Ron DeSantis is turning Florida into his own mini-autocracy
Success in today's GOP means embracing extremism, bullying peers, and silencing and punishing political enemies
"There are no second chances. It's well known you can't go against him. If you cross him once, you're dead." This might be a description of a Mafia boss or former President Donald Trump. Instead, it's how a former Florida state legislator, speaking anonymously, describes the bullying leadership style of current Governor Ron DeSantis, who is busy turning his state into an illiberal stronghold.
As the Republican party adopts an authoritarian political culture and rejects democratic norms and ideals, the embrace of extremist ideologies has become a way for ambitious GOP politicians to stand out and capture media attention. Florida, Texas, and other Republican-governed states are becoming laboratories of American autocracy, passing legislation that institutionalizes homophobia, and racism.
Yet DeSantis is a particularly dangerous individual. He may be up for re-election as governor in Florida, but he has designs on the White House as soon as two years from now. It's not hard to see what he is doing in Florida as a rehearsal for illiberalism on a national scale.
He's very popular within the GOP. In a June 2021 poll of possible 2024 contenders, he topped the list and bested Trump in approval, 74% to 71%. And he's following a playbook that prioritizes not public welfare, but rather the intimidation and polarization of citizens -- the better to facilitate the accumulation of the leader's personal power.
DeSantis ran for governor as a "pitbull Trump defender", and he has clearly absorbed Trump's lessons, down to his mimicry of the former president's body language. Yet he's younger and smoother, and at first could seem a more palatable figure--a Trump with far less legal and other baggage. Judging from his policies in Florida, though, the effects on America if he held national power would be almost as brutal.
Many 21st century authoritarian governments take the form of electoral autocracies. Voters go to the ballot box, but the outcome of the election is often what those in power need it to be. American states like Ohio have long had a version of this system. Yet Trump's relentless attempts to discredit our national election apparatus and the success of his Big Lie showed other unscrupulous politicians, DeSantis among them, the gains to be made through making fake claims of election fraud.
Cue the governor's new Office of Election Crimes and Security, housed within the Florida State Department. It has 15 investigators to pursue election crimes, including those reported via a "voter fraud hotline."
Since such violations would now be deemed felonies, rather than misdemeanors, anyone who gets in the way of electoral outcomes needed by DeSantis's political machine could potentially be jailed, including election workers, officials, and judges -- categories of people already targeted around the country for threats by Republicans and their grass-roots followers.
DeSantis also seeks to disempower and punish Floridians he sees as political enemies. This ever-expanding category of people includes Black voters (a new redistricting map would cut heavily Black districts from four to two); protesters (an April 2021 "anti-riot" bill grants civil immunity to people who drive cars into protesters blocking roads); and the LGBTQ community. The so-called "Don't Say Gay" Bill limits K-3 classroom discussions of gender identity and sexual orientation and allows parents to potentially sue schools or teachers that engage in these topics.
The authoritarian goals of censorship and encouraging citizens to turn on each other also motivate the various "anti-critical race theory" bills, like the Stop WOKE Act, that censor anti-racist content and workplace training. DeSantis calls such information "state-sanctioned racism." Yet he refused to denounce actual Nazi activists who assaulted a Jewish college student in the Orlando area.
That's because the normalization of extremism is key to the success of illiberal politics. DeSantis has begun to populate state government with far-right sympathizers and conspiracy theorists. He appointed a Jan. 6 apologist, Esther Byrd, to Florida's Board of Education. "There are only 2 teams...With Us [or] Against Us," Byrd posted on Facebook, displaying the spirit needed to do away with democratic pedagogy.
DeSantis's cynical crusades against vaccine mandates are another example. His surgeon general, Dr. Joseph Lapado, has spread disinformation about Covid-19 prevention, with tragic consequences for Floridians. According to a new study in the Journal of the American Medical Association, Florida's excess death rate was four times higher than Massachusetts's and three times higher than New York's in August-December 2021.
Democratic frames of reasoning don't help us to understand decisions that fly in the face of good governance and heighten the possibility of harmful outcomes. Who benefits from increased polarization, from ideologues replacing experts, from turning citizens into informers?
A leader like DeSantis, who seems intent on creating his own mini-autocracy in Florida, to be scaled up in 2024. He has interfered in areas previously beyond gubernatorial authority, asserting his power to make appointments, including to the State Supreme Court, without Cabinet approval. The governor is "essentially the speaker of the House, the president of the Senate, and the chief justice of the Supreme Court right now," says a sitting Republican state legislator, speaking anonymously.
DeSantis may cast himself as the savior of "freedom" in Florida, but the real meaning of his idea of liberty is clear. He wants to be free of any constraints on his ability to govern in ways that benefit the consolidation of his personal power. That's how autocrats think. His defeat in 2022 --and if it comes to it, in 2024--is imperative for the future of American democracy.