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Opinion Gavin Newsom’s trolling deftly unmasks Ron DeSantis’s cruelty

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. (Rebecca Blackwell/AP)

It’s hard to deny that Gov. Gavin Newsom harbors garish and even cringeworthy presidential ambitions. The California Democrat regularly trolls Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, a top 2024 GOP contender, and Newsom surely knows playing foil to DeSantis will generate media buzz about his own similar prospects.

But Newsom’s role as a leading DeSantis antagonist also serves a little-noticed purpose. It’s filling a void among Democrats, by making a big argument to the Democratic base — and perhaps to the country — about ongoing GOP radicalization and red-state cruelty that most Democrats cannot or will not make in quite the way Newsom can.

This week, Newsom sharply attacked DeSantis’s ugly transporting of migrants to Martha’s Vineyard. Newsom also extended an offer of disaster aid to hurricane-ravaged Florida, amid extensive media discussion of DeSantis’s 2013 vote in Congress against similar aid for hurricane victims elsewhere.

And on Thursday night, Newsom signed a new law creating a kind of sanctuary for transgender kids and families fleeing draconian red-state anti-trans laws, an area in which DeSantis has excelled. In all three cases, the effect was to demonstrate a set of blue-state values that contrast sharply with the reactionary turn we’re seeing in many Republican-led states.

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While blasting DeSantis’s migrants stunt, Newsom pointedly noted that the move was “cruel” to the children among the transported migrants. Newsom asked the Justice Department to investigate potential violations of federal law, and he ripped perpetrators of such stunts as “bullies.”

DeSantis — and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R), who has bused more than 10,000 migrants to blue strongholds — say they’re demonstrating that supporters of generous national policies toward asylum seekers are hypocritically foisting their burden on border states.

That premise is nonsense: A large share of migrants awaiting asylum hearings are already in California and in other blue states. And so, in ripping DeSantis’s cruelty, Newsom is demonstrating that blue states support a welcoming national posture toward migrants even though it’s burdening their states.

The DeSantis-Abbott stunts are not about managing a practical problem. As CNN’s Ron Brownstein points out, they are about demonstrating a red-blue contrast in values, through the literal deportation of migrants from red states to blue states.

And Newsom, by going out of his way to criticize red-state governors, is eagerly joining this fray. He’s drawing more attention to the fact that, on this matter, blue states really do operate from a starkly different set of values — tolerance, generosity, openness — and proudly so.

Meanwhile, this week, Newsom deployed a team of emergency management specialists to Florida, to help with the horrific devastation wrought by Hurricane Ian. Newsom declared that “California stands with the people of Florida,” because California is also very “familiar with the impact of natural disasters.”

Here again, the contrast in values is stark. As the New York Times reports, hovering over DeSantis’ requests for federal aid for Ian is an ugly fact: As a congressman in 2013, DeSantis voted against aid to the Hurricane Sandy-devastated New York region, sneering that aid smacked of a “put it on the credit card mentality.”

Let’s go out on a limb and suggest Newsom is aware of this backstory. Newsom’s declaration, in contrast, is that California recognizes that in an era of escalating, climate-change-driven, extreme weather events, we’re all facing the same calamity and must do so together.

Then there is the new law that Newsom signed on Thursday providing safeguards against red-state efforts to penalize families seeking medical treatment in California for transgender children. DeSantis has been a leading Republican figure in this debate: His “don’t say gay” law is plainly designed to frighten teachers into avoiding LGBTQ topics, which risks a stigmatizing effect. Abbott has gone further, ordering state investigations of certain instances of care for transgender kids.

Notably, in signing the new California protections, Newsom blasted red-state laws that “demonize the transgender community.” In contrast, he said, “In California, we believe in equality and acceptance.”

Here yet again, Newsom deliberately elevated a profound blue-red divide on fundamental values. Something similar has happened on abortion, with states such as Connecticut adopting laws creating a “refuge” against GOP efforts to criminalize abortion across state lines.

All of this might reflect profound trends in our politics. Political scientist Jacob Grumbach, author of a new book documenting how state parties are getting transformed by national debates, sees two at work.

The first is that red states have grown highly innovative in using state-level power to advance a culturally reactionary agenda, which they are doing almost in concert, as part of a national movement.

The second is that, as U.S. politics nationalizes, blue and red states are diverging even more dramatically. This boosts the incentives for blue-state actors to get with the program: They, too, can innovate at the state level in ways that dramatize an alternative social and cultural vision of the country’s future.

“In an era of highly nationalized politics, there are new incentives for governors to play into these national battles,” Grumbach told me. “We will see more state-level Democrats highlighting their role in this national tug-of-war over the direction of the country.”

In this regard, Grumbach said, “Newsom is a model.” So his trolling of DeSantis may well prefigure a lot more to come.

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