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Opinion In Florida, Ron DeSantis is creating a paradise of authoritarianism

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis at a Trump rally in Sanford, Fla., in 2020. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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You may think of Donald Trump as the most committed authoritarian in the Republican Party, one who looks in admiration at foreign dictators and dreams of creating a strongman’s paradise here at home. But Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is giving him a run for his money.

In recent days, DeSantis and his allies have been particularly active, as though they’re accelerating their effort to pull Florida not just to the right but toward a particular brand of authoritarian conservatism.

We begin with voter fraud, which is vanishingly rare in Florida as it is everywhere (though The Villages, a sprawling retirement community near Orlando, seems to be the epicenter of the criminality that exists). This week, DeSantis proposed the creation of an Office of Election Crimes and Security, answerable to him, which would roam the state looking for phantom voter fraud.

No other state has such a unit — the small number of voter fraud cases are easily handled by existing law enforcement agencies — and Democrats and voting rights advocates fear it would become more a tool of intimidation than a way to stop crime.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) during his State of the State address on Jan. 11 said he would establish a special “election integrity unit” to monitor elections. (Video: The Florida Channel)

Meanwhile, DeSantis’s bill to whitewash the U.S. legacy of white supremacy is moving through the legislature. It passed a state Senate committee on party lines and is no doubt headed for his signature.

One fascinating aspect of the right’s war on the teaching of history in the name of stamping out critical race theory is how much concern many conservatives have expressed over the feelings of White students. The mere possibility that a White student somewhere might learn about racism and feel bad has them frantically drafting legislation to forestall such a horror. But only in a few places have the bills explicitly mentioned bad feelings as something that the law must address.

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DeSantis’s bill is one of them. In explaining what kind of discussions it wants to ban, it reads, “An individual should not be made to feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race.”

Needless to say, it was only when they began to fear that White kids might be uncomfortable that they decided to pass a law about it. The bill also requires teaching the virtue of “limited government” and mandates that American history “shall be defined as the creation of a new nation based largely on the universal principles stated in the Declaration of Independence.” Any history teacher tempted to include nuance in their lessons had better take note.

But race isn’t the only topic on which employees of the state of Florida have to watch out when they stray from prevailing orthodoxy. That’s what Raul Pino, the director of the Florida Department of Health in Orange County, just learned.

Pino sent an email to employees lamenting the lagging rates of covid-19 vaccination in their own agency and urging everyone to get vaccinated. This would seem as unremarkable as the head of the department of transportation telling her team to drive carefully or the department of sanitation chief reminding folks not to litter.

But according to a statement released by the state, “the employee in question has been placed on administrative leave, and the Florida Department of Health is conducting an inquiry to determine if any laws were broken in this case.” Because he encouraged public health workers to be vaccinated.

The law in question was one DeSantis signed that supercharged the right’s aversion to vaccine mandates, making it illegal for any organization in the state — local governments, private businesses — to require vaccines for employees or customers. An old-fashioned conservative might say that private companies should be able to make their own rules on such things without the heavy hand of the state deciding for them. But DeSantis has a very heavy hand.

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And of course, Pino didn’t impose a mandate on anyone. His email was asking, pleading, begging people to get vaccinated — not requiring them to do so. Nevertheless, the message was delivered: Anyone in public health who’s too enthusiastic about vaccines might just lose their job.

The authoritarian impulse has been a hallmark of DeSantis’s tenure since the beginning. Last April, he signed an “anti-rioting” law that was one of the most sweeping attacks on the right to protest in memory. Among other things, it offers civil liability protection to those who mow down protesters with their cars, and would allow peaceful protesters to be charged with a felony if other people at a protest they attended committed an act of violence. He also signed one of the most draconian voter suppression laws in the country.

In his State of the State address earlier this month, DeSantis called Florida “the freest state in these United States,” “freedom’s vanguard” and “the rock of freedom.” Unless, that is, the freedom you’re interested in involves encouraging people to get vaccinated, protecting your employees and customers from a pandemic, teaching history honestly, voting, protesting or anything else Republicans might not want you to do.

We could argue about whether DeSantis’s authoritarianism is a truer version of conservatism than other varieties, but for now it’s what has made him the leading Republican contender for president in 2024 if Trump chooses not to run. Who knows what other policies he’ll be rolling out to solidify that position.