Florida’s Most Powerful Flak

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S1: A couple of months back. This show called PBT Podcast dedicated a whole 2 hours to bantering back and forth with a person who, at the time I had never heard of.

S2: Gentleman were alive. Gentleman and a lady we have here, David.

S1: Their guest was a woman named Christina Pushaw.

S2: We got Governor Ron DeSantis, press secretary Christina Pushaw here with us. Thank you for making the time for being here.

S3: And thank you so much for having me here.

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S1: Christina Pushaw had been working for Florida Governor Ron DeSantis for less than a year at the time of this recording. And let me just say, it’s a little weird for a governor’s press flack to end up as the subject of an extended interview in the first place. Usually being a press secretary means working behind the scenes, being someone who gently nudges a politician in front of a microphone or cleans up their verbal snafu. But it’s clear listening to push off, she sees her job a little differently.

S2: Which leeway do you have? Meaning, you know, you have to represent them. How much you say, Listen, I trust you. Just do your thing. You know, we’ve talked about this or it’s like, stick to the script. This is what it is. If you screw up, we’re going to go like, how does it work your job?

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S3: Well, I think it’s different for every politician. But with Governor DeSantis, I’m really lucky because I do get a good amount of leeway. And I actually I feel like I have more of an ability to hit back when there’s, like, fake news.

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S2: Yeah. You’re the flag carrier. You’re playing the role of a flag carrier. Dennis Rodman, if she is, she is a friendly Dennis Rodman. I’m telling you.

S1: Slate’s Ben Mathis-Lilley says factually, if you scroll through Portia’s Twitter feed, she’s not that friendly. She likes to beef with people.

S4: It’s kind of like a sport, in a way, for people who are in this in this node of right wing Twitter, particularly a kind of right wing Twitter that’s really pugnacious, I guess, and really obsessive about whatever the day’s bite is. And so she’s in circulation with a lot of these accounts, and they all kind of pick the topic of the day or they come to the topic of the day and then they attack.

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S1: Christina Pushaw can send a swarm of followers after anyone she disagrees with. In fact, when she heard Ben was writing a story about her, she sprayed him with outraged tweets. But a lot of the time, she simply uses her account to grab hold of the zeitgeist and squeeze. In the last few weeks, she and her online ecosystem have developed a new focus. Grooming. Grooming is the way a sexual abuser begins to target a victim. But Pushaw uses this term more broadly. Back when progressive advocates rallied against a Florida law that they labeled Don’t say gay pushaw fired back, said that anyone against this legislation, her boss’s legislation, they were probably a groomer. Is Christina Pushaw the Rosetta Stone of grooming?

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S4: I think she is. She basically just tweeted about it a couple times in early March and then it exploded. And then from there it was it was everywhere. It was being picked up in other states. You know, versions of this bill were being picked up and people were talking about them as anti-gay grooming bills, envisioned a chart. And then it was like the line that’s going along at the bottom. And then there’s the point at which Christina Pushaw mentions going on her Twitter account, and then the line just goes straight up.

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S1: Today on the show how one spokesperson with an itchy Twitter finger is sparking up moral panic. I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to What Next? Stick around. If you go to Christina Pascoe’s Twitter feed right now, it’s clear she’s got this really powerful megaphone, like more than 130,000 followers, and she’s risen to this perch pretty quickly. So I’m wondering if you can take me back and just tell me, like, how did Christina Pushaw get so prominent so fast? Like, she’s only been working in Governor Ron DeSantis office for a year or so, right?

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S4: Yeah, that’s right. And I don’t think that she was even on the radar of his administration more than a few months before that. And she didn’t live in Florida. She spent some time working in the in the former Soviet state of Georgia, done some political consulting there, as far as we can tell.

S1: She was a ghost writing things for Georgian politicians, right?

S4: Yes. For Mikhail Saakashvili. She’s right. You know, writing articles for him, helping place articles that he that he wanted in Foreign Policy magazine, for example. And she had come back to the United States sometime, I think, around, you know, 20, 20, 2021. And the way she came to to Florida even to Florida politics is that she became really convinced that Ron DeSantis was being treated unfairly by the national press over COVID and that his decisions to reopen the state much earlier than other states were being unfairly blamed for the spread of COVID in Florida.

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S3: DeSantis was somebody I’ve been watching really since the beginning of COVID because I like the way he was handling things, and I’m sure we’re going to go into that.

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S4: So she became basically his biggest defender on COVID, on Twitter, and that’s how he she came to the attention of his administration, as far as we know. And she was very aggressive in defending DeSantis online, despite having no formal relationship with DeSantis or again, even any background in Florida politics at that point.

S1: Like she was just living in the D.C. suburbs, doing her thing at the time, but just really aggro online.

S4: He had just just really getting into it on Twitter and wrote an article in particular for a right wing publication, conservative publication called Human Events. And that is what seems to specifically have caught the attention of DeSantis administration. His lieutenant governor, who is a major defender of his, retweeted that article. And then you can see in public records request that the Tampa Bay Times and Miami Miami Herald have done. Shortly after the lieutenant governor retweets this article, Christina Pushaw emails the administration and says, Hey, you know, if you guys ever, ever interested in hiring someone, I wrote this article, you know, and I’m available.

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S1: It’s hard not to admire the hustle here.

S4: It’s certainly it’s a certain kind of success story. You know, she really manufactured not only this this job, but this entire role that she’s carved out. She doesn’t really act like a conventional press secretary. She’s not, you know, necessarily fielding questions from the press behind the scenes all day or setting up media events. You know, she might do some of that, I don’t know. But but what she’s mostly in the national news for is fighting with people on Twitter about issues ranging from COVID to the don’t say gay bill. You know, the Florida governor’s office wouldn’t talk to Slate about this story, just ignored basically ignored our request for several days. And then when I followed up, they said, well, where? Hang on a second.

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S1: You’re going to get it out.

S4: Yeah. Yeah. Taryn Fenske, that’s the communications director for DeSantis office after a few minutes, wrote back. Our office deals with the press and the media try reaching out to a laundromat. They have more experience with rags.

S1: Wow.

S4: The idea being that slate is Iraq a just pejorative term? It’s a nasty accusation in our business.

S1: Oh.

S4: So yeah, they’re not following. You know, this was not a matter of, you know, giving me a strongly slanted response, you know, on the record or off the record or even criticizing the position I was taking or, you know.

S1: They’re just giving you the middle finger.

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S4: Yeah. It had nothing to do with influencing my coverage. It was it was, in fact, what they were doing and what push I did by tweeting about the story before it came out, saying it was a smear piece and, you know, it was going to be inaccurate and all that stuff was just using the piece as a ball to be knocked around right wing Twitter. So she’s really only there to circulate in right wing Twitter to get right wing Twitter riled up and to help DeSantis kind of connect to the emotions that are already out there. So she’s not really speaking to the mainstream press in any way at all. And so she’s not apologizing for her behavior towards Slate. She’s kind of made a hobby into her job, and that job is attacking people online.

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S1: Okay. So so Twitter is clearly important to Christina Pushaw. Like it’s how she got her job. It’s where she lives her life. Tweeting, like you could argue it’s her love language. At a certain point, she began noticing this other account called Libs of Tick-Tock. We should explain exactly what Libs of Tick Tock does for people who haven’t seen it, because it has accounts on Instagram. On Twitter. I think it’s been banned from TikTok, actually, but the woman behind it scours TikTok, finds videos of progressive people talking about their progressive values. In ways that she finds triggering. Right. And then she posts them to her community of very conservative people as a kind of grand reveal. Here’s a guy in makeup talking about what it means to be trans. Here’s a teacher presenting his slide show that he showed to his class when he came out to them as non-binary. Stuff that to one segment of the population would be quite, quite shocking. It’s sort of like, look, look what they’re doing over there. But it’s all in the original voice of the people who posted, right?

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S4: Yeah. And it’s basically kind of highlighting bits and pieces of what’s happening in the country to create a larger picture or kind of make a larger accusation about, quote unquote, what’s happening to our children. That’s really what the account specializes in, especially when it comes to these issues of identity, sexual orientation and gender identity that ended up being at stake in the Florida bill, which incidentally, does not appear to have been written by people who are aware of lives of tick tock as far as we know, nothing they said when they were presenting the bill or arguing about it in the legislature indicates that they had this particular manifestation or this, you know, this quote, this grooming obsession on their minds when they wrote the bill. So it’s kind of like two different trends colliding.

S1: Yeah, that’s interesting that like these two things were kind of happening at the same time. And then the bill comes out, it gets slapped with the name. Don’t say gay. Yeah. And then the press secretary, Christina Pushaw, has this marketing she kind of does with the bill. What Christina Pushaw said was, if you’re against this bill. Some people call it. Don’t say gay. She calls it the anti grooming bill. You are probably a groomer, or at least you don’t denounce the grooming of 4 to 8 year old children.

S4: Right. And that’s what I think made the bill explode even more into a national story, because the people who wrote the bill or the people who sponsored it in the in the state House and Senate, I should say. You know, they certainly share some of the same concerns as libs of Tick Tock. Their motivations in writing and passing this bill, according to them, were to give parents the authority and the power to reduce the amount of conversation about gender identity and sexual orientation that their kids had in school. So they certainly had the same goal.

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S1: Yeah, they see it as a parents rights bill.

S4: Yeah. And one of them, the sponsor in the Senate, has said that he believes that according to his reading of the Bible, that homosexuality is immoral. So it’s not to say that this that their motivations were, you know, were progressive by any means, but they were just weren’t framing it in this kind of apocalyptic sexual abuse terms. And that’s what pushed up right into the discussion. That’s what lives up to talk about into the discussion is the idea that it wasn’t just about getting letting parents control what they learn about an issue of of, you know, morality or or political contentiousness, that it was actually about protecting kids from sexual abuse. The parents need to be able to protect their kids from being groomed by pedophiles in our schools. And it was that kind of really ugly, nasty idea that Pushaw was over able to overlay on top of what was already a controversial bill. But what she overlaid onto it made it orders of magnitude more divisive. And I think almost what gave it some of its power is that no one knew what she was talking about. For the most part, this notion that grooming was taking place in our schools is not one that even I think a lot of people in the Republican Party were familiar with before. She kind of took it from the niche, you know, these niche parts of Twitter and put it in circulation. So I think, like, it was kind of a perfect social media news bomb to set off.

S1: More in a minute. After a quick break. Can you explain really explicitly how the grooming language nods to something like Q and on? Because I feel like there have been a couple of instances like this where you see language being introduced by mainstream Republicans that nods to fringes or issues and it’s like a steady pole. But I’m not sure if you’re unless you’re really in those spaces, whether you notice it right away. So can you explain that connection?

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S4: Part of the reason this took off is that it was taking place at about the same time as Judge Gitanjali Brown, Jackson’s confirmation hearings in the Senate, in which she was accused of being soft on child sexual abuse by certain Republican senators, which is the that’s what Kelantan is about, is QAnon is is at its core, the notion that there is a kind of secret conspiracy of sexual abuse that’s that’s led by prominent Democrats and celebrities, and that Republicans, most especially Donald Trump, are waging an equally secret war against it. And so that this is all kind of happening under the surface of American politics, that the actual stakes are these kind of like horrible, sinister satanic practices. That’s one of the kind of the core beliefs of QAnon among among the QAnon hardcore. And so what the idea of, you know, a judge being soft on sentencing for sexual abusers is is is nodding to that without coming right out and saying you’re part of this kind of cabal or or cult that’s similar to what’s happening in grooming. And it’s and it’s just kind of like taking it to the average person. So it’s taking something that that is but has been kind of centered around this discussion of like secret elite traditions or secret elite practices and then saying, no, actually, maybe it’s happening everywhere in the country and it’s happening all over our elementary schools and junior high schools everywhere in the country is that this kind of grooming is taking place. So it’s a way that you can appeal to people who who believe in the more elaborate versions of the theory without having to make accusations that would get you still, you know, laughed off Meet the Press, as it were.

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S1: Yes. Interesting, because the concern about the word grooming that I’ve seen is that it’s so extreme, the accusation is so vile that it has this potential of demanding action. Is there any sign that someone like Christina Pushaw worries about that or thinks about that?

S4: No, I don’t think there’s any sign of it at all. I think that this is one way in which we can see how American politics has changed. American politics has always had dark undercurrents and nasty accusations. But I think in ten years ago, 20 years ago, an accusation like this would be happening way, way, way, subrosa. This would be the kind of thing that someone’s campaign was tacitly allowing to be an accusation that would be made in an anonymous mailing or in a in a quote unquote push poll where you get a phone call and no one will say who the phone calls from. And it’s asking you alleged poll questions about a rumor about the other candidate. So that’s where this kind of stuff was kind of reserved to. And if it ever if ever got traced back to it to a candidate or to a to an elected official, they would disavow it and apologize for it. But if we can evaluate what Ron DeSantis thinks about Christina Pushaw from his behavior, he thinks it’s fine. She’s, you know, continue to happily employer and her job for the last month and a half after she launched this grooming idea into the into the public consciousness.

S1: Is it notable to you that Pushaw is using this grooming language or has used this grooming language, but Governor DeSantis is not?

S4: I think that is very notable, and I think that’s part of what they’re there. They were trying to argue when they’re defending the bill is they’re they’re trying to have it to is a little bit like part of the defense of the bill is oh, it doesn’t have the word gay in it but it does say sexual or, you know, don’t discuss sexual orientation or gender identity in a quote unquote age inappropriate way. So DeSantis, as a figure, gets to be above the fray a little bit and stick to his talking points about parental rights and school stuff that’s maybe a little more palatable to the average swing voter side of like. Well, I do want to know, you know, I do want to know what my kid is learning in school, that sort of thing. Well, at the same time, that’s very vicious and nasty. And, you know, I think extremely, extremely unfair fight is being waged in its defense on another level that he kind of gets to stay away from. And that’s the role that she serves within his administration.

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S1: So do you see any way for people who look at these grooming accusations and are just disgusted by them to call the bluff of someone like Christina Pushaw to push back?

S4: Unfortunately, I don’t see a way to eradicate these kind of accusations from the American political discourse simply because of how ubiquitous they are and how little resistance there is in the Republican Party. Stuff like this has hurt Donald Trump. It hurt Donald Trump’s approval rating when he was president that people kind of had the perception that he was willing to indulge some, you know, crazy or nasty theories about people. I think one thing that actually that that the Santos has working in his favor right now is that this the idea of grooming, it’s still maybe not something that the the average voter has much awareness of. So, you know, I would imagine the calculation is that it’s just not something that’s going to hurt their reputation to the point that their opponents would be able to use it against them in a general election. I think like a great example of that would be like when Trump said you could inject yourself with bleach maybe to cure COVID. Like, you know, comments like that that really break through that are just like the kind of thing that you hear people like to do. You could bring it up to your cabdriver or, you know, someone that, you know, what are your relatives and they’re going to know what you’re talking about. I don’t know that this this story has broken through to that way in a way that would make the Republican brand look bad to someone who’s not necessarily a totally engaged voter. And, you know, in the sense of listening to Slate News podcasts.

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S1: To you. What is this story about? Like the story of Christina Pushaw.

S4: What it’s about is the worst, most specious and nastiest impulse in any political situation. People who have those impulses are going to be rewarded in our current environment and they are going to be elevated to positions like Kristina Push. And this is kind of how politics is going to be done until it’s a liability.

S1: Ben Mathis-Lilley, thank you so much for joining me, talking to me about this.

S4: Thank you for having me.

S1: Ben Mathis-Lilley is a Slate senior writer. And that’s our show. What next is produced by Mary Wilson Carmel Delshad and Alina Schwartz. We are getting a ton of help right now from Anna Rubanova and Sam Kim. We are led by Alicia montgomery and Joanne Levine. And I’m Mary Harris. Go check me down on Twitter. Before Elon Musk drives me out of that site and Mary’s desk. All right. I’ll catch you back here tomorrow.