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What to do about Florida's wannabe despot problem?

By Paul Blythe

It would be hard to miss Ron DeSantis’ imperial ambitions, but if you hadn’t noticed, his Trump-like presentation Wednesday, Feb. 1 of his 2023 proposed budget for Florida was the latest bugle call in a month of political soundings meant to rally his base and demoralize – heck, let’s just say it, demolish – his opposition.

There was the shipped-in crowd of staff and guests instructed to have “high energy” and applaud him often; the grandiose claims of a “strong performance” state economy with absolutely no mention that it has been fueled by about $9 billion in federal money from President Biden’s and the Democratic Congress’ COVID-19 recovery act; and, of course, one of DeSantis’ signature culture-war digs -- the announcement he would push the Legislature to exempt gas stoves from state sales taxes. This last one was a nod to the recent Republican furor over a U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission announcement that it would examine whether regulations of gas stoves were needed, after studies suggested indoor pollution from gas stoves might be linked to health problems.

“They want your gas stove and we’re not going to let that happen,” DeSantis said. Little does it matter to DeSantis that the commission has made it clear the government is not going to take anyone’s gas stove, or that only 8 percent of Florida households use gas stoves and fewer than 5 percent of homes in the state use natural gas for residential heating. In other words, a non-factor in the daily lives of the vast majority of Floridians that DeSantis nevertheless is using as a pseudo-issue to rile his base.

So, he wasn’t just talking about gas -- he was gaslighting, the technique of blatantly lying in the face of truth for the purpose of manipulation, a technique that is typical of DeSantis and archetypal of totalitarians in general.

DeSantis a dictator? No. He was duly elected in a fair election.

But he does seem to be doing a lot of authoritarian-like things.

Tools of the trade

There are all types of articles on the internet on the 12, 10, seven or four techniques that dictators commonly use to gain and maintain power. To name a few of these methods: creation and use of scapegoats and straw-dog enemies, propaganda, indoctrination, abrupt removal of opponents from power, use of terror and force to intimidate opposition.

Now, let’s take a look at DeSantis’ and Republicans’ major political actions in a very active start of 2023 and see how they match up:

  1. Jan. 6: DeSantis appointed a conservative junta of six new trustees to the 13-member board of New College of Florida. The move gave conservative extremists a majority on the board, and their explicit mission is to model the state’s small, public liberal arts college in Sarasota after Hillsdale College, a small, private Christian college in Michigan. The newly reconstituted board has already fired the college’s president and replaced her with Richard Corcoran, a former GOP House Speaker who also served as DeSantis’ Education Commissioner. (Scapegoating, indoctrination, removing opponents.)

  2. Jan. 12: DeSantis’ Department of Education banned an Advanced Placement African American Studies course from being taught in Florida high schools because, according to a tweet by Education Commissioner Manny Diaz Jr., the course includes sections on Critical Race Theory, Black feminism, Black queer studies and what Diaz called “other obvious violations of Florida law.” However, he appears to be referring to Florida’s Stop Woke Act, which a federal judge, calling the law “positively dystopian,” has temporarily blocked, pending appeal. Meanwhile, College Board, which creates AP courses, issued a revised curriculum on Feb. 1 that eliminates or downplays the topics Florida objected to, although College Board said those changes were substantially made before Florida’s objections. Florida has not responded since. (Scapegoating, indoctrination.)

  3. Jan. 17: DeSantis and the rest of the State Board of Administration approved measures to prohibit consideration of “social, political or ideological interest” when investing state money. “Florida’s not going to subsidize the actions of Leftist idealogues who hate America,” said Florida CFO Jimmy Patronis, who, like DeSantis, sits on the SBA and is an outspoken critic of what are called environmental, social and governance issues in investments. Florida already has one law that prohibits investment of state money in businesses that boycott Israel, clearly a political interest, and DeSantis invoked the law in 2021 in seeking to punish Ben & Jerry’s for a much-publicized business maneuver related to Israel and the West Bank. So, is it all political or ideological interests that DeSantis opposes in investing state money? Or just the political ideas that he personally dislikes? (Scapegoating, propaganda.)

  4. Jan. 26: Republicans in a Florida House committee advanced what they call the School Choice bill (HB 1) to make all K-12 students in Florida eligible for annual vouchers of more than $7,000 to attend private schools instead of public schools. Current law restricts the education vouchers to families earning at or below 400 percent of the federal poverty level. If passed and signed into law by DeSantis, the new law would in effect defund public schools for a patchwork of private, religious and home schools that lack state oversight for teacher certification, academic and testing requirements. State analysts estimate it would drain $2.4 billion in funding from public schools in its first year after being passed, up from the current $1.3 billion going to voucher students each year. An effort that began with Gov. Jeb Bush’s A-plus school vouchers in 1999 could be nearing its end-game objective – the dismantling of Florida’s public schools. (Indoctrination.)

  5. Jan. 30: House Speaker Paul Renner and the Florida Sheriffs Association endorsed a bill that would allow people to carry concealed loaded weapons in Florida without first getting a permit. The bill, which has DeSantis’ backing, would not allow open carry, as some gun advocates want. Nor would it end Florida’s weapons permitting, because some residents might want a permit to allow them to carry concealed weapons to other states, under reciprocity agreements. (No authoritarian technique here but a good case could be made for Republicans being guilty of reckless endangerment of public safety if it passes.)