The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Welcome to the age of brutal activist Republican governance

Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.) holding up the bill he signed to create tougher penalties for people who participate in violent protests. (Ricardo Ramirez Buxeda/AP)

Conservatives will tell you they favor “small government,” in which the heavy hand of bureaucrats in Washington or the state capital is withdrawn so people and businesses can make their own decisions and live their own lives free of oppressive mandates from on high.

It was never really true — they were always happy to have government be big and invasive in some ways and absent in others, depending on who was benefiting. But a new philosophy of activist government has emerged on the right, and those with power are putting it into action.

It’s highly aggressive, seeing almost no limits from principle or the Constitution. And its signature motivation is vindictiveness: If you run afoul of today’s Republicans, they are going to find ways to use government power to punish you.

This impulse is emerging in many areas, but let’s begin with a law Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis just signed, which in the name of combating “rioting” mounts one of the most extraordinary assaults on civil liberties we’ve seen in years.

DeSantis made little attempt to hide the fact that the law is meant to target Black Lives Matter and protests against police brutality, and its reach is truly mind-boggling. Here’s some of what it does:

  • The law defines “riot” in an absurdly overbroad way, if just three people “meet together to commit a breach of the peace,” triggering all kinds of enhanced penalties for those involved. If nine people are involved and traffic is blocked, participants can be charged with “aggravated rioting.”
  • Shockingly, it would allow peaceful protesters to be charged with a crime if other people at a demonstration they attend do something violent. “Those individuals who do not engage in any violent conduct under this bill can be arrested and charged with a third-degree felony and face up to five years in prison and loss of voting rights,” said an official with ACLU Florida.
  • It forbids people charged under the law from being released before their first court appearance, forcing them to languish in jail potentially for days, even if they would have otherwise been quickly processed and released.
  • It gives additional protection to Confederate monuments by allowing those convicted of toppling a statue to be punished with up to 15 years in prison.
  • It offers civil liability protection to those who drive their cars into crowds of protesters blocking a road, all but inviting people to commit vehicular homicide (Republicans in other states have proposed similar measures).
  • It makes it almost impossible for cities and towns in Florida to ever reduce their police budgets if the state has a Republican governor, regardless of the conditions in a city or the goals of its government and citizens. Under the law, if any city decides to cut its police budget, a single citizen of that city could file an appeal with the governor, whose administration could then veto the city’s decision and force them to keep their police budget high.

“If you look at the breadth of this particular piece of legislation, it is the strongest anti-rioting, pro-law enforcement piece of legislation in the country,” DeSantis said at a news conference on Monday. “There’s just nothing even close.”

He may be right, but you can bet other Republican states will take it as a model.

The message of the bill is pretty clear: Florida intends to quash public demonstrations, and if you think it won’t be primarily used against left wing demonstrations, you probably believe the Jan. 6 insurrection was a false flag operation. As the sheriff of Polk County said at the news conference while DeSantis stood laughing beside him, “Welcome to Florida. But don’t register to vote and vote the stupid way you did up north.”

And public protests aren’t all the GOP wants to crack down on. Florida Sen. Rick Scott — who like DeSantis is a possible 2024 presidential candidate — wrote an unhinged screed addressed to corporations who take positions Republicans don’t like on public issues, threatening them with retaliation once Republicans retake power in Washington:

There is a massive backlash coming. You will rue the day when it hits you. That day is November 8, 2022. That is the day Republicans will take back the Senate and the House. It will be a day of reckoning.
Your latest attempts to hurt Georgia’s economy will help us do something that is long overdue – make corporate welfare a thing of the past. There will be no number of well-connected lobbyists you can hire to save you. There will be no amount of donations you can make that will save you. There will be nowhere for you to hide.

The voter suppression laws that many companies objected to, including the one in Georgia, are themselves prime examples of Republican state governments reaching down to the local level to seize control, in that case to prevent counties and cities where lots of Democrats live from making voting too convenient.

Some of the measures in this new wave of right-wing government activism may be struck down by the courts; it’s hard to imagine even the conservative supermajority on the Supreme Court not being alarmed by the law DeSantis signed this week. But there’s no way to know for sure.

What we can say is that the authoritarian impulses in the GOP were not confined to Donald Trump. The rest of his party is just as eager to trample on civil liberties and use government’s power to take vengeance on their enemies. And they’re just getting started.

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