october 2023 Issue

DeSantis Won’t Hesitate to Race Trump to the Bottom

Take it from this native Floridian.
Ron DeSantis Wont Hesitate to Race Donald Trump to the Bottom

Here in guilt-free Florida we’re often asked if Ron DeSantis is really worse than Donald Trump. Not long ago the question would have seemed ludicrous because Trump had set the bar of execrable behavior so high. Who could outpander the most prolific panderer of all time? Who could be worse for democracy than the person who snuggled up to murderous dictators, spoke fondly of white supremacists, smeared Mexican immigrants as rapists and killers, tried to overturn an election, and incited a goon siege of the Capitol? The list goes on.

Technically, the ex-president isn’t a true Florida man; he’s just another rich tax refugee. DeSantis is a native, one of our own, and he has proven himself to be just as thin-skinned, soulless, and vengeful as Trump. Betraying his political godfather to seek the Republican presidential nomination demanded more of DeSantis than casual disloyalty; he needed a metaphorical crowbar to pry his perpetually pinched lips from Trump’s ass.

From then on, his strategy was to slither past Trump on the right. As governor he has delightedly signed new laws targeting the LGBTQ+ community, abortion rights, gun restrictions, voting liberties, conversations about the history of racism, and from his boundless well of spite, Disney. All that, plus—according to a campaign video—a personal endorsement from God, and still DeSantis is polling a drab, distant second to Trump.

Clearly the governor isn’t getting credit for being as awful as he is. Have people already forgotten that his mid-pandemic reversal on COVID vaccines killed off untold numbers of Floridians who’d naively looked to him for guidance? It takes the icy soul of a fentanyl dealer to factor customer mortality into your own marketing plan.

Although critics say DeSantis is Trump Lite, the two differ sharply. DeSantis isn’t lazy, and he actually likes to read. Onstage he sticks to a script, while Trump prefers rambling bombast. (Some claim Trump has a better sense of humor, but it was DeSantis who appointed a January 6 rioter to the state board that oversees massage parlors.)

Trump has the big reputation for dodging questions, but DeSantis is hard-core slippery. While his wife, Casey, was undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer, DeSantis refused to confirm or deny that he’d received the newest COVID booster. Afraid to rile his new anti-vaccine base, the once masked and pro-vax governor clammed up from late December 2021 to mid-January 2022, when the virus raged. New cases in Florida topped 60,000 a day, filling ERs, ICUs, and funeral homes.

Everyone familiar with cancer is aware that chemotherapy can weaken immune systems, increasing one’s vulnerability to COVID. Yet when asked if he got the booster shot, DeSantis wouldn’t say no or yes, even if it was only to protect his wife. “Gutless” was how Trump described such dodges, but DeSantis showed his true self by resisting the pressure to set a good example, and to appear caring. (More than 89,000 Floridians have died of COVID, but the governor sustains his campaign vibe by not mentioning them. He has, however, revealed that Casey DeSantis “responded very well” to her chemo treatments.)

As a hands-on autocrat, DeSantis methodically built the most regressive, intrusive, and punitive state bureaucracy in the nation. Despite a hurricane of legal challenges, the governor continues to gloat about his no-win feud with Disney, his venomous “Don’t say gay” crusade, his useless election police, and his random fly-outs of non-Florida migrants to blue states. DeSantis has fearlessly arranged for all these expensive stunts to be paid for with public dollars. Abetted by zombie supermajorities in the state House and Senate, DeSantis has spearheaded so many defective laws that this year nearly $16 million was budgeted for legal expenses, much of it to keep pace with the growing torrent of litigation.

Clearly, he is a more agile swamp dweller than Trump. Forget about garish Mar-a-Lago—did you know the governor’s mansion in Tallahassee has a “cabana”? Amenities include that expensive golf simulator machine provided by Mori Hosseini, a wealthy developer who has also let the governor use his private plane.

As reported by The Washington Post, companies controlled by Hosseini donated more than $360,000 to political groups that backed DeSantis’s re-election bid in 2022. Three weeks after his landslide win, the state announced it was setting aside $92 million in unspent COVID relief money for the building of an Interstate 95 interchange at the future site of a sprawling Hosseini retail and housing project near Daytona Beach. Ironically, the funds were plucked from President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan, which DeSantis had previously denounced.

Trump is too scattered to orchestrate such windfall paybacks for major donors. DeSantis is a detail guy. For instance, when devising his scheme to relocate Colombian and Venezuelan migrants using private flights, the governor’s team made sure that the million-dollars-plus in state payments went to a small Panhandle aviation company with GOP connections.

Another bad thing that DeSantis does better than Trump is nullify legitimate elections. In 2020, Key West voters overwhelmingly passed three ballot initiatives aimed at limiting the size and number of cruise ships docking at their small port. The goliath vessels churn trails of heavy silt that clouds the fishing waters and damages fragile reefs. But after companies owned by the operator of Key West’s busiest cruise pier gave $1 million to the governor’s political action committee, DeSantis signed legislation barring local governments from restricting commerce in their own ports, wiping out the islanders’ vote. Today the cruise liners are back, towering grotesquely above Key West’s historic waterfront.

Almost all the governor’s despotic fantasies have come true, including a new law that makes secret his past and future travels while on the state payroll. He also asserted more power over the university system, allowing him to install far-right loyalists to take over New College, a small, liberal-leaning school in Sarasota. Another swampy move was importing ex–Nebraska GOP senator Ben Sasse to be president of the University of Florida at an annual base salary of $1 million. Pitbull is better qualified for the job and would probably do it for free.

Trump scoffs at his rival’s “anti-woke” obsession, but DeSantis has succeeded at stifling discussions of gender identity and Black history in public education. Books are now being yanked from Florida school libraries and classrooms for review if just one person complains. That person often belongs to the Moms for Liberty, the governor’s favored purge squad. Novels by a span of authors from Judy Blume to Aldous Huxley to Toni Morrison (and, full disclosure, myself) have been pulled from school shelves. A Miami Lakes pre-K-through-eighth-grade school actually flagged “The Hill We Climb,” Amanda Gorman’s best-selling inauguration poem, as inappropriate for younger children after a parent claimed to have deciphered “hate messages” in the verses.

The Gorman backlash drew a Trump-worthy response from DeSantis: “This is some book of poems. I never heard of it. I had nothing to do with any of this.”

In Indian River County the school board recently repealed a “racial equity policy” that had been in place three years with strong support from teachers and Black leaders. The board chair admitted that she acted out of fear of retribution by the governor, and drafted a broader version of the policy. Meanwhile, the NAACP issued an extraordinary travel advisory for Florida, warning that under DeSantis, the state is waging “an all-out attack” on people of color, LGBTQ+ residents, ballot rights, immigrants, women’s reproductive rights, and free speech. The governor lost not a wink of sleep. Like Trump, he knows he can’t win a tight national election if the racists and homophobes stay home.

DeSantis’s most unpopular moves are meant to impress ultraconservatives in the upcoming primaries. His six-week abortion limit would have been crushed in Florida if it had appeared as a ballot referendum. The same goes for his weakening of gun laws in a state where two of the country’s worst mass shootings have occurred, the massacres at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando and Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland.

Fans needn’t worry about DeSantis suddenly sprouting a conscience or veering toward the political center. As of midsummer, he still hadn’t admitted that he rolled up his sleeve for a COVID booster when his wife was in chemotherapy. Only a moron or a monster would risk the life of a sick loved one by spurning the most up-to-date vaccine, and DeSantis isn’t a moron.

Look at what he’s done to Florida, then imagine what he would do as president. Rock bottom is the limit, if only America would give him a chance.