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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.)

  6. Jan. 31: In a speech just miles from New College, DeSantis announced what he wants from the Legislature this session for higher education. Among his proposals: Dismantle diversity programs meant to attract faculty and students from a wider range of demographic backgrounds; Give university trustees and presidents the authority to review professors’ tenure any time rather than just every five years, which it was only reduced to by a bill that DeSantis signed just last year; Reduce the role of faculty committees in hiring, while expanding that of university presidents; Make the newly established Hamilton Center for Classical and Civil Education at the University of Florida its own college within the university to attract more conservative faculty and students. (Scapegoating, indoctrination, removing opponents.)

Indoctrination for education

No one is saying that DeSantis as elected governor can’t appoint whoever he wants to a board, or that elected officials who make up government boards shouldn’t set policies they think best, as long as they are constitutional.

But one also must admit that it’s possible to use democratic tools for anti-democratic or socially harmful purposes. And that’s exactly what is being done in each of these cases.

Note that most of these actions involve education – i.e., indoctrination. DeSantis and his fellow Republicans are trying to control how Florida thinks. They are getting rid of people who don’t think like them as well as trying to eliminate the teaching of ideas they don’t like through propaganda, scapegoating and just plain banning them.

I realize politicians of all stripes typically appoint people with beliefs like theirs, but Democrats and, at least in the past, Republicans, also have made expert qualifications and high professional standards factors in the appointments equation. Unfortunately for Florida and democracy in general, high standards and truth are not factors of value for DeSantis. You see this not just in his appointment of six largely conservative Christian trustees to head a public – which should be read as secular in a Jeffersonian democracy – but also in his appointment of COVID-gaslighter Dr. Joseph Ladapo as Florida's surgeon general.

And truth matters. Getting to the truth matters. That’s why we teach Black history – to understand not only what happened in 1862 or 1954 or 1964, 1965 and 1968 but also why we are where we are now. It helps us understand why DeSantis’ voter fraud police unit, especially one that targeted mostly Black voters, is a despot’s tool of intimidation. There is no legitimate need or defense for it, just more gaslighting, more Orwellian lies. Florida has statistically negligible voter fraud; the unit prosecuted only 20 cases in its first year, most of them against Black voters and most of them questionable; yet one of DeSantis’ 2023 budget requests is for increased funding for the unit.

And all of this matters now, because the nation’s eyes are on Florida. Florida’s lurch toward red in an election year when Democrats fared better than expected just about everywhere else in 2022 makes Florida a national model for Republicans and DeSantis a candidate to watch.

What to do?

For Democrats, however, DeSantis must be a candidate to stop – and now.

But how?

First, Democrats can’t let his lies and gaslighting go unanswered. We must redouble our letters and calls to his office, our representatives and newspapers to oppose his policies with a show of big numbers.

Next, we can’t keep playing just his game. He has made himself a hero of conservative extremists by strategically timing and leaning into high-profile battles on culture issues that provoke the base but have little to do with how we all live. Exempting gas stoves from Florida’s sales taxes but doing nothing to reduce the cost of windstorm insurance for Florida’s residents.

But you never hear Gov. DeSantis mentioning his radical and unpopular views on other issues such as Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act. New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie writes that as a Florida congressman who was one of the founders of the House Freedom Congress, DeSantis was an especially fierce opponent of these programs, and he wrote in his 2011 book attacking the Obama administration that the Affordable Care Act and the federal bureaucracy were “administrative despotism” that have exerted “stifling constraints on the whole of society.”

Bouie suggests this needs to become Democrats’ line of attack. Hammer home the clear case that DeSantis, given the chance, would slash the nation’s safety net and use the proceeds to help the rich stay rich.

Finally, with social media and public events, Florida Democrats must sound the alarm to the rest of the nation that DeSantis brooks no dissent. Not yet a dictator but a wannabe in all his actions.

Our mission is to ensure he remains a dictator manque.


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