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The barely hidden fascism of Ron DeSantis makes a Pa. pit stop on a race to ’24

As the Florida governor cracks down on voting and classroom free speech — he offers Pennsylvania a scary sneak peek at the 2024 presidential race.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (right) waves after his rally with Pennsylvania GOP gubernatorial nominee Doug Mastriano in Pittsburgh on Friday.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (right) waves after his rally with Pennsylvania GOP gubernatorial nominee Doug Mastriano in Pittsburgh on Friday.Read moreSTEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer

The Republican governor of Florida, Ron DeSantis, brought his act to Pittsburgh on Friday and left little doubt that he’s running for president in 2024. We need to talk about this, but first, let’s look at the even more revealing event that DeSantis staged right before he boarded the jet for his Rust Belt road swing — a full-on display of what 21st-century American fascism looks like.

In heavily Democratic Fort Lauderdale, Fla., the 5-foot-9 DeSantis — the modern fulfillment of the Jimmy Breslin-ism about a small man in search of a balcony — elevated himself on a podium, flanked as he so often is by armed and uniformed men and women of law enforcement, to highlight his crackdown on supposed voter fraud ahead of November’s election.

“That is against the law, and now they’re gonna pay the price for it,” DeSantis declared of 20 Floridians — almost all from Democratic strongholds such as Broward County, where his campaign rally-style announcement was staged, or Miami-Dade County — accused of casting ballots despite a law barring them because they’d been convicted of murder or sexual assault.

But the event and its stench of “law and order” intimidation revealed so much more through what was left unsaid. Such as the fact that DeSantis’ Office of Election Crimes and Security — like so much that the Florida governor does, a dangerous escalation of the GOP’s long-running war on voting rights into straight-up authoritarian territory — has spent $3.9 million in taxpayer dollars to find alleged fraud in less than 0.0002% of the 11 million votes cast in the Sunshine State. The outlay is about $195,000 for each allegation.

But arguably more outrageous is the way that Team DeSantis is less exposing a systematic problem — actual voting fraud in America is extremely rare — but rather taking cynical advantage of several years of confusion in Florida over its laws regarding whether people convicted of crimes can vote. In 2018, the state’s voters overwhelmingly passed a referendum allowing most felons who’d served their time to vote, only for GOP lawmakers to muddy the waters by imposing new requirements for restitution. It’s now apparent there was widespread confusion — not just among citizens, but from government officials — over who could vote in 2020.

Indeed, Florida journalists who dug into the 20 criminal cases found a scenario rooted in benign confusion, not malicious fraud. In Orange County, Fla., the three people charged with third-degree felonies — punishable by up to five years in prison — said they mistakenly believed their rights had been restored in the 2018 vote, and one man said he’d simply been sent a ballot in the mail and returned it. Nathan Hart, 49, told the Miami Herald he was renewing his driver’s license when a man at a voter registration booth convinced him, mistakenly, that he was eligible to vote. “One individual guy voting when he thought he could is hardly voter fraud,” said Hart, now terrified of losing the life he’d rebuilt after his incarceration.

There are two very important things going on here — and neither of them is a real-world problem around “election integrity.” Most immediately, DeSantis — favored for reelection in November, but hardly a lock in a state he won by just 32,000 votes in 2018 — clearly seeks a chilling effect that would frighten thousands of voters who are unsure of their eligibility and now may stay home rather than risk getting arrested.

The broader implication is even more frightening. The time for mincing words is over. This is the latest and most alarming manifestation of a now barely hidden fascism by the head of America’s third-largest state, and one of the handful of serious contenders for the White House. DeSantis’ push for voter suppression and the increasingly paramilitaristic vibe of his public appearances prove the Floridian is the one we’ve been warning about: A post-Trump Republican taking a war on democracy to an even more dangerous place, minus the buffoonish narcissism of the 45th president.

DeSantis has embraced a politics that has absolutely nothing to do with traditional conservative blather about freedom and everything to do with raw power. This 43-year-old rising force has already surpassed the dark promise of Donald Trump by going after corporations who’ve dared to criticize him, seeking to chill classroom discussions about race or gender, and even overriding the results of a democratic election for a large-county prosecutor whose offense was having a differing opinion.

In this context, DeSantis’ national campaign swing — which came to Pennsylvania this weekend with his controversial embrace of our extremist and Christian nationalist GOP gubernatorial candidate, Doug Mastriano — marks a major turning point as America looks warily toward a 2024 election that already has a kind of 1860 feel to it. Right now, DeSantis — the only serious Republican rival to Trump, according to the polls — is demolishing the myth that The Former Guy would be challenged by a moderate. Instead, DeSantis is taking the loose ideology of Trumpism to new extremes of demonizing The Other and positioning the GOP as an anti-democracy movement.

» READ MORE: A DeSantis-Mastriano tag team against the press | Will Bunch Newsletter

With more than 100 protesters outside, DeSantis told a packed downtown Pittsburgh hotel ballroom, in a lame, whiny echo of Winston Churchill: “We must fight the woke in our schools. We must fight the woke in our businesses. We must fight the woke in government agencies. We can never, ever surrender to woke ideology.” The use of a cadence that opposed Nazism in 1940 to instead attack American citizens as the enemy was obscene.

Just the fact that DeSantis, the head of a state with a large Jewish population, thought it important to endorse Mastriano — despite the shocking revelations about the Pennsylvanian’s ties to the website Gab, a cesspool of antisemitism that inspired the 2018 mass murderer of 11 Jewish people at a synagogue just a few miles from where he spoke — was a powerful illustration of a political party’s downward spiral into madness.

In addition to the antisemitism flap, something else that DeSantis never mentioned once on his Pennsylvania road trip was Trump — but the former president was clearly paying attention. Just minutes after DeSantis finished speaking in the 412, the FPOTUS tweeted that he, too, is coming to Pennsylvania to rally with Mastriano, as well as his endorsed U.S. Senate candidate, Mehmet Oz, on Sept. 3 in Wilkes-Barre.

Let that sink in. The radical extremism of Mastriano — who brought busloads of supporters to Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6, 2021 and marched to the brink of the U.S. Capitol during an insurrection; who organized a slate of fake electors and has made clear his hostility to counting every vote; who invokes God to promote radical views against abortion, climate change, and public education — was supposed to make the Republican establishment run for the hills. Instead, the two true leaders of today’s GOP are tripping over each other to embrace a homophobic antisemite bidding to run the state where the American Experiment began.

The stakes for 2024 have never looked starker than Friday as the sun set over the Ohio River.

DeSantis ended his speech with a plea for supporters to “put on the full armor of God.” It was a blatant signal that the Floridian is fully down with a Christian nationalism that not only subverts the founders’ desire for a separation of church and state, but looks nothing like what Jesus would actually do. Because in Ron DeSantis’ vision of America, cursed are the meek — the transgender kid with a target on their back, the schoolchildren he wants to indoctrinate with false, sanitized history, the communities of color seeking to exercise their hard-fought voting rights. We who believe in free speech and free inquiry in the face of an oppressive state must also don our armor, because this, the fight for the soul of America, has been joined.

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