The meteoric rise of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to the pantheon of potential GOP presidential contenders has been one of the most fascinating subplots in politics – putting him on a direct collision course with former President Donald Trump as he led the anti-mask, anti-mandate brigade through the pandemic and then muscled through a string of controversial laws to cast himself as the right’s new champion for “parental rights.”
DeSantis’ imperial governorship reached new heights on Thursday when the actions of the Florida legislature demonstrated how he is not only bending state government to his will, but also to his whims. In a special session, lawmakers approved a new congressional map proposed by his office that appears all but certain to dilute the voting power of Black Floridians. On the same day, the legislature carried out DeSantis’ threat to punish Disney for speaking out against the law he recently signed that limits certain classroom discussions about sexual orientation and gender identity.
Even in the waning days of Trump’s presidency, DeSantis managed to wade into almost every controversy that was animating Fox viewers, using both executive actions and the power of his pen to keep the spotlight on the Sunshine State. And as he prepares for a possible White House bid in 2024 – at the same time Trump decides whether to run for the White House again – DeSantis is being rewarded for his political deftness with rising poll numbers that establish him as a real threat to the former President.
“This is not your father’s Republican party,” President Joe Biden said at a fundraiser Thursday night, in his most direct comments yet on DeSantis’ fight with Disney. “Look what’s happening down in Florida. … They’re going after Mickey Mouse.”
But DeSantis’ messaging – though infuriating to defenders of science and civil rights – has often been crisp and succinct and more palatable to suburban audiences than Trump’s polarizing rants ever were. The Florida governor has become adept at making some of his more discriminatory and anti-science policies sound innocuous, underscoring what a formidable challenger he could be to future Democratic opponents at a time when disinformation is flourishing.
When Covid-19 cases were surging in Florida last summer, for example, DeSantis gambled by threatening school boards that intended to implement mask mandates – with his office claiming his executive order was protecting “parents’ freedom to choose.”
He banned vaccine passports (before they were even a real thing) and won the power to invalidate local emergency orders during the pandemic to distinguish himself from “lockdown governors” – all under the guise of protecting individual rights and liberties.
When he signed legislation in November blocking Covid-19 vaccine requirements from private employers – a direct strike at efforts from the White House – his administration framed the package as “the strongest pro-freedom, anti-mandate action taken by any state in the nation.” His marketing prowess has extended even to his campaign merchandise – with DeSantis flip-flops that leave an imprint stating that the President’s chief medical adviser, Dr. Anthony Fauci, “can pound sand.”
Using government to punish critics
In his latest chapter, DeSantis – who is facing reelection this year – has waded deep into the wars over curriculum that animated the Virginia governor’s race last year and now are at the heart of the GOP agenda as the party seeks to win control of Congress. While making moves that amount to censorship and could lead to the marginalization of some of the most vulnerable kids struggling with identity issues, the Florida governor has repeatedly said his objective is to protect children.
Florida’s education commissioner last week announced that 41% of the math textbooks submitted were being rejected as DeSantis claimed they included “indoctrinating concepts like race essentialism” and had not met the state’s new standards, including the banning of critical race theory. (DeSantis has previously described critical race theory – an academic framework for understanding racism and inequality that is typically not taught in the K-12 setting – as “state-sanctioned racism.”)
But one of his biggest gambits yet has been taking on Disney, the state’s largest private employer, as his crusade against “woke” culture takes a Trumpian turn – illuminating his willingness to use the tools of government to punish his critics.
DeSantis angered members of the LGBTQ community and their allies with his advocacy for the legislation he signed prohibiting certain classroom discussions about sexual orientation and gender identity with younger students – a measure critics dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” law.
While DeSantis tried to frame his goals in bland terms – claiming the bill recognized the “fundamental role” that parents play “in the education, health care and well-being of their children” – critics assailed the way in which the legislation could harm vulnerable LGBTQ youth, with many pointing out the high risk for suicide among that group.
Disney CEO Bob Chapek at first faced a backlash for what he called the company’s “silence” on the bill, given that the company employs some 75,000 people in Florida. But he then ran headlong into DeSantis’ wrath after apologizing to employees as he cast the measure as “another challenge to basic human rights” and said Disney would pause “all political donations in the state of Florida.” The company had donated $50,000 to DeSantis’ reelection bid.
At a time when Republican lawmakers across the country have introduced scores of anti-LGBTQ legislation, DeSantis recognized a golden opportunity to whip up his base by going up against what he described as another “woke” company. In a fundraising email this week, DeSantis adopted the kind of strongman posture that won Trump so many admirers. “If Disney wants to pick a fight, they chose the wrong guy,” he wrote.
The Florida legislature followed through on Thursday, passing a bill that eliminated the unique status Disney has held for decades by dissolving the company’s ability to operate as an independent government around its Orlando-area theme parks.
On the same day, Florida lawmakers approved DeSantis’ redistricting map that draws the state’s new congressional boundaries for the next 10 years. The map did away with two districts that had been represented by Black Democrats and created an edge for Republicans in as many as 20 of 28 districts. The new map, which may be subject to a court challenge testing whether it diminishes the power of minority voters, led to a protest during the floor debate by several Black members of the Florida state House.
“I am occupying the Florida House chamber floors to ensure that Black people will not be forgotten about. We are here to stay,” state Rep. Angie Nixon said during the protest. “We are occupying the floor. We’re doing good trouble. Ron DeSantis is a bully. Ron DeSantis does not care about Black people.”
But after notching those two victories, DeSantis knows he is likely to be rewarded by the GOP voters who could help him achieve higher political ambitions – and he is undoubtedly already moving on to his next fight.