The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Ron DeSantis corrals immigrants into his effort to own the libs

Migrants stand outside St. Andrew's Church in Edgartown, Mass., on Sept. 14. (Ray Ewing/Vineyard Gazette/Reuters)

By all available accounts, the immigrants flown to Martha’s Vineyard by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) are being well received. A local legislator described a scrambling effort by the community to ensure that the arrivals have the “support they need.” One migrant told a local news outlet: “I feel good, despite everything.”

That same person said he was told that “there would be work and housing” when he arrived at the island, a curious assertion given that Vineyard residents (much less the state) do not seem to have been expecting the new arrivals. The island was chosen, of course, specifically because it’s not the sort of place where it’s easy for a low-income individual to settle down. It’s a strongly Democratic, wealthy place that, unlike large metropolises and border cities, has no significant existent capacity for handling new immigrants.

This is a point worth elevating as DeSantis and his allies high-five each other over the cleverness of the ploy. A debate over the ethics of promising jobs to people before shipping them off to a small island to score political points is precisely the debate that DeSantis wants. Because — perhaps even more than Donald Trump — DeSantis’s politics are centered around leveraging power to inflict pain on liberals. Or, more accurately, on leveraging power to make those on the right think that they’re inflicting such pain. And condemnation of his move is easy to depict as liberals whining.

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Last weekend, DeSantis spoke at a right-wing conference in Florida, earning rave reviews. After all, it wasn’t just that DeSantis offered up the exhaustingly familiar litany of condemnations about oppressive left-wing culture; he was pushing back. Rod Dreher, a prominent voice on the right, praised DeSantis specifically for using his position as a cudgel in the culture wars, something that Trump — limited in part by the constraints of the presidency — was less effective at.

We’ve seen this over and over in the past few years. If there was a possible nexus between the articulated annoyances of Fox News hosts and executive or legislative action, DeSantis found it: scaling back voting access, reducing penalties for hitting protesters with your car, limiting discussion of same-sex relationships in schools — and that’s even before we get into his indifference to coronavirus vaccines and mask-wearing. DeSantis’s effort to implement a Fox-News-centric agenda has been obviously shaky at times, as with his declaration that he was eliminating critical race theory from math books and his dubious “election fraud” arrests. But the point is less addressing problems than it is elevating them.

By now it goes without saying that DeSantis wants to be president. We talk around this, adding qualifiers like “appears to” and the like, but, come on. DeSantis keeps playing very obviously to Republican presidential primary voters. He paid to shuttle migrants — who, it’s worth noting, may be legally allowed to remain in the United States while awaiting asylum hearings — to Martha’s Vineyard (a destination recommended by Tucker Carlson earlier this summer) to get a piece of the attention being paid to Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R). The migrants weren’t even in Florida!

All of this stems from DeSantis’s accurate understanding of a fundamental component of right-wing politics at the moment: It is driven by a desire to fight back against, to inflict pain on perceived left-wing hegemony. Republicans are much more likely to see Whites, Christians and men as embattled in American society. That’s exacerbated by the emergence of more non-White voices but also heightened by rhetoric in the conservative media. The right’s complaints against “wokeism” are generally complaints that they perceive someone unlike them trying to take away what has long been theirs.

And here comes DeSantis, putting the force of civic authority behind that fight. Here’s DeSantis, making liberals cringe. Here comes DeSantis, exposing the hypocrisy of the left and everyone else who is ruining the country and inflicting a cost. Here comes a hero.

What’s remarkable about it is how obvious it is. DeSantis and his team revel in left-wing outcry. They’re unquestionably giddy that the conservative media is talking about them in the wake of the Martha’s Vineyard ploy, that their allies in the media are indifferent about questions of ethics or the exercise of his power because they’re so enamored of the teeth-gnashing from their opponents. It’s government by trolling, because that’s what the base loves and the base is whose attention DeSantis seeks.

One thing that he’s done to differentiate himself from Trump is to outsource his social media fights to his team. They’ve been busy over the past 12 hours, amplifying examples of liberal outrage and doing their best to stoke that response. Again, it’s unsubtle.

But one comment, from DeSantis’s longtime aide Christina Pushaw, is telling. She derided a call for community volunteers to help deal with the migrants as the island “freaking out” about the arrivals. Another interpretation, of course, is that the island was faced with an unexpected situation and moved to address it. But that doesn’t feed into the “Look how the libs are squirming!!” presentation that was the intent of the endeavor in the first place.

There’s no question that the number of people arriving at the border has surged. While the numbers are often overstated or misrepresented, they have forced a number of places around the country to adjust to handle the new arrivals. Which gets back to the original point: Martha’s Vineyard seems to be handling the immigrants’ arrival quite capably.

The libs aren’t really crying that much after all.