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How Florida's political climate could be helping embolden far right groups

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Florida has become sort of an epicenter for right-wing and far-right forces. The populist political agenda of Governor Ron DeSantis plays with some far-right tropes, while far-right figures like Brazil's Jair Bolsonaro have found refuge in the state. On the ground, extremist groups are looking to capitalize on the moment. Some have been using high-powered projectors to cast hateful images and messages onto buildings, which recently prompted Jacksonville City Council to make it illegal for anyone to project messages onto buildings without the owner's consent. On the eve of the city council's actions, NPR's Sergio Olmos visited Jacksonville and sends this report.

JOSH NUNES: Y'all are going to have to stand on this side of this thing if you value your eyeballs.

SERGIO OLMOS, BYLINE: In a downtown alley, a small group of self-proclaimed neo-Nazis get ready.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Eyes on.

NUNES: All right.

OLMOS: All of the men have their faces covered. Two of them wear white gaiters with the acronym of their group written in World War II-era Nazi typeface. An NFL playoff game is about to kick off nearby. Downtown is full of excited football fans.

NUNES: So it's like - when we've got two or three guys out here, we're not trying to have, like, a mob of angry people accost us, you know what I mean?

OLMOS: Josh Nunes leads the group. He keeps a lookout for police while another man sits on the ground, readying a commercial-grade laser projector. They shine a scrolling message onto a skyscraper about banning drag shows.

NUNES: What we're really going for is people putting it on social media and spreading it around and pushing the conversation in the public arena.

OLMOS: Nunes gets on his phone to call another man, who's monitoring social media reaction. They start out with messaging meant to attract mainstream conservatives, but then move on to more overt bigotry.

NUNES: Look. Here comes Mr. Bird.

OLMOS: Nunes suspects a police helicopter may be overhead. They begin packing up to move to a different spot. They take off their gaiters and walk through downtown Jacksonville.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Jaguar backpacks. Jaguar backpacks.

OLMOS: People flood out from the bars and restaurants on this cool Saturday evening. It's a mixed crowd - white, African American, Latino. Nunes and his group pass by unnoticed. Finally, they set up near the waterfront and shine an image onto a skyscraper.

NUNES: That's a cross and a swastika.

OLMOS: A swastika, five stories tall, that's visible for miles.

NUNES: And so some of this stuff we put up is just a laser Nazi bunker. We've got people that make images, and we throw them up just to kind of get it out there.

OLMOS: In 2021, the Department of Homeland Security designated white nationalists the biggest domestic threat that the U.S. faces. Experts say there's a strategy behind the kinds of things that Nunes is doing.

BEN POPP: These groups are looking to desensitize people to imagery like this.

OLMOS: Ben Popp is a researcher with the Anti-Defamation League. Over the last two years in Florida, the ADL has tracked over 400 instances of white nationalist literature being disseminated. Popp says the normalizing of racist imagery is one way that white nationalists look to gain a foothold.

POPP: They want the community to view this as a normal occurrence, and so they're attempting to make it a normal occurrence by going out every weekend and using these laser projectors to do this.

OLMOS: Popp says these kinds of actions are meant to project power - to portray the group as larger and more powerful than they are, which, for the moment, is a handful of masked men in an alley on a Saturday night.

POPP: And it also is a way of them sort of saying, hey, we're here. Many of these groups aren't that big, so stunts like this make them seem bigger than they are, especially when it takes up a giant skyscraper in downtown Jacksonville.

OLMOS: At the same time, mainstream political figures like Florida Governor Ron DeSantis have fused some far-right talking points into their political rhetoric.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RON DESANTIS: We will never, ever surrender to the woke mob. Florida is where woke goes to die.

(CHEERING)

OLMOS: In states like Florida, conspiracy theories and culture war grievances that get prominent placement on right-wing media have become central to public policy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DESANTIS: And so in Florida, we will make sure that parents can send their kids to school to get an education, not an indoctrination.

OLMOS: This year, the governor has tapped into outrage fueled by disinformation over critical race theory. He continues to threaten to end high-school advanced placement courses in African-American studies. Last year, DeSantis signed the so-called Don't Say Gay law that bars kindergarten through third-grade classrooms from discussing sexual orientation or gender identity. The manufactured hysteria over children in drag events by politicians and pundits has spurred on extremists like Josh Nunes.

NUNES: We've just seen the largest upticks in recruitment from the drag stuff. It's been slow and steady since we've gotten started. You know, we - our thing has been activism once a month.

OLMOS: Nunes claims his group started with three members last year. He says they now have about 20, and he's hoping to double that number by the end of the year.

MIKE GERMAN: I think it's tempting to look for simple explanations for complex behaviors.

OLMOS: Mike German is a former FBI agent. He worked undercover, infiltrating white nationalist gangs, in the past. German says that those who adhere to white nationalist ideology today, or traffic in it, don't always fit the stereotype of people marching with jackboots and swastika tattoos.

GERMAN: They are a part of our society, and it's not as fringe as we'd like to believe. I mean, there are people in law enforcement who subscribe to these ideas. There are people in government, people in elected office, right? White supremacists just had dinner with the former president of the United States.

OLMOS: German is referencing Donald Trump's meeting late last year with artist and business mogul Ye and white nationalist Nick Fuentes. Ye - formerly known as Kanye West - and Fuentes have formed a bizarre alliance over a shared love of Hitler and antisemitic rhetoric. Josh Nunes himself has a last name that could be pronounced Noo-nez (ph). He says he's half Portuguese.

NUNES: I've definitely got some Iberian blood. I mean, there's - you know, there's all types in the movement. There's people that are, like, super hard purity spiralers. But it's - like, at the end of the day, that's never going to work in America.

OLMOS: What does seem to be happening in America right now is a more mainstream embrace of far-right conspiracy theories and hate speech. It's exactly the kind of moment people like Josh Nunes have waited for - to make their ideas seem more relatable.

NUNES: We're like regular working-class white people that are racially aware, and so we're Nazis, right? And so stuff like this - we feel like it's a good way to relate to normal people.

OLMOS: Normal people that Nunes hopes to recruit to his cause so groups like his don't have to hide in alleys anymore.

Sergios Olmos, NPR News, Jacksonville, Fla. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sergios Olmos