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Ron DeSantis Sends an Authoritarian Message: Submit To Me Or Else
Making an example of Disney, Sports Teams, and the Special Olympics
The Special Olympics is the largest organization in the world dedicated to empowering young people with intellectual disabilities. Millions of athletes compete in its events every year. For Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, though, the Special Olympics is just another organization he can bully as he builds his strongman profile.
Losing no opportunity to get ahead in today’s GOP by being an anti-science extremist, DeSantis signed a ban on vaccine mandates in Florida last November. This reflects his obsession with branding Florida as a “free state” that stands up to President Joe Biden’s “tyranny” in public health and other matters.
The ban meant that vaccine mandates the Special Olympics considers necessary for its vulnerable populations had to be rescinded before the 2022 USA competition in Orlando could take place. When the organization resisted, DeSantis threatened it with a $27.5 million fine. The Special Olympics had to comply.
DeSantis, a scientific savant, claimed that the vaccine mandates were unnecessary because “a lot of these special Olympians have also had Covid by now. Most people have had it by now.” Perhaps the governor doesn’t know that people can become reinfected with coronavirus. In any event, this was always about politics, not public welfare. “We’ve never seen something wielded like this vaccine to try to marginalize disfavored people,” DeSantis said, returning to his favorite theme of the federal government’s dictatorial ways.
DeSantis displays many traits of authoritarian-minded leaders, and one of the most disastrous is their insatiable appetite for power. This means that they persecute and harass increasing numbers of people as they strive to satisfy their desire to control everyone and everything.
Such individuals also love to engage in the autocrat game of “making an example” of people or entities that other politicians might not touch due to their size, influence or popularity. The point of this game is to show that no one is above being punished by them.
This is why, along with the usual GOP targets (the LBGTQ community, Blacks, and immigrants) we find DeSantis going after the Special Olympics. 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 logic of making an example also explains DeSantis’s attack on Disney, a family-friendly, job-creating giant, which was stripped of its self-governance status by the Florida legislature because the company spoke out against his so-called "Don't Say Gay" Bill, which limits K-3 classroom discussions of gender identity and sexual orientation and allows parents to potentially sue schools or teachers that engage these topics.
And it’s why DeSantis punished the popular Tampa Bay Rays for having the temerity to express sadness about the recent mass shooting of children in Texas–and for making a $50,000 donation to Everytown for Gun Safety’s Support fund. Opposing GOP gun rights policies earned the team a veto of their planned $35 million baseball complex.
To be sure, some in Florida had disapproved of the use of public funds for a professional sports team, quite apart from any opinions the team’s leadership may hold. And yet DeSantis’s signature executive overreach was on display in his comment that “it’s inappropriate to subsidize political activism of a private corporation.”
“This cannot be normal. We cannot become numb. We cannot look the other way,” read the Tampa Bay Rays statement that provoked DeSantis’s ire. And here we arrive at the common denominator of the governor’s positions and the most telling measure of his authoritarian ways: his cruelty to vulnerable groups in our society, who already face discrimination and worse without DeSantis punishing anyone who shows solidarity with them. Thus does a humane comment after a mass shooting of children become dangerous “activism.”
"There are no second chances….If you cross him once, you're dead,” says a former Florida state legislator, speaking anonymously. As DeSantis models a politics that replaces compassion with coldness, he will be compelled to seek out more corporations and organizations to humiliate, each success merely stoking his thirst for more. Businesses based in Florida should prepare accordingly.