Ron DeSantis Is All In—on Creating an American Autocracy
“Our government is a government of laws, not a government of men,” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis declared last August, standing at a podium in Tampa with a phalanx of armed officers behind him. “That means that we govern ourselves based on a constitutional system.” The occasion was a triumphant press conference announcing his suspension of Andrew Warren, an elected county prosecutor who, DeSantis alleged, had put himself above the law after the Supreme Court rolled back abortion rights by signing a pledge not to prosecute related cases. That evening, DeSantis appeared on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show to squeeze every ounce of publicity out of the affair. “There’s a lot of line prosecutors in that office that are very happy that this was done,” DeSantis boasted. “We took it seriously, we did a thorough review, and we pulled the trigger today.”
DeSantis, in his telling, had removed a tyrant to benefit the less powerful. But what happened is a stark example of the opposite: an autocratic governor overturning the will of the people to punish his enemies for political gain. It was DeSantis who had placed himself above the law.
A federal judge later found Warren’s ouster to be unconstitutional, and though he declined to reinstate him on a technicality, trial testimony and documents revealed a much different story than the one DeSantis told. Though DeSantis had claimed otherwise, his administration barely reviewed Warren’s record, and it did not bother to consult with Warren’s staff. Instead, evidence suggested that DeSantis sought to capitalize on the right’s obsession with reform-minded prosecutors (who aim to roll back overzealous prosecution and mass incarceration) by making an example of one. He tasked an aide with finding a worthwhile target and that staffer zeroed in on Warren, crafting a removal announcement that mentioned billionaire George Soros, even though he had not funded Warren’s campaigns. If there was any doubt about the real purpose of Warren’s removal, records unearthed in the case showed that the governor’s staff dutifully tallied the value of the free coverage they had generated from this made-for-TV stunt: $2.4 million.
Other Republicans have sought to oust reform prosecutors through recall elections or to strip some of their authority legislatively. But DeSantis escalated those tactics, opting to remove Warren himself—and do so illegally. The episode showcased DeSantis’ disregard for the democratic process, his use of the state to punish political opponents, and his mission to install loyal allies across positions of power. While Donald Trump shares these authoritarian tendencies, DeSantis is much more methodical, though no less ruthless. Trump’s appeal relied on charisma, but DeSantis compensates for his lack of it with staged attacks and appearances that score points with GOP voters.
DeSantis has proven his “willingness to routinely use the machinery of the state to punish rivals,” explains Harvard government professor Steven Levitsky. “That’s authoritarianism at its core. That’s what authoritarians do.”
Warren is continuing to fight being stripped of his office in state and federal court. “This is about far more than my position,” he says. “If the governor can just remove an elected official from office, on a whim, without any legal basis, then it nullifies the meaning of democracy across our state. It means that elections have no meaning.”
Warren is not the only local elected official DeSantis has targeted. He’s booted school board members, an election supervisor, and a sheriff—all Democrats. DeSantis has turned the power of the state against political opponents, businesses that transgress his orthodoxy, and the education system and universities that serve as liberal bulwarks against illiberal rulers. DeSantis breeds fear of vulnerable groups for political advantage. As part of this politics of reprisal, he is imposing a uniform ideology upon Florida: anti-queer, anti-Black, anti-immigrant, and patriarchal, through laws banning discussion of gender identity, systemic racism, and sexism. The “Free State of Florida,” he likes to say, “is where woke goes to die.” But his rhetoric scrambles reality. In fact, DeSantis has stoked a fear of wokeism to strip freedoms and amass power.
To stifle dissent, in 2021 DeSantis signed a law that would ramp up penalties for rioting but that civil rights groups warned would ensnare peaceful protesters; this spring he pushed legislation to unleash speech-chilling lawsuits against news outlets.
“One of the strategies that DeSantis and the right wing deploy is trying to make things appear to be individual fires burning, so you can’t find a way to put out the source of the blaze,” says Brandon Wolf, the press secretary for Equality Florida, a LGBTQ rights organization. But what connects each conflagration is “a belief that freedom is designed for some people, not all people. It’s a belief that democracy is not an institution worth defending, but rather an obstacle.”
DeSantis, like other distrustful autocrats, keeps a tight circle of advisers, including his wife. And he goes through staff “like Sherman through Georgia,” says Mac Stipanovich, a veteran Florida Republican operative. In their book How Democracies Die, Levitsky and his colleague Daniel Ziblatt explain that authoritarians augment their power by capturing the referees—the press, the judiciary, the legislature—and then rewriting the rules. DeSantis has followed this playbook. “He has assiduously worked to transform the judiciary in Florida,” notes Stipanovich, a Never Trumper who left the GOP in 2018. “He pushes to the very limit, and then beyond the executive powers of the office.”
Even in the face of court rulings assailing his initiatives, DeSantis’ spokesperson insists the governor acts within constitutional lines. DeSantis calls his agenda the “Florida blueprint,” and it’s no secret that he dreams of replicating his authoritarian experiment at the national level. But even if DeSantis doesn’t become the GOP’s 2024 presidential nominee, he has already demonstrated that further abandoning democratic norms can bring great success in the Republican Party. His governing style is the logical evolution of Trumpism, from a chaotic politics of reprisal to a calculated system of repression and power-grabbing. “This really is what’s coming to the country,” says Anders Croy, communications director at Florida Watch, a progressive group. “Florida, essentially, is a laboratory of authoritarianism right now.”
In 2018, DeSantis squeaked into office by 32,000 votes, and early in his tenure he struck a relatively moderate note. But the coronavirus pandemic presented an opportunity to stand out and take control. He invoked emergency powers to dole out more than $5 billion in federal relief without oversight, and canceled meetings of Florida’s Cabinet, a group of four statewide elected officials who jointly oversee a dozen agencies.
DeSantis’ fight to end mask mandates and reopen the state made him a right-wing hero. And as the pandemic receded, he pivoted to a new conservative crusade that held the potential to allow him to outflank Trump on the right and sustain his own rise: the supposed indoctrination of schoolchildren by liberal educators. Fueled by near-constant Fox News appearances, he cemented his popularity with conservatives and attracted billionaire donors, who view him as Trump’s most viable successor and stuffed his reelection coffers with millions. As he became a national figure, he leveraged his new power and popularity to tighten his grip on Florida’s GOP-controlled legislature, taking the unprecedented step of wading into the primaries of state lawmakers.
“He’s the darling of Fox News,” says Sean Shaw, a former Democratic state representative from Tampa. Consider DeSantis’ overflowing war chest, he adds, and that “he’s mentioned as a leading contender for president. No state senator from some county in Florida wants to deal with that.”
Last spring, the Republican leaders of the legislature engaged in a rare skirmish with DeSantis over his push to take over their traditional map-drawing powers. DeSantis won that fight to dictate the maps—which dismantled two majority-Black districts—and he would not forget that the losers had crossed him. After they passed a budget, he issued $3.1 billion in line-item vetoes, slashing more than $700 million from the leaders’ own top priorities.
That June, DeSantis took the stage at the Villages, the massive retirement community and Republican stronghold sprawling across 32 square miles of central Florida. A placard heralded his signing of the resulting “Freedom First Budget.” Minutes into the hourlong event, DeSantis bragged about his cuts. Over his left shoulder, the legislature’s GOP leaders applauded and smiled. Their faces didn’t betray what was likely an uncomfortable, even infuriating moment. “They may not be clapping about that,” DeSantis said, jerking his thumbs behind him to laughter, “but that’s just the way it goes.” When he was done speaking, the lawmakers dutifully took a turn at the podium to praise DeSantis’ leadership before posing behind him as he signed.
The Tampa Bay Times noted the striking image—a Republican governor mocking the Republican-controlled legislature, and the leaders of that legislature laughing along—and called the spectacle his “latest show of power.” While the governor’s office defends the cuts as “fiscally responsible decisions,” Stipanovich believes DeSantis was making an example out of them for opposing his redistricting takeover: “All of you other legislators out there looking who aren’t even presidents of the Senate, watch and learn.” Nikki Fried, a Democrat who served as the state’s agriculture commissioner at the time, used stronger language: “It’s like an abusive husband making his kids watch as he beats their mother.”
Republican legislators got the message. “We have a long tradition of legislative leaders pushing back against the governors of their own party when they felt they infringed upon legislative prerogatives,” says Ben Diamond, a Democrat who served in the state House until last November. But not today: “I’ve never seen a group of people so willing to give a governor a blank check.”
In February, the legislature even convened a special one-week session to clean up some of DeSantis’ messes and hand him more power. The GOP supermajority retroactively authorized his Fox-ready stunt to fly asylum seekers from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard. They also empowered a statewide prosecutor to go after election crimes after the attorney general’s office ran up against the limits of its legal authority. And they gave DeSantis the power to appoint the board that would oversee municipal affairs at Disney World—part of an escalating feud between the governor and the entertainment giant over its opposition to his “Don’t Say Gay” law prohibiting instruction on gender identity and sexuality through third grade and limiting it through high school.
DeSantis is not a backslapping politician. He has few social graces and no appetite for socializing, preferring, his staff claims, to spend his “non-office time” with family. As his one-way relationship with the legislature shows, he extracts favors but rarely returns them. “Most politicians, you gain respect from your colleagues and your peers by working with them, by not being a jerk, by having good conversations and good relationships,” says Fried, who now chairs Florida’s Democratic Party. “He cannot do that. So the only way that he’s going to be able to move his agenda is through fear and intimidation.”
Fried, who as agriculture commissioner served alongside DeSantis in the Florida Cabinet, recalls that DeSantis never joined in when fellow members bantered about their families or exchanged pleasantries before meetings. In early 2019, when the Cabinet was on a trade mission to Israel, Fried remembers how DeSantis always stood apart from the three other members and never rode in a vehicle with them. When they shared an elevator, she recalls trying some friendly chitchat, but DeSantis wouldn’t engage.
Following the presidency of Donald Trump, Americans may be primed to link magnetic personalities with autocratic ambition. But not all would-be authoritarians rely on personal appeal. “Putin wasn’t charismatic, either. Putin was a total cold fish,” says Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a New York University historian and the author of Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present. “People who come from the realm of bureaucracy…don’t necessarily have to be charismatic because they want to be feared and not loved. Now, somebody like Trump needs to be loved as well as feared, but DeSantis just wants to be feared. His remoteness, actually, is a shield, where it helps him be ruthless and dominant.”
Even as a baseball player and frat brother at Yale, one classmate recalled, DeSantis was “so charmless.” After graduating from Harvard Law School, he served as a Navy attorney, spending time at Guantanamo Bay and in Iraq. Back in Florida in 2008, he took an assignment as a federal prosecutor before running for Congress in 2012. Through three House terms, DeSantis was a “loner” and a “backbencher,” former colleagues have said. But when an opportunity arose to run for governor, he recognized a path to greater power by sucking up to Trump on Fox News and securing his primary endorsement.
To understand how DeSantis differs from Trump, it helps to compare their approaches to politics. “Trump got by mostly by saying stuff—not doing stuff. He talked much more than he threw punches. He threw many more punches than he landed,” says Levitsky. “DeSantis can’t win that way. He has to do stuff.” This comes in the form of political spectacles like marooning immigrants on the island where Barack Obama has his beach house and firing Warren—as well as substantive policies like the “Don’t Say Gay” law, all boosted through tightly controlled press appearances. DeSantis’ team has a habit of blasting reporters—and screenshots of the emails they send—over Twitter. When I sought comment for this story, his spokesperson called my questions “brain-wormed” and tweeted them out for supporters to mock. Such actions win DeSantis base support, but they are not dependent on his own charms.
One way DeSantis has created space to operate is by hollowing out state government, filling key posts with donors and loyalists—the academic term is “autocratic capture”—perhaps most notably on the state Board of Medicine, which has supported his agenda to put new limits on gender-affirming care. An analysis by the Democratic super-PAC American Bridge 21st Century found that over his first term, DeSantis installed 75 percent more donors in senior government roles than his predecessor, Republican Rick Scott, did in the same span. Such power grabs are “a cornerstone of authoritarianism,” explains Ben-Ghiat, and “create a climate where you can more efficiently transform everything.”
In The Courage to Be Free, a book DeSantis released in February, he warns that America has entered a “post-Constitutional order” where federal agencies have become an all-powerful fourth branch of government that must be brought “to heel” to restore democracy. But around the world, the opposite is true. “An entrenched civil service and state agencies that have a long tradition of independence from the government—that’s pretty critical in a democracy,” says Levitsky. In “almost every autocracy, we find one of the first moves is to pack the state—whether it is prosecutors’ offices, school superintendents, police, when they can the judiciaries, electoral authorities—whatever state agencies exist.”
Last fall, Robert Cassanello taught a course on the civil rights movement. But for the first time, the veteran University of Central Florida history professor inserted content warnings into his lectures. Under a 2022 law formally given the Orwellian name of the Individual Freedom Act, also referred to as HB 7, Florida restricted educators’ ability to teach concepts like critical race theory, structural racism, sex discrimination, white or male privilege, and affirmative action. The law also limits how private employers can discuss such issues, which helps explain what it is usually called: the Stop WOKE Act, meaning Wrongs to Our Kids and Employees.
Before diving into a topic Cassanello thought might breach the law, he would say, “‘Okay everybody, I’m about to violate HB 7. Be prepared. If you’re going to report me, start taking your documentation down now,’” he recalls. “And then I would go do the thing.” Students would laugh, Cassanello says, but he was trying to make a serious point: “I thought it was important for students to understand the implications of the law to them.”
The threat of being turned in by a student is real. In 2021, Florida enacted a law intended to combat perceived discrimination against campus conservatives by authorizing students to secretly record professors in order to bring lawsuits or report them to school authorities. Cassanello, who leads the university’s chapter of the United Faculty of Florida union, says he never considered changing his lessons, figuring he had tenure, UFF membership, and, he hoped, academic freedom on his side; if he was terminated, he would at least have some recourse. But Cassanello says that other instructors who lack tenure protections, as most University of Central Florida professors do, made different decisions, with many telling him, “I can’t teach this anymore because I don’t want to lose my job.”
The law authorizing secret recordings also mandated that faculty and students fill out an annual “intellectual freedom and viewpoint diversity” survey, just one of many new oversight tools DeSantis and his legislative allies have imposed. At the end of 2022, DeSantis ordered state higher education institutions to turn over descriptions of all classes and activities related to DEI and critical race theory, information on faculty teaching those topics or involved in those efforts, and an accounting of relevant funding. And in February, the Florida House’s GOP speaker joined the battle, demanding faculty involved in once state-mandated DEI groups hand over two years of related emails, text messages, and social media posts. The effort calls to mind a surveillance state, where snitching is encouraged, the government keeps enemies lists, and free speech is censored.
“Almost invariably, universities are bastions of opposition to autocratic parties, government parties, movements, leaders—and so they’re their targets,” says Levitsky. Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet banned the teaching of philosophy and social sciences, believing they injected students with liberal ideas; by the end of his second year in power, more than 24,000 faculty, students, and staff had been expelled, with many sent to prison. Viktor Orbán, Hungary’s authoritarian prime minister, effectively banned gender studies in 2018, and he forced a liberal arts college founded by Soros to flee. DeSantis, similarly, has orchestrated a takeover of New College, a small Florida liberal arts school, installing culture war provocateur Chris Rufo on its board.
DeSantis and his Republican legislative allies have taken other steps to bring colleges and universities under a tight rein. One 2022 measure allowed institutions to conduct presidential searches in secret, outside the scope of Florida’s robust sunshine laws. A few months later, Republican Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska ended up in charge of the University of Florida without any disclosure of the process. At New College, DeSantis’ handpicked board fired its president, naming the governor’s former commissioner of education as interim leader while a secret search continues. And in May, a GOP legislator and DeSantis ally emerged as the final candidate to lead South Florida State College after the DeSantis-friendly board in charge of hiring lowered the job’s requirements. “It’s funny how this law was put through, and now it’s all Republican politicians from in state and around the country who are leading higher education institutions,” says Andrew Gothard, president of the 36,000-member UFF union.
During this spring’s legislative session, Republicans passed new academic mandates, banned funding DEI programs, and took faculty hiring decisions away from deans or departmental committees, placing them in the hands of university presidents. “They want the hiring process to be about who politically toes the governor’s line,” Gothard says. The law also empowers the Board of Governors overseeing Florida’s universities—with a DeSantis-appointed majority—to review and ban curricula “based on theories that systemic racism, sexism, oppression, and privilege are inherent in the institutions of the United States and were created to maintain social, political, and economic inequities.”
It’s not obvious which programs and courses fall under the legislation’s vague standard. “Would I say that gender studies is based on a theory that systemic sexism exists in the institutions of the United States?” asks Nicole Morse, who directs the Center for Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Florida Atlantic University. “Yes.”
DeSantis’ attack on academic freedom has already taken a toll. Despite years of growth in the center’s graduate program, Morse says, this fall enrollment will go down by more than half, as many admitted students declined offers, usually citing Florida’s political climate. And departments without enough enrollment get closed. “As long as they just scare people away and make Florida a hostile area for this kind of work, that can achieve the same goal as an outright ban,” Morse warns.
The onslaught of rules, surveillance, lawsuits, lists, and bans has created an atmosphere of chaos and fear on Florida campuses. “The provost will say, in one meeting, ‘No one’s job is threatened.’ And then the next meeting, or even later in the same meeting, she’ll say, ‘We don’t know if we can protect anyone,’” said one Florida professor who asked for anonymity.
“The most authoritarian aspect of this is just how the information is constantly changing,” they continued. “The atmosphere is one of everyone being constantly anxious, constantly confused…there’s no solid ground or no clarity about what is happening and how to move forward.”
Trump was known for whipping up political mayhem, but on a day-to-day basis he seemed to largely unleash it on his inner circle. DeSantis, by contrast, strategically deploys chaos to advance his political priorities. “This is part of using the law for repressive purposes, but in vague ways,” says Ben-Ghiat. “You create confusion, you create discouragement, and ultimately, you create silence and inaction.”
Federal courts generally find vague laws unconstitutional because they violate due process and lead to inconsistent enforcement. When, in November, Judge Mark Walker blocked the Stop WOKE Act in higher education, he wrote that one of the eight prohibited concepts “is mired in obscurity, bordering on the unintelligible” and “features a rarely seen triple negative, resulting in a cacophony of confusion.” But legal challenges can take months or years before they are resolved, and the ongoing litigation and debate can even magnify intimidation.
“DeSantis, we need to remember, is a product of Harvard Law,” says University of Miami law professor Mary Anne Franks. “His attempts to punish Disney, for instance, his attempts to restrict what private employers are doing—he knows that that violates the First Amendment,” she adds. “What he is trying to figure out is, can he remake the law? Can the new, far-right conservative movement, which seems to be a kind of might-makes-right movement, can he put that into effect?”
Morse, who turned over emails under the House speaker’s request, has seen growing self-censorship: “People are refusing to communicate in certain ways.” (I noticed this too; my requests to interview professors were sometimes returned from private email accounts asking me not to use university addresses.) “By starting with the list-making and searching people’s emails, now, people are on edge,” they said, adding that graduates have contacted the program asking to be removed from alumni lists. “Everyone is starting to see the possibility for increased surveillance.”
The political takeover is not just scaring off potential students; it is driving away faculty. As a union representative, Cassanello is keeping tabs. Those in the humanities generally quit academia altogether, he says, whereas professors in hard science, computing, engineering, and other fields with nationwide demand can move, depriving Florida of knowledge workers who sustain its universities with research grants and are key to its economy.
“A few people have come out to me, some of them department chairs,” Cassanello recalls, “who said, ‘We’re not getting candidates for our searches.’” Hiring committees used to boasting about nearby beaches, one professor explained, now parry questions about forbidden topics and tenure protections. At an April hearing, a Democratic state senator shared that, according to the HR director of one Florida university, in just one month this spring more than 300 instructors rescinded offers to teach the following semester.
DeSantis is “willing to burn this entire system in the fire of his own political ambition,” says Gothard. “But the mess he’s creating with these attacks on public ed—both K–12 and higher ed—are going to significantly and deeply harm Florida for decades.”
One hallmark of authoritarianism is how a strongman’s views take hold across society. “All areas of life eventually reflect the values of the chief, of the leader,” says Ben-Ghiat. Doing so requires controlling or cowing any centers of resistance, especially corporate interests. Trump’s clumsy attempts to target the private sector revolved around trying to block mergers of corporations he disliked. Successful authoritarians are more aggressive. Putin made an example of corporate detractors by prosecuting the country’s wealthiest businessman. According to Robert Kaufman, a Rutgers University professor who studies democratic backsliding, both Orbán in Hungary and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey have used “regulatory weapons to intimidate private sector corporations [and] reorient them as allies.”
In 2021, after Facebook and Twitter booted Trump in the wake of the January 6 insurrection, DeSantis pushed through a law—so far blocked in federal court—that would levy hefty fines against social media companies that ban politicians. At the time, Florida lawmakers took care to craft a loophole for media giant Disney, one of the state’s largest employers, by exempting companies that also owned a theme park in Florida.
But a year later, after Disney came out against “Don’t Say Gay,” the governor retaliated. “There is a new sheriff in town and accountability will be the order of the day,” DeSantis said in February, as he appointed allies to a reconstituted local tax board that would oversee the area around Disney World. The board, he implied, would also keep an eye on Disney content: “I think all of these board members very much would like to see the type of entertainment that all families can appreciate.”
For more than a year, DeSantis’ effort to assert his control over Disney and its special tax district put him at loggerheads with the media conglomerate—which brings in the bulk of Orlando’s $75 billion in annual tourism revenue—and Disney initially chose not to fight back publicly. But the company finally returned fire in April shortly after DeSantis mused that he might build a state prison on the park’s doorstep, with the company saying it was “left with no choice” but to sue over his “targeted campaign of government retaliation.” In another signal of its new stance, Disney World is set to host its first Pride night in June.
DeSantis’ decision to take on Disney was a shot across the private sector’s bow: fall in line or the state will come knocking. “He’s making examples of even companies that no one else would go after,” explains Ben-Ghiat. “It’s not logical in a way to go after Disney, which is an enormous source of tourism and revenue. But if you think like an authoritarian, that’s exactly who you’re gonna go after, because you want to show that no one is exempt from your power.”
While Disney is his most high-profile corporate target, DeSantis has picked fights with other businesses. After the Tampa Bay Rays spoke out against gun violence and donated to a group that supports gun regulations, DeSantis responded by vetoing funding for a youth sports complex that the ballclub hoped to use during spring training. As DeSantis later explained, it’s “inappropriate to subsidize political activism of a private corporation.”
“DeSantis’ willingness to bend the power of government to punish Disney for having an opinion always meant that he would be willing to do that to individuals and small businesses, too,” says Equality Florida’s Wolf. DeSantis has been at the vanguard of the nationwide assault on transgender people, and has gone after small businesses that host drag shows. Last July, DeSantis filed a complaint through the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation against R House, a Miami restaurant that hosts weekend drag brunches, accusing it of violating a public nuisance law and putting its liquor license at risk. “We take the wellbeing of children very seriously,” DeSantis said at a press conference, complaining that the establishment had allowed minors to attend. In February, the DeSantis administration filed a similar complaint against a nonprofit associated with the Orlando Philharmonic for hosting a Christmas drag show where minors were present, and in March he went after Miami’s Hyatt Regency over the same issue.
The Stop WOKE Act also targets businesses conducting DEI and unconscious bias trainings. Sara Margulis, the CEO of Clearwater-based Honeyfund, a platform where couples register for cash wedding gifts, turned to lawyers for advice on how she could continue to hold such workshops. “You’re gonna have to hire us to scrutinize every training that you deliver, to ensure that it complies,” she recalls them saying. “Even then we would have a hard time really knowing if it did or didn’t.”
After weighing the risks of challenging DeSantis, last June Margulis became the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit brought by Protect Democracy. “The Stop WOKE Act, to us, is government censorship and is a speech code,” says Shalini Agarwal, the group’s lead attorney on the case. “This is a straight-up authoritarian move.”
Mark Mizruchi, a University of Michigan sociologist who studies corporate political behavior, says “business does have a key role to play” in what he describes as “an existential crisis regarding the future of American democracy.” In the mid-20th century, US corporate elites were largely politically moderate and helped marginalize the extreme right, Mizruchi explains; today the business community is less organized and, with a far-right takeover of the GOP accomplished, is either aligned with those forces or afraid to take them on. Indeed, it was Honeyfund—joined by a Ben and Jerry’s franchise and a DEI consultant—that was willing to go to court to fight the governor’s restrictions on speech. Disney, a behemoth public company, only sued to stop DeSantis’ retaliation.
But Disney may now be embracing a new role as a First Amendment defender. “Disney also knows that it is fortunate to have the resources to take a stand against the State’s retaliation—a stand smaller businesses and individuals might not be able to take,” the company’s lawsuit states. “In America, the government cannot punish you for speaking your mind.”
Last August, DeSantis, again flanked by local sheriff deputies, arrived in a Broward County courtroom for another Fox-ready photo op. Earlier that year, DeSantis had launched a crackdown on illegal voting, spearheaded by his newly created Office of Election Crimes and Security. Now, he was ready to announce its first enforcement action: the arrests of 20 people for voter fraud. “They’re going to pay the price,” DeSantis said.
The arrests were part of DeSantis’ sustained attack on the voting rights of people with felony convictions. Until five years ago, they were disenfranchised under Florida’s constitution, a relic of the Jim Crow era that blocked nearly 1.7 million Floridians with a criminal record from voting, including one in five Black citizens of voting age. But in 2018, on the same day DeSantis narrowly won election, Floridians overwhelmingly approved Amendment 4, which restored voting rights to most people who had completed their sentences.
After taking office, DeSantis and Republicans in the legislature immediately set out to undermine the amendment, adding a requirement that the new voters must first pay all their legal fines, fees, and restitution. But the state never made it possible for its citizens to find out if they have any such debts; experts believe records are so scattered, error-riddled, and incomplete that creating a trustworthy database would be impossible. “It’s designed to fail,” says Daniel Smith, a University of Florida political scientist who, during an unsuccessful federal court challenge, testified the system is impossible to navigate.
When the Tampa Bay Times published bodycam footage of the August crackdown, it became clear that the arrestees were a far cry from the nefarious election riggers DeSantis was sounding the alarm about. In fact, they had no idea they were not allowed to vote. “Oh my god,” Romona Oliver repeated as she was handcuffed in her driveway while leaving for work. “I voted, but I ain’t commit no fraud.”
Video of Nathan Hart’s arrest demonstrated the catch-22 they had been ensnared in. Handcuffed, Hart told the officers a DMV worker had encouraged him to register. “I said, ‘I’m a convicted felon, I’m pretty sure I can’t,’” Hart relayed. He said the clerk told him, “‘Well, just fill out this form, and if they let you vote, then you can.’” To which an apologetic officer replied, “There’s your defense. That sounds like a loophole to me.”
The people arrested that day were mostly Black Floridians who had served their time and believed their voting rights had been restored. Amendment 4 had carved out people convicted of murder or sex felonies; while Hart, Oliver, and the other arrestees had been convicted of such crimes, the state had mistakenly approved their applications anyway.
Desmond Meade, executive director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, the group that shepherded Amendment 4, compares the arrests to the state installing an inaccurate speed limit and nonetheless booking compliant drivers for going too fast. “Can a police officer now take you to jail,” Meade asks, “when there was a posted speed sign that was placed there by the state saying it was okay?”
On the voting charges, Oliver pleaded no contest, receiving no jail time. Hart was convicted, sentenced to two years’ probation, and lost both his jobs. His attorneys are appealing. In the meantime, the widely publicized arrests and prosecutions have had a chilling effect. “We started to get a bunch of calls from returning citizens throughout the state who were very concerned,” says Aidil Oscariz, an attorney who worked with the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition. “They just heard people were getting arrested for voting… they were very afraid.”
The confusion extended beyond potential voters with felony records. When Oscariz called several county election supervisors looking for official information about how people with felony convictions could ascertain if they were free of fines and eligible, they had no answers; at least one suggested Oscariz call FRRC—the organization she was consulting for—for more information. Meanwhile, FRRC was hearing from people who had decided it wasn’t worth voting—even individuals who had never been found guilty of a crime.
Coming less than a week before the 2022 primary and the start of the general election, the arrests were well timed to suppress turnout, and seemed to have an obvious political motivation. “The state registered these people, these former incarcerated felons,” says Shaw, the former state lawmaker. “DeSantis goes and arrests them for voter fraud, because they should not have been allowed to register to vote. And if you don’t think that depressed turnout amongst Black people, then I got another thing to tell you.”
Not all voter fraud is handled equally in Florida. In 2020, four white residents of the Villages—three of them registered Republicans who had voiced support for Trump—were charged with voting in two states. They all pleaded guilty, and got off with taking a civics course. Meanwhile, in a separate case, one person of color convicted after accidentally voting illegally received a 10-month sentence. This year, Florida exited an interstate compact that helps ferret out double voting, leaving the state much less likely to catch a kind of intentional fraud that Republicans have been more likely to commit in recent years.
“He likes to call us the Free State of Florida,” adds Shaw. “But that freedom only applies to people that look like him and that think like him. And if you don’t, then this state is not free at all.”
Voter suppression is a widely practiced authoritarian strategy. It’s also an American pastime. The recent reemergence of Jim Crow-style tactics has been made possible by the rollback of Civil Rights–era protections. After Democrats surpassed Republicans in voting by mail during the 2020 election, DeSantis signed a law that made postal ballots harder to obtain, limited drop boxes, restricted third-party registration efforts, and banned providing food and water to waiting voters—tactics embraced by Republicans around the country that aim to suppress turnout among poor voters and voters of color.
While a federal judge agreed with civil rights groups that argued the law illegally targeted Black voters, he allowed large parts to stand, including its changes to mail voting. Signing up to vote by mail now requires more forms of identification, and the request must be renewed every two years. In January, after the law took effect, hundreds of thousands of standing requests for mail ballots were canceled. The consequences were immediate: Local officials blamed it for depressing turnout in March municipal elections—in Broward County, for example, participation fell by half from 2021—and predicted the drop-off would persist in 2024.
Last year, Franks, the University of Miami law professor, wrote an article for the Journal of Free Speech Law arguing that a neo-Confederate ideology is gaining sway in the Republican Party, one that seeks “to use the power of the state to censor speech that threatens their values and to compel speech that serves them.” Hostile “to reproductive rights, voting rights, LGBTQ rights, and efforts to recognize and redress systemic racism and sexism,” neo-Confederates hide their anti-speech agenda behind crusades against cancel culture, wokeism, and critical race theory. DeSantis “may be the most obvious exemplar of neo-Confederate ideology, particularly when it comes to free speech and education,” Franks says.
While those currents remain white-hot in today’s GOP, DeSantis’ personal political star dimmed this spring as accounts of his standoffish personality proliferated and early endorsements went to Trump. Wealthy GOP donors have begun expressing doubts, particularly after his escalating tit for tat with Disney and his April signing of a six-week abortion ban, widely viewed as a general election liability. But even if DeSantis’ national ambitions don’t take him to the White House, his authoritarian style, far from withering, is likely to be embraced by fellow Republicans seeking to emulate his success.
DeSantis has demonstrated a path to power based on circumventing the democratic process and preying on fear of minorities—a template that is already being adopted by GOP legislatures around the country. But if DeSantis becomes president in two years, critics warn, his brand of authoritarianism could take hold from Washington. “If you’re uncomfortable with the book banning, imagine giving him the keys to the US Department of Education,” says Wolf. “If you’re uncomfortable with the migrant flights dumping people in a deserted parking lot somewhere, imagine giving him the keys to Border Patrol and ICE. If you’re uncomfortable with the way he goes after voting rights, imagine the same conversations that Donald Trump was having with Georgia election officials [demanding they “find” votes he needed], but it’s Ron DeSantis on a call that’s not being recorded.”
“DeSantis would finish what Trump started,” says Ben-Ghiat, “which is wrecking our democracy.”