Former President Donald J. Trump moved on Friday to bypass Florida Governor Ron DeSantis as they fought for conservative loyalties at a rally of right-wing activists in Philadelphia, pushing a shared agenda to force the federal government to the right, limiting transgender rights and limit the way racial and LGBTQ issues are taught.
Speaking hours after DeSantis’ speech, Trump aimed to beat his main rival by promising to target federal diversity programs and wield the Justice Department’s power against schools and corporations that are alleged to be engaging in « unlawful racial discrimination. » .
Mr. Trump said that, to « strictly enforce » a day earlier Supreme Court ruling rejecting affirmative action at the nation’s colleges and universities, he would « eliminate all diversity, equity and inclusion programs across government federal ».
He added that he would order the Justice Department « to pursue civil rights claims against any school, business or university that engages in unlawful racial discrimination. »
A rep for Mr. Trump declined to directly answer a question about what races the former president thought were being discriminated against.
Since entering the race just over a month ago, Mr. DeSantis has repeatedly tried to position himself to Mr. Trump’s right, hitting his record on crime, coronavirus and immigration. However, the former president leads Mr. DeSantis wide margin in the polls.
The rare convergence of the two leading Republicans on the campaign trail came at a convention of conservative social policy’s newest powerhouse, Moms for Liberty, which began as a small group of far-right suburban mothers but quickly gained national clout.
A third presidential candidate, Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor, also spoke on Friday, with two others, Vivek Ramaswamy and Asa Hutchinson, expected to appear on Saturday.
Mr. DeSantis went first, headlining the opening breakfast event in a nod to the group’s founding in his home state in 2021. Its national rise — he says it now has 275 chapters in 45 states — coincided with the rise of the Florida governor in law circles while wing prompted legislation to limit discussions of so-called critical theory of race, sexuality and gender in public schools.
“What we’ve seen in this country in recent years has awakened the most powerful political force in this country: mama bear,” DeSantis told the crowd of hundreds, amidst bursts of applause. « We did so much on these issues in Florida, and I will do all of that as the next president. »
Shortly after his speech, the Supreme Court granted the conservative movement more victories with two rulings, one overturning President Biden’s student loan debt relief program and the other backing up a web designer who refused to provide services for same-sex marriages.
Mr. DeSantis’ speech to social conservatives centers on the idea that he, not Mr. Trump, is the most likely to turn their priorities into legislation. In his 20-minute speech, Mr. DeSantis highlighted legislation he supported in Florida that bans gender transition assistance for minors, prevents teachers from asking students for their preferred pronouns and prohibits transgender girls from competing in women’s sports.
Not all participants were persuaded. Alexis Spiegelman, who leads the Moms for Liberty chapter in Sarasota, Fla., and backs Trump for president, said she hasn’t seen her governor’s policies translate into changes at schools near her. She was critical of her presidential bid from him.
« I just don’t know why we would want a knockoff when we have the real, authentic Trump, » he said.
Ms. Haley, who served as a UN ambassador in the Trump administration, took on a different tone later Friday morning. Lacking the kind of recent legislative record that Mr. DeSantis may point to, she instead drew on her own experiences as a mother to her: She directly referred to herself as a « freedom mom » and often pleaded for her children.
« Moms worry about a lot of things — it’s not just schools, » Ms. Haley said. “We worry about debt, we worry about crime, we worry about national security, we worry about the border. Moms worry about everything.
Calling itself a « parental rights group, » Moms for Liberty has built its platform on a number of controversial child-focused issues, a focus many on the right believe could help unite the divided factions of the Republican Party in 2024.
The group has railed against coronavirus-related public health mandates and school materials on LGBTQ and race-related topics. Its members regularly protest at school board meetings and have tried to take control of it.
Along the way, Moms for Liberty has attracted a backlash. The Southern Poverty Law Center, a leftist civil rights organization, calls it an extremist group, stating that it « commonly spreads conspiracy theories about public schools attempting to indoctrinate and sexualize children with a progressive Marxist curriculum. » Moms for Liberty leaders rejected the label in Friday’s remarks.
Prior to the group’s conference in Philadelphia, a half-dozen academic groups criticized the Museum of the American Revolution for allowing Moms for Liberty to hold some of its events there, including its opening reception.
Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney, a Democrat, said Thursday that « as a welcoming and inclusive city, we find the beliefs and values of this group problematic. »
Protesters gathered outside the conference venues starting Thursday evening and the demonstrations continued into Friday evening.
Saturday’s program included a session led by KrisAnne Hall, a former prosecutor and conservative public speaker with past ties to the Oath Keepers, a far-right militia that helped orchestrate the January 6, 2021, Capitol attack.
The event sessions bridged a wide range of topics, including exploration of “dark money infiltration of education” and discussions on the Federalist Papers. But the presidential candidates were the main attraction.
Tina Descovich, one of the founders of the organization, said in an interview that Moms for Liberty had invited all presidential candidates, including Mr. Biden, to speak at the event.
“Our parental rights issue and our concerns about public education in America are escalating to the level of presidential candidates,” Ms. Descovich said, “which means that for the 2024 election, we are working to make this domestic politics No. 1 problem. »