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DeSantis follows in Trump's authoritarian footsteps

The Florida governor has made the former president's lines and lies his own.
Image: Florida Governor Ron DeSantis speaking at a rally.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.Mark Peterson / Redux file

“There are no second chances. It’s well known that you can’t go against him. If you cross him once, you’re dead,” the unnamed politician told Politico, speaking anonymously to avoid becoming a target. The comment, by a former Florida state legislator, does not refer to Donald Trump, as one might assume, but to another vindictive leader: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.

If DeSantis is becoming many Republicans’ answer to their “Trump problem,” his rise is because of his authoritarian sympathies and attitudes, not in spite of them. He promises a more “respectable”-seeming version of illiberal rule than the baggage-laden outrage specialist that is Trump. No wonder dozens of billionaires backed him even before his November re-election. 

If DeSantis is becoming many Republicans’ answer to their “Trump problem,” his rise is because of his authoritarian sympathies and attitudes, not in spite of them.

The U.S. is not the first country to have support build among conservative elites for a more disciplined extremist after an unpredictable authoritarian leader takes things “too far.” As president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte fondly reminisced about throwing a man out of a helicopter and said he would do it again. When Duterte stepped aside this year, in came the smoother Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr., who surged to power in part by marketing his father’s bloody dictatorship as a “golden age” of social peace.

And Giorgia Meloni, the new prime minister of Italy, may be a neo-fascist masquerading as a conservative. But in many ways she is tame compared to her mentor, Silvio Berlusconi, who in the 2000s racked up scandal after scandal, culminating in convictions after he left office for bribery, wiretapping, fraud and sex with a minor.

So it is in the U.S., where big capital, Fox News, right-wing organizations like the Federalist Society and other groups are throwing themselves behind DeSantis, who has benefited from Trump’s destructiveness while he builds a profile as a more moderate figure.  

As Trump’s former attorney general (and Federalist Society member) William Barr put it in predicting DeSantis would be the 2024 Republican presidential nominee, Trump was “the wrecking ball ... against progressive excess.” Had Jan. 6 finished the ruining of democracy, they might still be behind him. But Trump’s autocratic bid for power failed, and the subsequent mess of investigations and temper tantrums has perhaps become too tumultuous. Better to replace him, these conservatives believe, with a more pliant and predictable leader to bring the appearance of calm and stability.

But let’s be clear: The man whom Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post celebrates as “DeFuture” would, in fact, continue Trump’s relentless attempts to turn back the clock on social progress in America by silencing and disenfranchising tens of millions who don’t fit into Republicans’ white Christian vision for the nation.

DeSantis has made Trump’s lines, and lies, his own.

From his education bills that ban the teaching of critical race theory in public schools to his crusades against commonsense public health protocols like mask mandates, DeSantis has made Trump’s lines, and lies, his own. His preference for ideology over science (his surgeon general, Dr. Joseph Lapado, has spread misinformation about Covid-19 prevention) had tragic consequences for Floridians.

 DeSantis’ embrace of Trump’s election fraud claims led him to create a law enforcement agency charged with “election integrity.” In August, Florida police arrested 20 people for casting ballots illegally, even though the state had told them they were eligible to vote. “If Floridians cannot rely on the government to verify their eligibility, who can they rely on?” asked Desmond Meader and Neil Volz, the executive director and deputy director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition.

Not the governor, who has found plenty of ways to persecute the vulnerable, such as the transgender athletes he has barred from girls’ and women’s sports. The broader LGBTQ population has been targeted by his Parental Rights in Education Act, commonly referred to as the “Don’t Say Gay” law, which bans instruction about sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through third grade.

Authoritarians need to make sure the public and politicians know that no one can avoid the leader’s punishment. That’s why DeSantis went after the Special Olympics, using his veto threat to impose a $27.5 million fine to prevent the organization from insisting on a Covid-19 vaccination mandate for its (medically vulnerable) athletes. That’s not the move you make if you care about being seen as decent, but it’s the move you make if you want to be feared.

The rallying of Republican elites around DeSantis means that Floridians will most likely serve as unpaid extras in a presidential dress rehearsal that will last through 2024. Look for DeSantis to double down on the autocratic ways that have paid off for him, not least by attracting powerful donors. DeSantis may be too polished to declare, as Trump did during his own presidential campaign, that he could “stand on Fifth Avenue and shoot someone” and get away with it. Yet the governor’s statement in his victory speech that “Florida is where woke goes to die” is chilling. It is a declaration of war on all Americans who support reproductive rights, LGBTQ rights, freedom of education — and voting rights, the bedrock of democracy.