When the FBI raided Mar-a-Lago in early August, looking for classified or top secret documents Donald Trump had stolen from the White House, many in the Republican commentariat openly longed for a new leader who could bring all the fascism (or the "semi-fascism," if we must) without all the law-breaking. Fox News host Laura Ingraham complained that Americans were "exhausted" by Trump's constant swirl of crimes and scandal, and plaintively asked for "someone who has all Trump's policies, who's not Trump."
As I argued at the time, this fantasy about authoritarianism with clean hands is ridiculous: Corruption is an inseparable from fascism as golf carts from Palm Beach resorts. Nonetheless, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has been dangled before the Republican faithful as the potential Boy Scout Mussolini, a man who can dish out all the bigotry and authoritarian crackdowns, without getting distracted by role-playing a mafioso. In large part, this is because DeSantis is perceived as having even less of an internal life than a pickle-brained sociopath like Trump. DeSantis has the look and feel of a prototype politician-robot, who doesn't explode in angry tirades but has been programmed to think exclusively in right-wing grievances. Robots lack the complicated human motives that lead to criminal actions, after all, and DeSantis feels "safer" for those who dare to imagine a fascist regime free of corruption.
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After last week's Martha's Vineyard stunt, however, it's time for Republicans to set aside their longings for an evil-but-lawful leader. As any sci-fi geek could tell you, those AI-powered robots invariably evolve to be worse than their creators. Most of Trump's crimes are rooted in ordinary human impulses, like outright greed and ego gratification. But programming DeSantis to care only about right-wing trolling didn't prevent him from playing Trump-like games with the law. In this case, he appears to have defrauded these immigrants not for financial gain, but solely to create a political spectacle that would play well on Fox News.
DeSantis used taxpayer funds to charter a plane carrying about 50 immigrants from Venezuela and Colombia to Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts, in what was effectively a proof of concept of a Stormfront-derived talking point about alleged liberal hypocrisy. He didn't receive the "get off my lawn" response he was hoping for. Residents of the island instead rallied to help the new arrivals. (Which didn't stop Fox News from simply pretending that locals responded with the racist reaction DeSantis was hoping for.) Because of the speedy help offered by the people of Martha's Vineyard and the state of Massachusetts, in fact, lawyers brought in for pro bono assistance swiftly discovered the unbelievable levels of fraud that DeSantis' people had employed to make this stunt happen.
!!! a fake brochure promising eight months cash assistance, food, job training/placement, help with housing + more was given to migrants who were lured by @GovRonDeSantis into boarding a flight to martha's vineyard. @JuddLegum obtained a copy: https://t.co/nSIwWOE6Zh pic.twitter.com/RLtqoeLPC8
— Marisa Kabas (@MarisaKabas) September 19, 2022
In a statement released Saturday, Lawyers for Civil Rights (LCR) in Boston said that the migrants "were induced to board airplanes and cross state lines under false pretenses," such as promises "of work opportunities, schooling for their children, and immigration assistance." That strategy is far too reminiscent of the ones used by human traffickers who force migrants into poorly-paid jobs in construction, janitorial services and even sex work against their will. As NPR reports, it's possible that DeSantis' stunt violated federal laws against human trafficking, and immigration lawyers are calling on government prosecutors to open an investigation. "There is absolutely the possibility of both civil and criminal liability," lawyer Susan Church told Politico.
This is a legal gray area: Human trafficking laws are based on the assumption that such crimes are motivated by financial gain, not as a media spectacle created to own the libs. Still, DeSantis, who went to Harvard Law School, must have understood he was coloring outside the law with this appalling troll act. It appears that the Florida governor isn't just aping Trump's bad suits and third-grade vocabulary. He's also absorbed the biggest lesson Trump taught Republicans about impunity: "When you're a star, they let you do it. You can do anything."
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In that particular case, Trump was talking about his perceived carte blanche to sexually assault women without facing legal repercussions, but that attitude imbues everything Trump does, from defrauding investors to stealing classified documents. Trump may pretend to believe in the Christian God, but his one true faith is that he can commit any crime he wants, and no one will stop him. Frankly, why shouldn't he believe that? It's been more than a year and a half since he literally attempted a coup and no charges have been filed against him or anyone in his inner circle. Yeah, yeah, yeah, he's facing a bazillion slow-moving investigations, but that's been true basically throughout his entire adult life, and he's never tasted real consequences. Even the FBI raid on Mar-a-Lago came after months of the Department of Justice bending over backward to accommodate the whims of this lifelong criminal. No wonder the main lesson Trump (and his imitators) learned is that there are no penalties for reckless, lawless behavior.
So Ron DeSantis thought he could play chicken with the human trafficking laws for a political stunt. His mentor, after all, successfully beat the rap after getting impeached over his extortion scheme against the president of Ukraine, all in an attempt to create fake dirt on Joe Biden. There was no doubt that Senate Republicans would refuse to convict him in an impeachment trial, and the DOJ never even considered pursuing criminal charges.
DeSantis' Martha's Vineyard stunt comes on the heels of his all-out assault on the First Amendment guarantee of free speech. Court hearings began Monday morning in a suit filed against DeSantis by Andrew Warren, the former state attorney in Tampa who says that DeSantis fired him illegally after Warren signed a pledge not to prosecute people who seek abortion or gender-affirming care. DeSantis has also signed constitutionally questionable laws forbidding teachers from acknowledging the existence of LGBTQ people and barring schools and companies from conducting diversity training. The latter law has already been overturned by a federal judge, though the DeSantis administration is appealing. When the Walt Disney Company's leadership offered tepid criticism of DeSantis' "don't say gay" law, he moved to retaliate, threatening to repeal Florida's pro-Disney laws on land use and zoning.
DeSantis is already aping Trump's bad suits, bad posture and third-grade vocabulary. He's also absorbed Trump's biggest lesson: "When you're a star, they let you do it."
Sending migrants to Martha's Vineyard under false pretenses wasn't even DeSantis' first instance of defrauding or manipulating marginalized people. A few weeks ago, he staged another racist agitprop spectacle at taxpayer expense, ordering public arrests of 20 people, most of them Black, for alleged voting fraud. Reporters soon found out that those people had incorrectly been told by election officials that their voting rights had been restored after they had served felony sentences. Some of them may now be going to jail over a bureaucratic error that wasn't their fault — but the important part was that DeSantis got to show the MAGA base images of Black people in handcuffs for "illegal" voting. As voting rights advocates point out, white people who knowingly committed voter fraud to vote for Trump multiple times are getting slaps on the wrists.
DeSantis' legal impunity does have a different look and feel than Trump's. Trump commits whatever crimes he wants, from sexual assault to extortion to theft to seditious conspiracy, and then rolls out a phalanx of lawyers, his political power and a strategy of constant counterattack to shield himself from consequences. DeSantis, as the Harvard-educated attorney he is, knows how to insulate himself from personal consequences by making his law-flouting part of his supposedly official duties as governor. The state of Florida is paying for the legal battles over his attacks on free speech, and if there is a criminal investigation or civil litigation resulting from the Martha's Vineyard stunt, it will once again be the state and perhaps the people hired to do the dirty work who are on the hook, not the governor himself. Those differences matter, both legally and aesthetically, but the impulse driving Ron DeSantis and Donald Trump is exactly the same: They have no respect for the law, and they're happy to trample it underfoot to get what they want.