It is Clear with DeSantis’ Latest Stunt as the Right’s Standard-Bearer that Cruelty is the Point

Kash Jain ‘24

Opinion Editor

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, a Republican who has gained notoriety for a series of political stunts, has again returned to the headlines.

This time, DeSantis had fifty migrants to Texas sent by plane to Martha’s Vineyard. There are conflicting reports, but it seems that these migrants were told that they would be going to Boston and would receive expedited work papers.

Conservatives have argued that, by sending migrants to more liberal cities, they are trying to make a statement about the “open border.” This false claim has become a major talking point for Republicans attempting to paint a picture of a massive surge of drugs and crime driven by lax immigration policy created by the Biden administration that places a significant strain on red states and their residents. Though these claims are misleading or, in some cases, outright false, fearmongering about illegal immigration has consistently proven to be a salient attack point for the right. These sorts of statements and claims spark fear and xenophobic sentiment, then Republicans translate it into political gain.

DeSantis stated that the decision was part of a plan to send migrants to “sanctuary destinations.” At a glance, this may be a fair reason—helping migrants get to places with the infrastructure and the will to help them is sensible; however, the falsehoods told to migrants, the fact that local officials were not informed that these migrants would be coming, and the aggressiveness with which Republicans have campaigned on illegal immigration make it difficult to believe that benevolence was at the core of this action. Rather, the opposite seems true: DeSantis made a deliberate decision to interfere with people’s lives in order to score political points.

This decision was a despicable political maneuver; DeSantis is openly exploiting migrants, including children, for political gain. This is an indefensible and nefarious move; it’s cruelty for personal gain. However, the reason why this benefits DeSantis must be understood.

This political stunt helps DeSantis get in the news: it gives him more attention so he can take radical stances and build his support among conservatives. It’s only his latest move in a series of actions on social issues including Critical Race Theory and the rights of gay and transgender Americans—issues that are particularly salient among the Republican base. Each of his actions, from the tax punishment for Disney as retaliation for its opposition of the “Don’t Say Gay” bill to enacting an education-focused law called the “Stop Woke Act,” have been made to take imagined issues, rile people up, and capitalize on their outrage.

DeSantis has not stopped at enacting hostile policy. He has continuously attacked the Biden administration on issues that Republicans have focused on, including inflation and COVID-19 policies. He has closely associated himself with Trump and has even been accused of adopting some of his mannerisms and rhetoric. Beyond Trump, DeSantis has associated himself with the broader MAGA movement and other high-profile members of it: he even spoke at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Tampa earlier this year alongside top Republican officials and activists.

So far, DeSantis’ strategy seems to be working. He has risen in prominence over the past two years through these activities, these deliberate moves to mark himself as someone friendly to the MAGA movement and authoritarian sentiments. DeSantis has effectively captured the moment, asserting himself as a major opponent to Biden and a standard-bearer of the right—a station that he could perhaps turn into a presidential bid.

A straw poll conducted at the August CPAC convention in Dallas found that 69% of attendees want Trump to be the Republican nominee for President in 2024—24% preferred DeSantis. 65% of respondents said that, if Trump didn’t run, DeSantis would be their preference. Whether or not the former president will run in 2024 remains to be seen, but if he does not, there is a clear avenue for DeSantis—arguably a clearer path than there has been for any other presidential candidate in recent memory.

What makes it especially clear that DeSantis’ goal is to build his reputation is what he focuses on.

DeSantis never makes headlines for policies that would bring jobs to Florida, increase the quality of education, or improve access to healthcare.

Why? Well, the answer is simple: DeSantis, and those who share his ideological convictions, don’t push for policy that would address broader concerns faced by their constituents because they don’t benefit from it. To put it a bit more brashly: for Republicans seeking to elevate their profiles, there is little political gain in doing good things.

Social issues like abortion and gay marriage have been the bread and butter for the Republican Party and its base. Vocalizing support for conservative stances on social issues, especially rights-centric issues, such as George W. Bush’s call at his 2004 inauguration to “defend the sanctity of marriage,” has been incredibly effective for Republicans. Prioritizing these issues helps generate donations and support from interest groups and activists while motivating voters.

Though Republicans often position themselves as a pro-business, economically-focused party, their policy goals and decisions have rarely reflected that. This is especially true at the state level, where Republicans have focused heavily on pushing positions on social issues held by interest groups and more extreme activists rather than enacting policy that would have a broader impact and materially benefit people.

This problem has worsened as the far-right has taken hold of the party. Conservatives have found themselves facing mounting pressure from right-wing activists to focus on these social issues and, therefore, take increasingly extreme stances on them.

This means that there is a cost for many Republicans if they choose to stand up to attacks on people’s rights, and there is significant benefit for contributing to such attacks.

A Republican that wants attention and support from the party’s base can receive this by taking aggressive, radical stances on social issues and making inflammatory statements. DeSantis knows this and is using it to build a place for himself on the national stage.

This isn’t to say that DeSantis and other Republicans have completely ignored more immediate issues and needs; they will still take action on less flashy issues. However, the airtime that DeSantis has had and the political will that he has exerted have focused on taking extremist stances and actions on these attention-grabbing issues instead of prioritizing legislation that would have a positive impact on Floridians.

In a more just world, DeSantis’ stunt would elicit universal condemnation and backlash. This should be the sort of thing that sinks political careers, but the political reality that we live in means that DeSantis will benefit from this and will continue along this line of actions to bolster his profile and qualifications as a leader of the far-right.

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