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Opinion Ron DeSantis’s repulsive Martha’s Vineyard stunt is made for Fox News

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. (Luis Santana/Tampa Bay Times via AP, File)
5 min

When Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed voting restrictions last year, he gave exclusive access to this glorious spectacle to Fox News. It was a twofer for the national right-wing audience, flaunting his relish of voter suppression while sticking it to mainstream Fake News outlets in the process.

Now DeSantis has produced another made-for-Fox moment: He is taking credit for delivering two planeloads of migrants to Martha’s Vineyard, where locals are scrambling to meet their needs. DeSantis’s staff apparently supplied exclusive video of these heroics to Fox: It shows the migrants, some children, disembarking from planes, and then walking along a street, all in quiet, orderly fashion.

All this illustrates the methodical nature of DeSantis’s appeals to the national GOP primary electorate. And it illuminates the maneuverings behind his efforts to co-opt the MAGA movement, perhaps inevitably conflicting with MAGA overlord Donald Trump himself.

The approximately 50 migrants flown to Martha’s Vineyard represent the latest example of a vile stunt in which GOP governors bus migrants to Democratic strongholds to protest President Biden’s border policies. Just as has happened elsewhere, island officials were surprised but are welcoming the new arrivals.

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What’s striking is how the DeSantis administration appears to have deliberately orchestrated this event for maximum cruelty and confusion. “There was no advance notice to island officials,” Julian Cyr, a Massachusetts state senator who represents the area, told me.

A spokesman for the office of Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker — a Republican — didn’t immediately answer when I asked if DeSantis had given his office a heads-up.

What’s more, some details of what DeSantis did remain a mystery. Cyr said migrants report being transported from San Antonio.

“Many were staying in a shelter in San Antonio,” Cyr told me, adding, “A woman approached them outside the shelter and essentially lured them into taking the plane.” He said the migrants were informed they’d be able to get work papers.

Cyr said the planes made one stop in Florida and another in South Carolina. Though all this remains unconfirmed, it dovetails with some migrants telling the Times that they started off in San Antonio. It’s unclear why a Florida governor is flying migrants from Texas to Massachusetts.

Why this spectacle would thrill the right-wing base — or why DeSantis thinks it would — is an intriguing question. Coastal Massachusetts has long been a marker of liberal elitism in the lexicon of right-wing demonology due to Democratic presidents who have vacationed there.

The story, obviously, is that rich liberal hypocrites want migrants welcomed but not in their own communities. Yet the island — a tightly knit rural community in the off season — is welcoming the migrants: They stayed the night at a church, and plans are being made for next steps.

What’s more, DeSantis has raised money on the nearby island of Nantucket, which is swankier than Martha’s Vineyard. Plenty of high-rolling GOP donors summer on the two islands.

A common right-wing refrain is that the “real” cruelty here is from Biden. He’s allowing many migrants to exercise their legal right to apply for asylum, which lures them to make the dangerous trek and means they’re released in the United States to await hearings.

This argument is ugly and dumb. It erases from the equation the reason migrants are seeking refuge here, i.e., because they’re fleeing terrible conditions at home. The GOP “solution” is to dramatically restrict the right to asylum hearings so migrants can’t come at all, as Trump had some success doing.

Once we do accept that this legal right will be honored, the situation becomes admittedly logistically very difficult. It means long backlogs and tough questions about how to handle migrants while they await hearings. But the answer isn’t to wash our hands of the problem.

Indeed, the right-wing game is to treat those resulting challenges as the creation of those who refuse to sharply restrict the asylum right. But moving toward eliminating that right isn’t a solution. It’s far more cruel than what we’re seeing now. Under Trump it produced humanitarian horrors on the other side of the border.

The argument is this: We will largely wash our hands of asylum seekers, and if you libs will not, then you alone will deal with them. This is straining some liberal strongholds, but the idea that this is a “win” is disgusting: It treats migrants as a kind of despised weapon, an infecting agent, to illustrate the point.

Which has the virtue of combining deliberate inhumanity with thrilling “own the libs” energy.

New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait argues that DeSantis is carefully marketing himself to GOP elites — both Trump-aligned and non-Trump-aligned alike — as the perfect vehicle to co-opt MAGA energy while also being a shrewd, deliberate and non-self-destructive politician.

This marketing also resonates in the world that Trump created on Fox News, where the most valuable currency of all is a willingness to employ maximal tactics, to fight, against whomever is designated the enemy at any given moment.

For people receiving the migrants, that posturing is reprehensible. “There is nothing tough about using vulnerable women and children for political gain,” Massachusetts state Rep. Dylan Fernandes told me. “DeSantis is a coward.”

To most people, this use of migrants might seem like a cruel stunt. But on Fox News — and, importantly, among GOP elites seeking their next standard bearer — it will have very powerful appeal.