Ron DeSantis is the governor of Florida, a front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination, and quite possibly the most dangerous figure in American politics.
While it’s hard to imagine any politician wresting that title away from Donald Trump, DeSantis brings something to the table that Trump lacks — his ability to translate political vindictiveness, cruelty and demagoguery into policy results.
While it’s hard to imagine any politician wresting that title away from Donald Trump, DeSantis brings something to the table that Trump lacks.
Over the past several weeks in Florida, DeSantis has shown what a politician unmoored from fundamental democratic principles — and intent on waging political warfare — can achieve. It could become a model for Republicans across the country, expanding Trumpism into alarming new territory.
DeSantis’ latest move this week was signing legislation that would create a new security office to investigate allegations of voter fraud. The bill would also levy significant new penalties for violations of state election law, including fines of up to $50,000 for failing to submit voter registration forms within two weeks.
Never mind that there is no evidence of widespread voter fraud in Florida, or that a judge recently struck down many of the provisions of DeSantis’ earlier “election fraud” law. What we are left with is a series of bills based on a broader Republican pattern of voter intimidation against voters likely to support Democratic candidates.
Three years ago, after Florida voters overwhelmingly supported a constitutional amendment restoring voting rights for convicted felons, DeSantis signed legislation forcing former felons to repay any financial obligations before their rights would be restored. This is, in effect, a modern poll tax.
Last year, he pushed a series of voting restrictions that included limits on mail-in ballot drop boxes, new requirements on voting registration, and even made it more difficult to give food and water to Floridians waiting in line to exercise their franchise. (As mentioned above, parts of the legislation were thrown out by a federal judge, though the state is appealing the decision).
To be sure, DeSantis is hardly the first red state Republican to push legislation that would curtail voting rights and give the GOP a political advantage in congressional elections. But what separates DeSantis from the pack is the lengths he has also gone to attack, intimidate and ultimately silence his political critics.
What separates DeSantis from the pack is the lengths he has also gone to attack, intimidate and ultimately silence his political critics.
DeSantis has pushed legislation that makes it more difficult — and increases the potential jail times — for state residents who peacefully protest and demonstrate, a right enshrined in the First Amendment. (A judge has blocked parts of the law; DeSantis has vowed to appeal.) Last week he signed a bill limiting the tenure for professors at state universities, who his Republican political allies have claimed are trying to “indoctrinate” students with liberal beliefs.
The coup de grace, however, came when DeSantis signed legislation that stripped Disney of the special tax status it has enjoyed for decades around its Orlando-area theme park. While good government supporters might find a reason to support such a move, DeSantis’ motivation appears far more insidious.
DeSantis claims the change is to curtail an overly powerful corporation. But the legislative assault dovetails perfectly with company officials pushing back on DeSantis’ so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill, which aims to restrict teacher-led discussions of sexual orientation and gender identity in Florida public schools. Coincidence? Obviously not. Indeed, DeSantis has sent out fundraising appeals complaining about Disney’s attacks on him and trying “to advance their ‘woke’ agenda.”
This is not DeSantis’s first foray into the nation’s culture wars. This week he also signed the Stop WOKE Act, which seeks to limit discussions of race in classrooms, colleges and corporate diversity training seminars that might make Floridians uncomfortable.
But what is different about the assault on Disney is that it smacks of authoritarianism — and a direct governmental effort to restrict the speech of political actors who disagree with DeSantis.
Indeed, when the state's Republican lieutenant governor, Jeanette Nunez, was asked if Disney could stop the legislation by “disregard(ing) the whole ‘woke’ agenda” and producing different kinds of content, she said “sure.” The message could not have been clearer: stay on the governor’s good side and he won’t use the state government in Florida to punish you.
Conservative Republicans love to make righteous ideological arguments about the heavy hand of big government. And yet, when faced with a perfect example of legislation that is intended to chill free speech, most are cheering DeSantis’ move. In the modern Republican Party, the accumulation of political power trumps all other considerations — morals, ethics and allegiance to democratic principles be damned.
Again, this has become practically pro forma in Republican politics, but what makes DeSantis such a uniquely worrying character is that there is seemingly no political sewer into which he won’t wade.
If scapegoating the LGBTQ community and preventing trans kids from embracing their gender identity is the price for ensuring DeSantis’ continued popularity among Republican voters, he is more than willing to pay it.
While Trump revealed at a conservative conference that he had received a Covid booster shot (to scattered boos from the audience), DeSantis refused to tell inquiring reporters whether he’d received the shot as well. It’s small wonder that Florida, even with its aged population, ranks 36th in those over 65 who have received a booster shot. And though DeSantis likes to tout his response to Covid-19, over the course of the pandemic his state is 18th in the country for deaths per capita and just outside the top 10 in per capita cases. According to one study done last fall by the British medical journal The Lancet, if Florida had achieved the vaccination rates seen in states like Connecticut, Massachusetts and Maine, more than 22,000 lives could have been saved.
Instead, like many Republicans, DeSantis saw political benefit in playing down Covid and opening up the state’s economy as quickly, no matter the consequences for his state’s residents.
Since DeSantis is governor of the third largest state of the country — and a good bet to be re-elected this fall — his actions loom larger than those of other Republican officials. There’s also the fact that he is considered by many Republicans a front-runner for the party’s presidential nod in November. His assault on democratic freedoms could become a model for other Republicans, and also a governing strategy if he is able to capture the White House in 2024.
Of course, that would mean overcoming Trump in a contested primary, which would be no easy feat. Trump has reportedly said of DeSantis that he “has no personal charisma and has a dull personality.” For once, the president is not wrong. DeSantis combines the unctuousness of Ted Cruz, the likability of Mitch McConnell and the personal charm of Dick Cheney.
What he shares with Trump is a vindictive and demagogic streak, unquenchable ambition and a refusal to be weighed down by political norms or democratic traditions. Like Trump, his time in office would be marked by repeated attempts to pit Americans against each other. But unlike Trump, DeSantis has the proven ability to follow through on divisive rhetoric. The complete package, DeSantis represents a terrifying future for America, and by 2025 it could become a reality.