Is Ron DeSantis Our Next Authoritarian Nightmare?
If DeSantis — an authoritarian who’s even followed Il Duce’s lead in creating a private police force answerable only to himself — becomes president, George Washington’s nightmare could become true
I just got an alarming email from Ron DeSantis. More about that in a moment.
Historians and political observers have been predicting that America would get our very own Mussolini ever since the days of Barry Goldwater. And there’s been no shortage of candidates: bribe-taking Nixon; Central American fascist-loving Reagan; Gitmo torturing and war-lying Bush; and, of course, Trump.
But with Ron DeSantis, we may finally be facing an all-American politician who has Mussolini’s guile, ruthlessness, and willingness to see people die (from Covid or lack of medical care/Medicaid) to advance his political career, all while being smart and educated enough to avoid the easily satirized buffoonishness of Trump.
Mussolini was a famously short man who strutted with his muscular chest pushed out and his chin jutted forward, just like DeSantis, who Trump says is musclebound, likes to do.
Both men were socially awkward, craved power, lacked empathy, displayed casual cruelty, sucked up to the wealthiest men in the nation, and demonized opposition politicians — literally calling their fellow citizens “the enemy” (a favorite trick of Hitler and Orbán, as well) — to encourage their followers to support them or perhaps even consider violence and threats of violence to achieve political ends.
George Washington, in his Farewell Address, warned us of the possible rise of politicians like DeSantis who would call other Americans enemies, who would exaggerate policy differences in war-like terms, and who would ascribe the most evil of motives and intentions to simple political opponents.
“The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism.”
But it wasn’t just that calling other politicians “enemies” or attributing evil motivations to them produced dissension and could tear a society apart, although those concerns were at the top of Washington’s mind.
He also knew that such rhetoric was the platform from which a literal strongman could arise in America, destroying the democracy he’d fought the Revolutionary War to create:
“But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism,” he told the nation. “The disorders and miseries which result gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of public liberty.”
Such a warlike approach to politics, Washington said, could only lead in one direction:
“It agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection.”
Such rhetoric, Washington argued, produces:
“A fire not to be quenched, it demands a uniform vigilance to prevent its bursting into a flame, lest, instead of warming, it should consume.”
It’s been 225 years since George Washington uttered those words. And now we’re here.
Yesterday morning I received an email from Ron DeSantis. I copied and pasted it into a JPG, which is attached to the bottom of this article, lest you think I’m exaggerating. Bold text in the quotes was bold in the original:
“Our country is currently facing a great threat,” DeSantis begins his fundraising pitch. “A new enemy has emerged from the shadows that seeks to destroy and intimidate their way to a transformed state, and country, that you and I would hardly recognize.”
Notice his use of the words numerous scholars of authoritarianism have called out over the years, from Timothy Snyder to Hannah Arendt to William Shirer:
“This enemy is the radical vigilante woke mob that will steamroll anything and anyone in their way. Their blatant attacks on the American way of life are clear and intensifying: stifling dissent, public shaming, rampant violence, and a perverted version of history.”
From generalized attacks evoking images of evil and violence, DeSantis moves to specific charges:
“A group that will, literally, tear down monuments and buildings but — perhaps in an even more sinister way — tear down the American spirit itself. They go after the family unit, parental rights, traditional moral values, the church, and fact-based education.
“Over the past few years, we’ve watched horrified as this group has attempted to brainwash our children into thinking we live in an evil, racist, irredeemable country.
Moving monuments to murderous, slave-owning traitors to our country out of public spaces is apparently, in DeSantis’ mind, an attack on “the American spirit itself.”
(I’m not using “inflammatory rhetoric” here: the Confederate generals and politicians celebrated by those monuments literally declared war on our nation, a war in which almost 700,000 Americans died before the traitors surrendered.)
His other charges are a bit harder to mind-read, although he seems to imply that embracing — or even neighborly living side-by-side with — our queer brothers and sisters is an attack on “the family unit, parental rights, [and] traditional moral values.”
And, although a guy who graduated with a law degree from Harvard knows better, he appears to have a problem with the wall of separation between church and state that the Founders wrote — twice — into the Constitution, arguing that our Founders’ idea is an attack on “the church.”
And “fact-based education” from the guy who signed a law forbidding public school teachers from teaching the actual history of slavery in this country?
Not to mention his bizarre claim that Democrats — who have worked for a century to make America a country where all people are valued — are trying to “brainwash our children” that our country is “irredeemable” and “evil.”
Seriously, have you ever heard such violent, hateful rhetoric from any mainstream Democrat? Even Bernie Sanders, our nation’s most famous firebrand lefty, doesn’t vilify Republicans like this.
“We listened to them deny science and data to exert political theater” says DeSantis, the guy who embraces climate change denial and fired the state worker who pointed out he was hiding his Covid death statistics.
And this was done, DeSantis asserts in his most baffling charge, “all the while trampling over personal liberties enshrined in the Constitution.”
He then rants about the Black Lives Matter marches during the summer of 2020, protesting the murder of George Floyd and other unarmed Black people by white cops:
“We saw them take to the streets for an entire summer like outlaws burning, looting, and destroying everything in sight while being told they were ‘mostly peaceful’ and ‘passionate.’”
This is a particularly egregious mischaracterization of that summer’s events, as researchers at Harvard’s Ratcliff Institute have documented. They looked at “7,305 events in thousands of towns and cities in all 50 states and D.C., involving millions of attendees.”
Unlike the few instances of violence that Fox “News” played on loop over and over again throughout the summer — deplored universally by Democrats and frequently initiated by police or rightwing militia groups — it turns out arrests were only made in 5% of the protests, and tear gas was only used in 2.5% of them:
“Protesters or bystanders were reported injured in 1.6 percent of the protests.”
Not exactly “destroying everything in sight.”
Instead, Harvard’s researchers note:
“Only 3.7% of the protests involved property damage or vandalism.” And a significant “portion involved neither police nor protesters, but people engaging in vandalism or looting alongside the protests.”
“In short,” the researchers found, “our data suggest that 96.3% of events involved no property damage or police injuries, and in 97.7% of events, no injuries were reported among participants, bystanders or police.”
Over at Politico this week, former National Review editor Rich Lowry argues that DeSantis is just another normal conservative politician. Maybe, if you use Trump as the new “normal” baseline for conservatives: but Nixon, Reagan, and both Bushs never called Democrats and LGBTQ people enemies of America, or used the classic language of dictators that could justify violence against their fellow citizens.
And while DeSantis is echoing Trump’s vile, violence-inciting anti-American language, he isn’t going to make Trump’s clownish mistakes. Instead, history shows, a politician who’ll use outright falsehoods like those above, as Washington warned, will most likely “turn this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of public liberty.”
If DeSantis — who’s even followed Il Duce’s lead in creating a private police force answerable to himself — becomes president, George Washington’s nightmare and warning may well finally be realized.
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I agree just how truly frightening DeSantis is and could become. I was born and raised in Florida lived an idyllic childhood. My sister still lives there and she’s Dem but not nearly alarmed enough to see his villainy. I lost a good friend recently because she started agreeing with his mandated - don’t say gay & all that crap. She turned on a dime - I was stunned. I’ll be sharing this with my sister. Thank you Thom
As you shared with us, George Washington warned us of a fascist future by another name. John Dean has also warned us. In 2020, Dean wrote on page 106 in his latest book, Authoritarian Nightmare: Donald Trump and His Followers:
“And even if Trump accepts the will of the majority and the Electoral College and leaves the White House, his backers will remain a very powerful force, ready to give undying loyalty to him for as long as he wants, and then to the next dictator-in-waiting [Ron DeSantis]. And the next one will almost certainly be smarter than Donald Trump. You can be sure someone is watching Trump closely, planning to step into his place. Thus, if you want to remain free, you will probably have to outvote today’s ardent Trump followers , not only in November 2020 but for some time in future elections. You may have heard that the price of freedom is eternal vigilance.”