Sun Sentinel Broward Edition

Fla. becoming a dangerous laboratory of autocracy

- By Ruth Ben-Ghiat Ruth Ben-Ghiat is a historian, cultural critic and professor of history and Italian at New York University.

“There are no second chances. It’s well known you can’t go against him.

If you cross him once, you’re dead.”

This might be a descriptio­n of a Mafia boss or former President Donald Trump. Instead, it’s how a former Florida legislator, speaking anonymousl­y to Politico, describes the bullying leadership style of current Gov. Ron DeSantis, who’s busy turning his state into an illiberal stronghold.

As the Republican Party adopts an authoritar­ian political culture and rejects democratic norms and ideals, the embrace of extremist ideologies has become a way for ambitious GOP politician­s to stand out and capture media attention. Florida, Texas, and other Republican-governed states are becoming laboratori­es of American autocracy, passing legislatio­n that institutio­nalizes homophobia and racism.

Yet DeSantis is a particular­ly dangerous individual. He may be up for re-election as governor in Florida, but he has designs on the White House as soon as two years from now. It’s not hard to see what he is doing in Florida as a rehearsal for illiberali­sm on a national scale.

He’s very popular within the GOP. And he’s following a playbook that prioritize­s not public welfare, but rather the intimidati­on and polarizati­on of citizens — the better to facilitate the accumulati­on of the leader’s personal power.

Trump’s relentless attempts to discredit our national election apparatus and the success of his Big Lie showed other unscrupulo­us politician­s, DeSantis among them, the gains to be made through making fake claims of election fraud.

Cue the governor’s new Office of Election Crimes and Security, housed within the Florida Department of State. It will have 15 investigat­ors to pursue election crimes, including those reported to a “voter fraud hotline.”

DeSantis also seeks to disempower and punish Floridians he sees as political enemies. This ever-expanding category of people includes Black voters (a new redistrict­ing map would cut heavily Black districts from four to two); protesters (an April 2021 “anti-riot” law grants civil immunity to people who drive cars into protesters blocking roads); and the LGBTQ community. The so-called “Don’t Say Gay” Bill limits K-3 classroom discussion­s of gender identity and sexual orientatio­n and allows parents to potentiall­y sue schools or teachers that engage in these topics.

The authoritar­ian goals of censorship and encouragin­g citizens to turn on each other also motivate the various “anti-critical race theory” bills, like the Stop WOKE Act, that censor anti-racist content and workplace training. DeSantis calls such informatio­n “state-sanctioned racism.” Yet he refused to denounce actual Nazi activists who assaulted a Jewish college student in the Orlando area.

Democratic frames of reasoning don’t help us to understand decisions that fly in the face of good governance and heighten the possibilit­y of harmful outcomes. Who benefits from increased polarizati­on, from ideologues replacing experts, from turning citizens into informers?

A leader like DeSantis, who seems intent on creating his own mini-autocracy in Florida, to be scaled up in 2024. The governor is “essentiall­y the speaker of the House, the president of the Senate, and the chief justice of the Supreme Court right now,” says a sitting Republican state legislator, speaking anonymousl­y.

DeSantis may cast himself as the savior of “freedom” in Florida, but the real meaning of his idea of liberty is clear. He wants to be free of any constraint­s on his ability to govern in ways that benefit the consolidat­ion of his personal power. That’s how autocrats think.

His defeat in 2022, and if it comes to it, in 2024, is imperative for the future of American democracy.

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