Fresh off the “botched” official Twitter launch of his presidential campaign with billionaire Elon Musk, known for frequently parroting baseless conspiracy theories and white supremacist talking points, extremist Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis set off for campaign events in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. Trailing disgraced former President Donald Trump by 30 points in recent Republican presidential primary polls, it’s still quite possible that DeSantis’ fortunes could turn around, given his number two position and the likelihood that Trump will face new indictments on serious criminal charges in coming months.
DeSantis’ cocky, aggressive style was captured in a recent Fox News interview where he said, “Everyone knows that if I’m the nominee, I’ll beat Biden and will serve two terms and I’ll be able to destroy leftism in this country and leave woke ideology in the dustbin of history.”
Many political observers believe under DeSantis, Florida has served as a laboratory for the development of fascist policies and laws that suppress public education, communities of color, the LGBTQ community and immigrants, and are quickly being adopted by other Republican-controlled states nationwide. Between The Line’s Scott Harris spoke with Ruth Ben Ghiat, professor of history and Italian studies at New York University. Here she expands on her recent observation: “If he’s elected president, the Florida Republican governor will destroy our democracy with deadly precision.”
RUTH BEN-GHIAT: I don’t use the word “fascist” for many people and for a very long time, I didn’t use it about Trump. But Ron DeSantis really fits. He’s dangerous because he has no principles of his own. And he glommed onto Trump, became a very loyal Trump follower in order to get Trump’s endorsement when he was running for governor.
And he used his own infant as a prop. And he’s got this thing of using kids as props. So anyone and anything only exists to help him get where he needs to go. And he’s shown that he will do anything just like Mussolini did, just like every authoritarian, he has no scruples.
And so, when he says Florida is where “woke” goes to die and he is clearly doing those fake arrests of black people, he’s persecuting LGBTQ populations, the message I always say is “You’re not going to stop with those people. He’s going to go after anyone who doesn’t align with his principles.”
And indeed, he’s made a lot of enemies within Florida, of other politicians who are endorsing Trump because he’s acted like a dictator in his home state.
SCOTT HARRIS: You know, many observers, including yourself, have looked on Florida as serving as a laboratory for the development of fascist policy and laws under Ron DeSantis. What are some of your concerns about what’s going on specifically in Florida, especially with regard to the censorship of U.S. history, the banning of books, the targeting of the LGBTQ community, the criminalization of peaceful protest and the imposition of restrictions and penalties targeting journalists.
It seems that what’s going on in Florida under DeSantis is moving across borders to other Republican-controlled states.
RUTH BEN-GHIAT: Absolutely. And, in fact, there’s a tradition of autocrats starting out as kind of local dictators. For example, (Rodrigo) Duterte, the former president of the Philippines, who was a total thug. He tested out his thuggish policies when he was mayor of Davao City and (Narendra) Modi, the Indian head of state now who’s authoritarian. He, you know, was in charge of this region and he did extremely authoritarian, repressive things.
So there’s a history of people using their local authority to test out these authoritarian playbooks. And then DeSantis and the people around him, his press secretaries, they’ve been always very clear about wanting to scale this up even way before he, you know, said he was running for president. That’s what’s scary about this.
And the other thing that is concerning is that in authoritarian history, there also is this syndrome where somebody like Trump or Duterte comes along — total loose cannon, very open about being a thug.
DeSantis is not going to say, I could stand on Fifth Avenue and shoot someone. DeSantis is not going to say he could shoot someone out loud. Right? He may have other people do it, but he wouldn’t boast about it. When you have these boasters, these blusterers, sometimes people get tired of them. They get tired of the chaos. And so they start to desire somebody who’s just as extremist, but behaves better and seems more “normal.”
And in the Philippines that produced the return of the Marcos family, even though they were horrible dictators. Bongbong Marcos “seems more normal.” He doesn’t talk about throwing people out of helicopters. So here we have Ron DeSantis. And so that’s why you have, you know, Rich Lowry, a conservative commentator in The New York Times, saying, “Oh, no DeSantis is normal. We need this normality now.”
He’s not normal at all. He’s a far right extremist, but he’s smarter in the way he presents himself. And so people might fall for this. And that’s very concerning.
SCOTT HARRIS: And on the subject of violence, both Trump and more recently, DeSantis say they would pardon Jan. 6 insurrectionists convicted of crimes, including those who were more recently convicted of seditious conspiracy, an extremely rare charge in the United States. All this while the Department of Homeland Security is warning of increased violence from right-wing and white supremacist terrorist groups.
At the same time, we’ve seen a 400 percent increase of threats — violent threats against members of Congress.
RUTH BEN-GHIAT: Yeah, it’s all of a piece. And in fact, in my Lucid archive, I think I wrote this last year, an essay called “Pardon Me” about how authoritarians always pardon the thugs who do their dirty work. When Mussolini declared dictatorship, he had fascism that was a decentralized militia movement like Proud Boys, Oath Keepers or equivalents who went around bashing heads for years and they got to power.
First thing he does as dictator, pardons all of the people; they were called political criminals. All the thugs, all the blackshirts who got him to power were pardoned. Pinochet, the Chilean dictator who tortured people. He pardoned all the military who did human rights abuses. The reason you do the pardons is that you in-debt people to you. You make them loyal to you, but you send a message that violence and crime will be tolerated because authoritarianism is about lawlessness.
It’s about justifying lawlessness. We’ve talked about violence, also corruption and all the other things. But the pardons are about that. So when you know DeSantis, who never has any original thoughts in his head, he just does what daddy Trump tells him to do in a way, even though he’s against him now, he repeats what Trump does. So now he comes on the bandwagon saying, “Oh, yes, I would pardon people too, and I would pardon Daddy Trump.”
He has to do that because that’s where the party is now.
Listen to Scott Harris’ in-depth interview with Ruth Ben-Ghiat (25:02) and see more articles and opinion pieces in the Related Links section of this page.
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