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America’s Authoritarian Future?

Yesterday, the Wall Street Journal reported that Meatball Ron’s book, The Courage to Be Free: Florida’s Blueprint for America’s Revival, went right to #1 on Amazon’s the Top 100 list. Well, I’m not going to read it— although I might if I thought it was an accurate portrayal of who he is or even if I thought he had actually written it. He’s in the news a lot lately, not just because he’s boycotting CPAC and not just because he’s preparing to run against Trump, but also because he’s running against America… and has been— increasingly— since he got into politics, first as an extremist backbencher in Congress and then as Trump’s pick to be governor of Florida. I’ve never heard of someone I knew personally moving to another state because of a governor’s politics. DeSantis’ Florida is a first in that way. Related, a new poll from YouGov shows that after trailing DeSantis for months, Trump has suddenly surged to a substantial lead in a two-man matchup for the GOP nomination. Trump now leads Meatball Ron 47-39%— a swing of 12 points towards Trump as people have gotten to know more about DeSantis and form real opinions about who he actually is.

Also yesterday, Jamelle Bouie wrote about DeSantis’ breathtaking attack on free speech and academic freedom, noting that “As part of his ongoing war on public education and so-called wokeness, Ron DeSantis, the governor of Florida, wants to put the state’s colleges and universities under strict political control. Last week, Republicans in the state’s House of Representatives introduced legislation that would, with DeSantis’s approval, escalate and expand an already aggressive effort to politicize higher education. The proposal, House Bill 999, deals with both administration and curriculums. It would make illegal the use of any ‘diversity, equity, and inclusion statements’ as part of the hiring, promotion and tenure process, as well as give the governor-appointed state university boards of trustees the right to ‘review any faculty member’s tenure status.’ The bill would also give the trustees final say over hiring decisions, sidestepping faculty member input as well. When it comes to teaching, House Bill 999 would remove gender studies and critical race theory, ‘or any derivative major or minor of these belief systems,’ from college and university instruction.”

Just as the NY Times was publishing Bouie’s column, Data For Progress released the results of its latest national polling, highlighting the kind of censorship DeSantis is championing, although 17 other states— including Oklahoma, North Dakota, Iowa, Georgia and New Hampshire— are passing the same kinds of laws Florida has. That said, “majorities of voters support the teaching of racism (both historical and modern-day), slavery, the Black Lives Matter movement, political activism, and African American studies in K-12 schools.” They also found that “voters across party lines agree with the sentiment that students should be exposed to a multitude of perspectives for a well-rounded education, rather than being limited to ideas that some lawmakers say will prevent guilt about identity. Though polarized along party lines, voters— especially those of color— trust Democrats more than Republicans to address racial injustices in the country.”

This seems like a pretty stunning rejection of DeSantis’ entire effort to build himself a brand enmeshed in some kind of bizarre anti-woke fascism:

And when it comes to DeSantis’ (and Youngkin’s) decision to oppose a pilot Advanced Placement (AP) course, AP African American studies in high schools, 66% of voters would support the teaching of AP African American studies in high schools in their own community, including 89% of Democrats, 69% of Independents, and even 44% of the people admitting they identify with the party built on racism and hatred.

Further, the vast majority of those polled say that students should be exposed to a variety of perspectives in their social studies, rather than being limited by what some lawmakers believe might be ideologically motivated or lead to guilt about identity. The pollsters concluded that voters across partisan lines support comprehensive instruction on topics such as slavery, racism, and political activism. Significant majorities of voters across racial identities support teaching AP African American studies and about the Black Lives Matter movement as well. This support is driven by the bipartisan belief that students should be exposed to a multitude of perspectives for a well-rounded education and be allowed to form their own stances, rather than being bound to viewpoints that some lawmakers deem fit. State bans limiting the discussion of systemic racism are an affront to democracy both in their nature— entirely out of touch with the values of the American people— and in their effect— controlling the public narrative, silencing dissenting views, stifling intellectual inquiry, and reinforcing existing power structures. However difficult, teachers and schools must inform students about structural racism, which, according to a large body of research, very much does exist within American institutions such as housing, elections, healthcare, employment, and criminal justice. That Democrats have a trust advantage on the issue of racial injustice, especially among marginalized groups, highlights the party’s responsibility to forcefully push back on such an authoritarian approach from Republicans with progressive policies that encourage inclusive education. It is imperative we reject attempts to limit discussions of racism and create educational environments that foster critical thinking, so our students can become informed and active citizens equipped to create a more equitable country.

And, I’m sure you know that it isn’t just in schools that DeSantis and other fascist officials are trying to decide what Americans hear, see, read and think. His war with Disney is not a joke. Yesterday Jonathan Chait wrote that “Last year, after Disney had the temerity to issue a statement opposing one of his prized legislative initiatives, Ron DeSantis punished the company by removing its self-governing status. (DeSantis justified the maneuver as a removal of unjustified privileges, but he had not previously opposed Disney’s status and made little attempt to disguise its nakedly retaliatory nature). On Monday, he took matters much further. DeSantis appointed a board to oversee Disney. The Central Florida Tourism Oversight District is stacked with DeSantis cronies, including Bridget Ziegler, a proponent of his education policies; Ron Peri, who heads the Christian ministry the Gathering USA; and Michael Sasso, president of the Federalist Society’s Orlando chapter. While the board handles infrastructure and maintenance, DeSantis boasted that it could use its leverage to force Disney to stop ‘trying to inject woke ideology’ on children. ‘When you lose your way, you’ve got to have people that are going to tell you the truth,’ DeSantis proclaimed. ‘So we hope they can get back on. But I think all of these board members very much would like to see the type of entertainment that all families can appreciate.’”

It is worth pausing a moment to grasp the full breadth of what is going on here. First, DeSantis established the principle that he can and will use the power of the state to punish private firms that exercise their First Amendment right to criticize his positions. Now he is promising to continue exerting state power to pressure the firm to produce content that comports with his own ideological agenda.
Whether he is successful remains to be seen. But a few things ought to be clear. First, DeSantis’s treatment of Disney is not a one-off but a centerpiece of his legacy in Florida. He has repeatedly invoked the episode in his speeches, and his allies have held it up as evidence of his strength and dominance. The Murdoch media empire, which is functionally an arm of the DeSantis campaign, highlighted the Disney conquest in a New York Post front page and a Fox & Friends segment.
Second, DeSantis’s authoritarian methods have met with vanishingly little resistance within his party. The only detectable Republican pushback has come from New Hampshire governor Chris Sununu, who warned, “Look, Ron’s a very good governor. But I’m just trying to remind folks what we are at our core. And if we’re trying to beat the Democrats at being big-government authoritarians, remember what’s going to happen. Eventually, they’ll have power … and then they’ll start penalizing conservative businesses and conservative nonprofits and conservative ideas.” (Of course, this warning holds only if Republicans believe they will have to relinquish power. If DeSantis can truly follow the example of Viktor Orbán, losing power becomes only a theoretical risk.)
And third, DeSantis has been very explicit about his belief that he sees his methods in Florida as a blueprint for a national agenda. So there is every reason to believe that, if elected president, DeSantis would use government power to force both public and private institutions to toe his line. Speaking out against him, or even producing content he disapproves of, would become a financially risky proposition.
Part of what makes DeSantis so dangerous is that Donald Trump created a very defined idea of authoritarianism in the minds of his critics. His refusal to accept the 2020 presidential-election results was indeed a dangerous attack on democratic legitimacy— but this especially notorious episode has overshadowed his other efforts to abuse state power. Trump wielded federal regulations to punish the owners of the Washington Post and CNN for coverage he disapproved of and used diplomatic leverage to extort Ukraine into smearing his political rival. Republicans either supported or ignored these abuses of power.
To whatever extent they have principled objections to authoritarianism, those objections are limited almost entirely to fomenting a violent mob to overturn an election. And while inciting an insurrection is extremely dangerous, it hardly exhausts the scope of illiberal tools available to a sufficiently ruthless executive.
Damon Linker recently criticized liberals for unfairly calling DeSantis as bad as Trump. Linker’s prediction that a second Trump administration would be more dangerous than a first DeSantis administration might be correct. But it’s hard for me to understand how he can state this so confidently when he acknowledges DeSantis’s illiberal intentions and lack of democratic scruples. Comparing the relative evils of two authoritarian-minded leaders seems to be mainly an exercise in guesswork.
A year ago, I wrote a long profile of DeSantis, in which his deep-rooted distrust of liberal democracy was a major theme. Last fall, I attended the National Conservatism Conference, where the attendees laid out rather plainly their ambition to turn DeSantis into a model for a ruthless, illiberal party that would use the organs of the state to crush its enemies. Since those pieces appeared, DeSantis’s actions have made me more, not less, concerned.
Whether DeSantis would actually do more damage to American democracy in office than Trump could remains hard to say. Perhaps, perhaps not. But we should recognize that he is not putting himself forward as a critic of Trump’s authoritarianism. He is promising, on the contrary, to exceed it.

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