DeSantis' Actions Towards Migrants More Than a Political Stunt. They're a Sign of the Danger to Come.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and Texas Governor Greg Abbott are in a duel between the old Confederacy and modern authoritarianism.
On Sunday, Florida governor Ron DeSantis received a standing ovation in Kansas at a rally coordinated by the right-wing group Turning Point Action, after joking about sending two planeloads of asylum seekers to Martha’s Vineyard last week.
“The one place in our country where we see no law and order is the southern border,” DeSantis told the audience. “It’s now getting a little more attention,” he said with a grin as people rose to their feet to applaud him. “This is a crisis. And it’s a manufactured crisis because of Biden’s failed policies.”
DeSantis was on a national tour through the heartland organized by Turning Point Action, as he primes America for his 2024 presidential run. Cruelty toward immigrants and fearmongering about the border are central to DeSantis’s brand. This was demonstrated last week, when Venezuelan asylum seekers in Texas were told by political operatives that they’d receive jobs and assistance if they boarded flights to the small island off the coast of Massachusetts.
Two planes chartered by DeSantis picked up the migrants in San Antonio, Texas, according to NPR. From there they flew to the Florida Panhandle with stops in North and South Carolina, before landing in Martha’s Vineyard.
It makes sense that both Texas and Florida are involved in this cynical plot, weaponizing desperation and dehumanizing asylum seekers for political gain. Both DeSantis and Texas governor Greg Abbott are invested in their own brand of dangerous, antidemocratic ideology, as they compete with each other on the national stage.
Watching these two in action from the border, I’ve been trying to grasp the larger historical machinations of what DeSantis and Abbott are working toward shipping people like cargo around the country. An assessment by historian Heather Cox Richardson in her newsletter Letters from an American helped me understand the broader implications of this nasty cruelty match that Abbott and DeSantis are playing in their bid to undermine democracy. One uses an old ideology, while the other’s is altogether new—at least to the United States—and possibly far more dangerous due to its novelty.
Since Biden was elected, Abbott has been building on the old states’ rights ideology of the Confederacy—an ideology steeped in racism that Americans, unfortunately, know all too well. His busing of migrants—the latest to Vice President Kamala Harris’ home last week—echo the old southern segregationists who lied to Black southerners about jobs and housing in the north, sending them on “reverse freedom rides.”
While in office, Trump constantly used states’ rights as a form of attack, writes Cox Richardson. “First to justify destroying business regulation, social welfare legislation, and international diplomacy, and then to absolve the federal government from responsibility for combating the coronavirus pandemic,” she writes. “Then, of course, the January 6 insurrection saw state legislatures refusing to accept the results of a federal election and rioters carrying the Confederate flag into the United States Capitol.”
With his Operation Lone Star, Abbott has built what legal experts call a state-funded “shadow criminal legal system” that targets black and brown migrants for jail and arrest under state misdemeanor charges for trespassing, thus bypassing federal immigration authority. Even though the country is not at war, Abbott has deployed hundreds of police and soldiers into communities of color at the border, continually playing up the idea that the region is under invasion. This rhetoric has spurred acts of domestic terrorism, including the 2019 mass shooting in a Wal-Mart in El Paso that killed 23 Latinos.
The Supreme Court ruled that states cannot carry out immigration enforcement. Yet, Abbott has continued to build his state-funded, multibillion-dollar immigration apparatus, and in July he issued an executive order authorizing soldiers and state police to detain and transport migrants to the border, stopping short of physically pushing them back into Mexico.
While Abbott is flying the Confederate flag, DeSantis is modeling himself after Hungary’s authoritarian prime minister, Viktor Orbán.
In August, Orbán was the keynote speaker at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Dallas, where he noted that both the U.S. presidential election and European parliamentary elections will be held in 2024. “These two locations will define the two fronts in the battle being fought for Western civilization,” he said. “Today, we hold neither of them. Yet we need both.”
In Orbán’s Hungary, independent media are surveilled and censored, and businesses that fail to support his political party are harassed and punished financially. Orbán has also withheld funding from cities that do not support him politically. He frequently demonizes marginalized groups, sowing fear, then passes sweeping laws, including one recent anti-LGBTQ law that compared homosexuality with pedophilia, to further restrict freedoms and tighten his control.
As Cox Richardson wrote about the authoritarian leader, “Orbán has been open about his determination to overthrow the concept of western democracy, replacing it with what he has, on different occasions, called ‘illiberal democracy’ or ‘Christian democracy.’ He wants to replace the equality at the heart of democracy with religious nationalism.”
DeSantis has clearly been watching closely. Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill, according to those who have studied Hungary’s lurch toward authoritarianism, say it was modeled after Hungary’s legislation. When Disney, which has been in the state for decades, issued a statement condemning the anti-gay bill and saying that it would suspend political donations to DeSantis, he retaliated by revoking the corporation’s tax exemption—a move that mimicked Orbán’s strong arm and retaliatory tactics.
And like Orbán, DeSantis, is using fearmongering over immigration to achieve similar autocratic and antidemocratic goals. His latest action last week shows just how far he’s willing to go. As David Livingstone Smith, a scholar who studies the Holocaust, told the Guardian on Monday, “What frightens me most, actually, is that someone who does these sort of acts is capable of doing much worse. As soon as you start treating human beings as undesirable problems to dump on others, you are in very dangerous territory.”
Globally, the number of displaced people is growing, as climate change, Covid-wrecked economies, and authoritarian regimes take hold. With the dangerous and authoritarian moves by Abbott and DeSantis, dehumanizing and weaponizing desperate asylum seekers for political gain, I thought of the asylum seekers trapped, freezing and without food, in the forest at the border between Belarus, Poland, and Lithuania last year. Several of them died. They were drawn by another authoritarian leader, Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus, who had falsely led the migrants there in retaliation against neighboring countries’ support of a pro-democracy movement to oust him.
Sadly, the actions of DeSantis and Abbott are not unique but part of a troubling and growing global trend toward authoritarianism. And their actions should be recognized as such. DeSantis’s actions last week were more than a political stunt to capture the nation’s attention. They were a sign of the danger to come.
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