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Rule by Law in Florida

The Atlantic logo The Atlantic 3/26/2023 Brian Klaas
© Illustration by Daniel Zender / The Atlantic; Getty

After Donald Trump sabotaged the 2022 midterm elections for Republicans by endorsing unelectable extremists, a comforting narrative took root among GOP elites. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis would offer a return to “normal” politics, continuing Trump’s aggressive, unapologetic defense of traditional American culture and values but without all that pesky authoritarianism. He would continue to wrap himself in an American flag, but he wouldn’t invite people to dinner who preferred wearing the Nazi one.

Many on the political left drew the opposite conclusion. DeSantis was the real threat, a smarter, more disciplined version of Trump. Whereas Trump believed in anyone or anything that believed in him, DeSantis was a dangerous ideologue. Trump would tweet like an autocrat; DeSantis would act like one.

Is DeSantis an authoritarian? The governor is the political equivalent of an overly greased weather vane, twisting to follow the winds within his party. In the post-Trump GOP, those winds are blowing in an authoritarian direction. Whether he’s an authoritarian at heart or just a cynical opportunist, what matters is how DeSantis behaves. And as governor, he has repeatedly used the powers of his office in authoritarian ways.

Several political words have taken on an expansive meaning in recent years, drifting from their intended use to serve as a linguistic cudgel against any opponent. On the right, many people have misused the word woke as a lazy shorthand to mean anything they classify as “bad cultural change.” A smaller group on the left has misused authoritarian to describe right-wing policies that are perhaps objectionable but nonetheless compatible with democracy.  

[Adam Serwer: Woke is just another word for liberal]

Authoritarian, in the political-science sense of the word, usually refers to two broad kinds of political action within democracies such as the United States. The first is antidemocratic politics, where a politician attacks the institutions, principles, or rules of democracy. The second is personalized rule, in which the leader uses their power to target specific groups or individuals, persecuting their enemies while protecting their allies.

Wooden rather than magnetic, DeSantis doesn’t engage in the impulsive, stage-based showman authoritarianism of Donald Trump. His antidemocracy politics are calculated and disciplined. In Florida, he has engaged in legislative authoritarianism, replacing rule of law with rule by law. His playbook is now familiar to Floridians: He uses attention-grabbing stunts or changes formal policies to target individuals, groups, or companies he doesn’t like. Then he holds a press conference to tout his ability to take on all the people the Republican base loves to hate.

In functioning democracies, the law is a great equalizer—political allies and adversaries are treated the same. But in “the free state of Florida,” that’s not true. After DeSantis signed the “Don’t Say ‘Gay’” bill, Disney denounced it. That’s part of democratic politics; citizens and companies are free to speak out against legislation without fear of retribution. But DeSantis retaliated forcefully, using his formal political power to punish a perceived political enemy. He signed a law revoking Disney’s control over a special district in the state.

DeSantis made clear that the legislation specifically targeted Disney because of its political speech. “You’re a corporation based in Burbank, California,” DeSantis said before signing the bill. “And you’re going to marshal your economic power to attack the parents of my state? We view that as a provocation, and we’re gonna fight back against that.” Lest anyone misread his intent, he also assured his supporters: “We have everything thought out … Don’t let anyone tell you that somehow Disney’s going to get a tax cut out of this. They’re going to pay more taxes as a result of it.” This was legislative authoritarianism in action.

Last summer, DeSantis developed a flimsy pretext to remove a Democratic prosecutor, Andrew H. Warren. In a subsequent lawsuit, a judge reviewed an extensive array of evidence and concluded that DeSantis’s goal had been “to amass information that could help bring down Mr. Warren, not to find out how Mr. Warren actually runs the office.” The judge suggested that this was a political move. Decide whom to fire first; figure out how to justify it later.

More broadly, DeSantis has repeatedly used the law for purely political ends. In one instance, DeSantis used state funds to fly a group of bewildered migrants to Martha’s Vineyard as a political stunt. He wasn’t advancing a broad-based policy change. He was targeting a specific group of vulnerable people to score headlines that would benefit him personally, which isn’t how legal authority is supposed to operate in a democracy.

[Ronald Brownstein: The contradictions of Ron DeSantis]

DeSantis has also taken aim at freedom of the press, hoping to weaken existing legal protections for reporters. And he has signed legislation that reduces legal liability for drivers who injure or kill protesters with their cars on public roads. Critics say the legislation, which has been blocked by a judge, could expose protesters to the risk of prosecution.

Of course not everything DeSantis does merits the authoritarian label. He has proposed that hospitals be required to collect data on patients’ immigration status. This, as critics argue, is likely to worsen public-health outcomes and put an undue burden on doctors and nurses to become Florida’s frontline immigration police. But it’s not authoritarian. It’s just a run-of-the-mill bad policy idea.

Sometimes, context determines whether a political action is authoritarian. Cracking down on voter fraud is certainly not authoritarian; it’s just enforcing the law. However, if the crackdown is supposed to undermine public confidence in democracy while targeting a specific group of people who are unpopular in your own party, then it may deserve the label.

What should we make of DeSantis’s high-profile task force to tackle voter fraud in Florida? Twenty-six cases of voter fraud have been verified in the state since 2016. In that time frame, voters have cast roughly 36 million ballots in general federal elections. That’s a nonexistent problem, but the Republican base, thanks to Trump’s lies about fraud, believes it’s widespread. DeSantis was likely trying to score political points while diminishing faith in the democratic process. Last summer, this stunt culminated in a Black man being arrested at gunpoint for illegal voting. (He had cast a ballot because he mistakenly believed that Florida’s restoration of felon voting rights applied to him. Similar cases have been dismissed when they reach the courts.)

In Florida’s public schools, DeSantis has sought to make book-banning easier. Again, governors have the legal right to sway educational policy, and doing so is not authoritarian. What’s worrying about DeSantis’s role in education is that he’s trying to muzzle classroom speech that differs from his worldview. House Bill 7, sometimes referred to as the Stop WOKE Act, prohibits educators from teaching students about systemic racism. This has had the predictable effect of eroding freedom of expression in the classroom. One publisher even removed references to race in a textbook entry about Rosa Parks. Parks’s story became about stubbornness, not racism. “One day, she rode the bus,” the post–H.B. 7 text reads. “She was told to move to a different seat. She did not.” Why was she asked to move? For Florida’s students, that will remain a mystery.

In higher education, similarly, DeSantis has tried to make it easier to fire professors who teach material that a conservative like him might find objectionable. Palm Beach Atlantic University has already fired a professor who taught about racism, after a parent complained.

Those who argue that DeSantis is not an authoritarian have pointed to his evasive refusal to echo Trump’s lies about the 2020 election. But before the 2022 midterm elections, DeSantis actively campaigned for some of the GOP’s most prominent election deniers, such as Kari Lake of Arizona and Doug Mastriano of Pennsylvania, even though Mastriano had prayed that Trump would “seize the power” on January 6 and was at the Capitol rally before the attack began.

But would President DeSantis be worse for American democracy than President Trump: The Sequel? To answer that question, you have to understand why DeSantis is behaving like an authoritarian.

DeSantis started his career when the Republican Party was dominated by George W. Bush and John McCain. He was first elected to Congress in 2012, when Mitt Romney defined the GOP. DeSantis, unlike Republicans such as Marjorie Taylor Greene, wasn’t drawn to politics by Trumpism; he was comfortable making the case for Romney Republicans.

That party is now dead, its former darlings turned into pariahs. Like so many Republicans, DeSantis recognized the death of the old party in 2016. He enthusiastically rebranded himself, going so far as to make his toddler “Build the Wall” with toy bricks in a cringeworthy 2018 campaign ad.

DeSantis understands that after years of Trump dominating the party, its base has changed. Core Republican voters now crave an authoritarian bully, a culture warrior who will pick fights. DeSantis may not have always been an authoritarian political figure, but he has made clear that he will behave like one to pursue power.

This makes DeSantis dangerous for American democracy. On the political left, opinion is divided as to whether DeSantis is more dangerous than Trump. My take is that DeSantis is more dangerous than Trump was when he became president in 2017, but less dangerous than Trump would be if he took office in 2025.

That’s because Trump changed the Republican Party, winnowing out any remaining principled prodemocracy conservatives, either through primaries or resignations. Many of those who stayed underwent the “Elise Stefanik conversion,” morphing from Paul Ryan supporters into Trump disciples, willing to torch America’s democratic institutions if it aligned with their self-interest. As evidenced by the so-called sedition caucus, many elected Republicans will use their power to undermine democracy.

By contrast, Trump faced some pushback in 2017, when his legislative agenda, including his health-care plan, stalled in a Republican-dominated Congress. DeSantis, a more methodical politician, would face fewer constraints. He could undercut American democracy with a legislative scalpel, all with his party’s fervent support in Congress.

But Trump in a second term, with the Trumpified Republican caucus in Congress, would take a wrecking ball to our institutions. Since leaving office, he’s become even more erratic and unhinged. His current social-media posts make his 2017 tweets appear statesmanlike by comparison.

If you put a gun to my head and forced me to vote for one of these two authoritarians, I’d vote for DeSantis. But his track record in Florida should make us wary. He may not be Trump, but he’s a danger to American democracy nonetheless.

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