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It is hardly a secret that, since his election in 2018, the Republican governor of Florida, Ron DeSantis, has been consolidating power. It is also known that the constitutionality of this consolidation, along with that of many of the sweeping policies implemented under his administration, is in question. What may be less apparent to the general public, and even to political junkies, is the extent of this power grab, how completely Florida is now DeSantis’s Demesne.
An anonymous Florida legislator put it succinctly: “Ron DeSantis is essentially the speaker of the House, the president of the Senate, and the chief justice of the Supreme Court right now.” Tom Lee, the former Florida Senate president, described him more colorfully as the proverbial 1100-pound gorilla. For those not familiar, the joke is: “Where does an 1100-pound gorilla sit?” — the answer being: “Wherever the hell he wants.”
This is of broad national concern because DeSantis is considered by many to be the main rival to Donald Trump in 2024, his prospects boosted by the many conservative donors uneasy with Trump’s instability — and further enhanced by a widely shared wish, among those who believe the GOP has become a Trump cult, to see a return to sanity. But DeSantis’s accretion of power in Florida shows he may be a quieter but more effective authoritarian threat to democracy than Trump.
Ominously, it is not just the state government that bends the knee to Florida’s headman. During the 2022 election, DeSantis (along with the governor of Missouri, Mike Parson) did not allow federal election monitors inside polling places in Florida. The federal government chose not to fight him on this, instead meekly agreeing not to go inside the polling places and to observe only from outside. This is especially concerning in light of the fact that a 2022 election that was remarkably and broadly consistent with the polls gave DeSantis a very unexpected landslide — a margin of victory far in excess of any tracking or exit polling results, and an outcome essential to his presidential ambitions.
Neither has DeSantis, at the time of this writing, received any punishment for his stunt of lying to immigrants and transporting them from Texas to Massachusetts, which is rather “expansive” behavior for a Florida governor.
From this position of unchallenged power, DeSantis has taken on Disney, one of the most powerful corporations and brands on the planet, and taught them a lesson about speaking out against him. He stripped control of local government from them (a power some might argue they shouldn’t have had in the first place) and put them under the supervision of a board of what even the most objective of media characterizes as cronies.
How did DeSantis come to have this power over the Legislature and courts that, just to hit a few of the low notes, have allowed him to bring the education system under his strict censorship and control, to fire an elected official who was one of the few checks on his executive power, and to gin up a bill that would require bloggers criticizing the governor to register with the state?
Previous Republican governors, such as Jeb Bush and Rick Scott, would have frequent conflicts with the GOP-controlled Legislature, whereas DeSantis has had vanishingly few, even as he has usurped some of their powers. Part of the reason is that DeSantis is considerably more popular than his predecessors, and with that popular support comes increased influence and leverage. Another source of his power is his reputation for no second chances. He is known for being ruthless — as one former legislator put it, “If you cross him once, you’re dead.”
And while DeSantis plotted his expansion of the governor’s powers from the moment he took office, the path was cleared for him during the COVID-19 crisis. The potentially explosive and career-damaging consequences of mishandling the response to this global pandemic were naturally terrifying to career politicians. So the Legislature allowed DeSantis to take complete control over the pandemic response and the spending associated with it. And of course it is always more difficult to reclaim political power than it is to give it up (see every emperor from Caesar to Palpatine).
Some Democrats have spoken up against DeSantis’s sway over the legislature. State Rep. Ben Diamond (D-St. Petersburg) said: “While Gov. DeSantis is the leader of his party, there are a number of Floridians depending on their legislators to represent their best interests, not those of the governor and his potential presidential campaign.”
The extent of DeSantis’s power can be seen in his taking control of the electoral process in Florida.
He vetoed a bipartisan electoral map and replaced it with his own personally drawn gerrymandered map. Gerrymandering is the drawing of political districts so as to give one party an electoral advantage. Drawing the map that establishes the Legislature’s districts gives the governor profound influence over the electability and political fate of each of the Legislature’s members, effectively putting the Legislature in his hands. So, in a feedback loop characteristic of would-be authoritarians, DeSantis not only demonstrated his power but reinforced and increased it at the same time.
This heavily influenced Legislature then revived a state militia, effectively giving DeSantis a private police force to enforce election law. This militia made very visible and public arrests of private citizens for the horrible crime of voting when the state told them they could vote. Then — once Florida determined it had made a mistake by sending them registration cards incorrectly — in what looks like a last-minute PR stunt (an officer on video said, “They dumped this shit on me last minute. I had to plan a three-county operation in four hours”), DeSantis’s election police arrested these people at gunpoint. Because that is how you treat people to whom you gave incorrect information — in Florida. While many of the charges were dropped, the spectacle of the arrests, and one imagines the fear and intimidation, remain.
DeSantis is no stranger to using the police for intimidation, nor has he been afraid of the specter of fascism this raises. During the coronavirus crisis, he sent armed police to raid the house of scientist Rebekah Jones, who had accused him of hiding COVID-19 data.
DeSantis has shown himself unafraid of the federal government, the courts, and the Legislature. He’s had no problem embracing the trappings of authoritarianism. The only thing he genuinely seems to be afraid of is confronting Trump directly — at least so far, though an effective primary strategy might well call for letting others do that dirty work for him.
But if it does come to a choice of threats from the MAGA Right, we should be on high alert for the emergence of the quietly effective would-be dictator who has openly copied the tactics of Hungary’s strongman, Viktor Orbán — and who, in last week’s State of the State speech, touted “the Florida way,” which has made his state “the number one destination for our fellow Americans who are looking for a better life.”
It’s rather chilling to contemplate that, with DeSantis as president, such a move might not be necessary.
Doug Ecks is a lawyer and writer. He holds a Juris Doctorate from University of California, Hastings (2010, magna cum laude) and a B.A. in philosophy from California State University, Long Beach, Phi Beta Kappa. He also writes and performs comedy as Doug X.
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