In previous episodes, stuntman DeSantis has used the power of the state to either punish or threaten punishment against the Special Olympics for requiring vaccination, the Disney Corp. for engaging in free speech about “Don’t Say Gay” legislation, and the Tampa Bay Rays for tweeting against gun violence. In other acts of saber-rattling, DeSantis has threatened a Miami bar’s liquor license for allowing minors to attend “sexually explicit” drag shows, undermined a state referendum that gave formerly incarcerated felons the right to vote and helped ban the state pension fund from considering environmental, social and governance standards (aka, “ESG“) in making investments.
None of DeSantis’ Jackie Chan-esque moves before the news cameras have much to do with the traditional governmental goals of keeping neighborhoods safe, paving the streets, providing potable water and balancing the budget. Like his fellow stuntman Donald Trump, he devises his stunts as political spectacles that arouse the culture-war biases of his base and drive them to the polls. Shipping migrants from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard, like many of DeSantis’ exploits, have less to do with making Florida a commodious place and everything to do with making his opponents whinge before his boldness. DeSantis has become so enamored of his role as Gov. Gutsy that he recently shot a reelection ad that portrays him as a political Top Gun who dogfights with the “corporate media.”
A governor genuinely interested in curbing corporate power wouldn’t bother with revoking the privilege to run a special taxing district, as DeSantis has with Disney. He would move to tax corporations, regulate them or subject them to anti-trust action. But that’s too much like real governance. (Nota bene: In typical showman fashion, the revocation of Disney’s special taxing district doesn’t take place until June 2023, plenty of time for DeSantis — if he wins reelection — to declare victory over Disney and row back the cancellation.)
DeSantis’ antics can’t be dismissed as mere political entertainment. As the Cato Institute’s Will Duffield recently wrote, using state power to bully people or corporations for exercising their free speech rights soils the First Amendment. DeSantis isn’t the only political stuntworker threatening retaliation against those who would defy him. In 2021, President Joe Biden accused Facebook of “killing people“ because it allowed posts questioning the safety of the Covid vaccines. Again, no matter where you stand on vaccines, the government has no power to squelch discussions it dislikes. Even so, Biden administration officials acted on the president’s fury by working behind-the-scenes to “persuade” Facebook to de-post anti-vaccine messages, accomplishing state censorship without having to rely on the law.
DeSantis, like the many members of Congress who would dictate social media policies to big tech, performs his stunts with one goal in mind. He wants to instill a deep and pervasive fear of his wrath. You’re Disney, speaking out? He knows how to make it hurt. You want to establish vaccination guidelines for your non-profit, as the Special Olympics did? He’ll threaten to defund you. You believe the undocumented should be treated with dignity? By requisitioning some of them from Texas and depositing them in your wealthy liberal enclave, he’ll turn his ire into your theoretical inconvenience and dial up the pain if you ignore him.
Some commentators have predicted that the Martha’s Vineyard gambit will backfire on DeSantis for going too far. But it won’t. His fellow member of the stuntman guild —Trump — has already ushered in a new political age that demands greater acts of malice and spite to keep the groundlings’ attention. Like other stuntmen, DeSantis never satisfies himself with his last stunt. He’s always looking to top himself.
Give a gander to this stunt from Ben Hur, designed by Yakima Canutt and including his son, Joe, doubling for Charlton Heston. Send your favorite stunts to [email protected]. No new email alert subscriptions are being honored at this time. My Twitter feed is the star, my RSS feed its stunt double.
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