pew Research survey, compared with 41 percent of all adults. A spring 2022 Washington Post-Ipsos poll found 59 percent of Republicans said schools should teach “not so much” or “not at all” about how the history of racism affects the United States today.
GOP voters will reward candidates they view as “fighting back” on school issues, and DeSantis and Youngkin have set themselves apart, said Ford O’Connell, a conservative commentator. He pointed to the DeSantis administration’s rejection of a new Advanced Placement course on African American studies, and the College Board’s subsequent revisions. “That is earth-shattering in Republican circles,” he said.
A push for ‘parents’ rights’
Delivering the GOP response to President Biden’s State of the Union address this week, Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders of Arkansas decried a “left-wing culture war” and touted executive orders to ban certain concepts from school, including critical race theory, an academic framework that views racism as systemic. Biden did not delve into these issues in his speech while discussing education, instead mentioning making preschool more available, reducing student debt and raising pay for teachers, something Sanders also touched upon.
On the trail last month, Trump’s team noted how his proposals on schools received big applause in South Carolina and New Hampshire, according to a person with knowledge of his campaign plans, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal conversations. The campaign is planning to host some policy-focused events, according to this person.
Trump has been sharing policy videos on social media, including one that expressed his opposition to transgender care for minors. He said his Department of Education would threaten school districts with civil rights violations and loss of federal funding if an official suggested to any child that “they could be trapped in the wrong body.” Trump has long railed against critical race theory and said its concepts should not appear in schools.
“These are not just culture war issues, these are American issues and President Trump has continued to make them key priorities ever since his 2016 campaign and throughout his presidency,” said Trump campaign spokesman Steven Cheung in a statement.
The power of the federal government over schools is limited and much of the energy on the right surrounding race and gender in classrooms has focused on the state and local level. It’s part of a broader push Republicans say they are waging to enhance “parents’ rights,” including through resurgent efforts to free up taxpayer money to pay for private school.
That has enabled DeSantis and Youngkin to forge identities linked to education. It began with the pandemic when DeSantis, as governor, and Youngkin, running for office, took strong stands for open schools and against mask mandates. By contrast, education was not Trump’s focus as president and not an area in which he produced a robust record of results, observers said.
Near the end of his term, Trump proposed a significant school choice program that would have provided a tax credit to encourage donations to nonprofit corporations that grant private school scholarships. But by the time he pitched it, Congress was controlled by Democrats and there was no chance it would pass. Supporters lamented that he did not push for such a program earlier, as part of his 2017 tax legislation.
“Trump doesn’t really have a track record on education in any significant way,” said Rick Hess, director of education policy studies at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.
His education department nixed Obama-era guidelines on how schools should accommodate transgender students and revoked guidance meant to address racially disproportionate rates of discipline. He also sought to roll back Obama-era guidance that protections against discrimination in health care should apply to transgender people.
Trump dove into debates over curriculums on race near the end of his presidency, appointing a commission to promote “patriotic” education, which issued its report two days before Trump left office, drawing criticism from historians who said he presented inaccurate portrayals of American history. But the commission was immediately disbanded by Biden.
‘I don’t think he’s thought that one through’
DeSantis, who won reelection by a wide margin last fall and has made moves toward a presidential run, has aggressively pursued changes to schools in Florida, garnering attention from conservative activists and GOP legislators in other states who have been pursuing laws he inspired.
Tiffany Justice, a co-founder of Moms for Liberty — a two-year-old national group that has opposed school mask mandates and certain curriculums on race and gender — said she was not impressed by Trump’s proposal to turn principals into elected officials. “I don’t think he’s thought that one through,” the conservative activist said. On school-related issues, she had far more praise for DeSantis, her home state governor.
“You’ve got states that are handling this issue,” Justice said of curriculum on race.
In the past, Republican governors have used education as an opportunity for bipartisanship, at times championing efforts to hold schools accountable for results. But in recent years, there has been a notable shift embodied by DeSantis.
“What makes DeSantis so interesting and depending on who you’re talking to, exciting or alarming, is he’s not just talking, he’s using government authority to intervene,” said Michael Petrilli, a conservative who is president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. “It’s so real.”
DeSantis’s efforts are already having an impact in Florida. The library law, for instance, requires that books be approved by a media specialist who has been retrained by the state. That has led some teachers to hide books they normally display in their classrooms because they have not yet gone through that process.
Florida’s rejection of an early version of the new AP African American studies course caught the attention of many conservatives. State officials took issue with its discussion of the Black Lives Matter movement, Black feminist literary thought and Black queer studies, among other topics. The College Board soon made revisions that removed some of this content or made it optional.
DeSantis accused the AP course of violating a Florida law that bans, among other things, classroom instruction that makes a student feel “guilt, anguish or other forms of psychological distress” for past actions by members of their race or sex. At a news conference last month, he also dismissed parts of the course as unnecessary, saying, “Who would say that an important part of Black history is queer theory?”
Civil rights leaders said they were appalled. “To wake up on the first day of Black History Month to news of white men in positions of privilege horse trading essential and inextricably linked parts of Black History, which is American history, is infuriating,” David J. Johns, executive director of the National Black Justice Coalition, a civil rights organization that advocates for Black LGBTQ people, said in a statement after the College Board updated its African American studies course.
A spokesman for DeSantis declined to comment.
In Virginia, Youngkin has signed legislation requiring that parents be alerted to “sexually explicit material” in their students’ curriculum, and also backed a bill requiring schools to publish a list of books in their libraries. He flipped his state red in 2021 while tapping into conservative backlash to how schools handled the pandemic and how they teach about race.
Youngkin has continued to center those issues in office, issuing directives to restrict the rights of transgender students and ban the teaching of “inherently divisive topics” that assume “that some students are consciously or unconsciously racist, sexist, or oppressive.”
Legal experts have said the directive on transgender students — which would require schools to use children’s “biological sex,” among other things — is unenforceable or likely to be struck down in court, and laws signed by DeSantis face court challenges as well. A judge temporarily blocked some elements of his schools legislation while cases pend.
The GOP agenda on schools is part of a larger opposition to affirmative action, diversity initiatives and accommodations for transgender people in many settings, from professional sports to the workplace. In speeches since he left office, Trump has touted his directive as president to stop funding federal worker trainings that broach critical race theory or White privilege. Campaigning for candidates in the midterms last year, he often ridiculed transgender women who compete in women’s sports and said it should not be allowed.
Beyond sitting governors who might challenge Trump, he will also have to contend with others seeking to focus on schools. “Must have missed the part where Joe Biden talked about parents being in charge of their children’s education,” tweeted former United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley on the night of Biden’s State of the Union speech. Haley plans to launch her presidential campaign on Wednesday.
A previous version of this story said Shevrin Jones became the first openly gay member of the Florida Senate in 2018. He achieved that in 2020.