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Mar 9, 23

Ron DeSantis, Interstate Autocratization, and Building Resistance

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Florida’s far-Right Republican governor Ron DeSantis spoke in Southern California over the weekend— kicking off a pre-election book tour and anti-leftism roadshow. DeSantis is undoubtedly preparing to run for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination. In order to take on the juggernaut of Trumpism, he will need to court wealthy conservative donors and influential party elites across the United States and especially in California.

While traditionally considered a Democratic liberal stronghold— the largest number of 2020 primary votes for Donald Trump came from California. Crucially for DeSantis: California Republicans now tend to favor the Florida governor over former president Donald Trump in today’s primary matchup polls (so far)— a major departure from other state’s polling showing Trump as still the firm party favorite.

But “Super Tuesday” is still a year away. So let’s examine the deeper implications this visit and speech has on California and the rest of the country.

“Ron DeFascist” spray painted onto an entrance sign for the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. Photo: Simi Valley Police Department

The event last Sunday was held in Simi Valley at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. One of the entrance signs for the library had the words “Ron DeFascist” spray painted onto it in the early hours preceding the speech. Whoever left the message got away safely and without any witnesses. Local police said in a statement that they have no suspects. Venue staff quickly tried to clean the paint off the sign— but the outline of the words were still barely visible hours later when doors were opened for the event.

By 10 A.M., the roadside entrance was filled with LGBTQ+ flags and signs primarily condemning DeSantis as a “fascist”— as around 100 liberals, progressives, and leftists united to protest Ron DeSantis. Protest organizer John Lapper issued a statement against DeSantis for attacking LGBTQ+ rights, reproductive rights, teacher rights, suppressing Black History, and pushing conspiracy theories. Protesters had several tense exchanges with Trump and DeSantis supporters over LGBTQ+ rights and election disinformation. Beyond the protesters and up a winding, isolated road— around 2,000 Republicans eagerly awaited DeSantis to take the stage.

It’s not hard to envision what the DeSantis speech sounded like. Plenty of other news outlets have parsed out his verbal screed outlining various vendettas against life-saving healthcare, Democratic rivals, and of course: “woke ideology.” He brought out all of his greatest hits, from decrying COVID-19 safety measures taken by other states to boasting about California residents moving to Florida. The crowd ate it up, but predictably: it was his attacks on transgender and non-binary existence that triggered a sudden thunderous standing ovation in the middle of his speech. None of this rhetoric resides in the vacuum of a looming presidential race. Florida is trailblazing alongside other states like Tennessee and Texas in a legislative blitzkrieg of proposed authoritarian measures. We are facing a Republican-led wave of autocratization, the process through which democracies backslide into authoritarianism, at the state-level in the United States. I call this interstate autocratization. Far-Right ideologues and radicalized Republican lawmakers have virtually automated this process with the engine of their “anti-woke” culture warring in the media and in state legislatures. This is the political vision that DeSantis pitched to California’s Republican elite, and it’s hardly unique.

In 2020, the University of Gothenburg in Sweden published a study about what they identified as the third wave of autocratization:

Less than 30 years after Fukuyama and others declared liberal democracy’s eternal dominance, a third wave of autocratization is manifest. Gradual declines of democratic regime attributes characterize contemporary autocratization. Yet, we lack the appropriate conceptual and empirical tools to diagnose and compare such elusive processes.

Anna Lührmann and Staffan I. Lindber, who penned the study, warned that “Democratic setbacks in countries as diverse as Brazil, Burundi, Hungary, Russia, Serbia, and Turkey” signaled this wave.

They emphasize that our modern democracies typically do not fall to sudden events like military coup d’etats anymore. Instead, we can see a vision of gradual Democratic erosion of rights through legal disguises and facades.

Researchers took issue with the term “democratic backsliding.” Specifically the “sliding” part, which they warn “makes it sound like an involuntary, unconscious process, which does not do justice to conscious actions political actors take in order to change a regime. It simply invokes the wrong kind of notion about the process.” Indeed, there is a conscious effort from the Republican Party to emulate and deify the exact authoritarian movements cited as harbingers of the third wave. Hungary’s Viktor Orbán was a speaker at last year’s CPAC. Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro was a speaker at this year’s CPAC. Republican sympathies for Putin’s regime in Russia has been a touchstone for the party’s age of fascist fantasizing for years now.

With this updated academic view on how Democracies fall into authoritarian rule: I believe a reexamination of the DeSantis legislative doctrine is in order— specifically through the lens of this current third wave of autocratization.

On Tuesday, the Florida legislature and Ron DeSantis boasted about their latest lawmaking victories: preventing lifesaving COVID-19 measures, shipping kidnapped unknowing asylum seekers around the nation for political stunts, and criminalizing education regarding Black and LGBTQ+ issues. And more bills are on the way. A draconian 6-week abortion ban, legalization of death sentences without unanimous jury recommendations, a bill that would allow the state to kidnap transgender and non-binary children, a de-facto plan to strip First Amendment protections from the press, the enshrinement of Confederate monuments, an expansion of the “Don’t Say Gay/Trans” law to extend all the way to eighth grade, a ban on college diversity measures, and the elimination of college major and minors about race, gender, or intersectionality.

This is not just a wave, it’s a tsunami. And it’s not just contained to washing onto Florida’s shores. At least three quarters of all states in the nation are proposing bills in their state legislatures that diminish basic human rights using the language and rhetoric of the “anti-woke” movement. The ACLU is currently tracking at least 389 anti-LGBTQ+ bills across 38 states this year. Some of these bills are already being signed into law— creating a legislative mirror to the infamous CPAC speech (also last weekend) by Daily Wire host Michael J. Knowles calling for a genocide to eradicate transgender and non-binary people from public life.

So perhaps it was fitting that Ron DeSantis gave his Sunday speech at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. The Reagan presidential regime can be seen as a bridge between the second and the third waves of autocratization. Cold War U.S. Imperialism, especially in the Reagan era, was characterized by forced anti-Democratic regime changes against Central American nations. The Reagan Doctrine was that of forced autocratization onto other nations as foreign policy: enforced at the barrel of fascist death squads, anti-Communist terrorist groups, and other CIA atrocities.

But DeSantis and the rest of his ilk are taking the Reagan Doctrine domestic. This is part of a concentrated effort to erode state democracies within the United States. All while, yet again, emboldening fascist militant groups and laying out the stage for the potential for discriminatory mass bloodshed.

DeSantis talks about how his government is where “woke goes to die.” But in his California speech, he ranted about “the left” considerably more times than he ranted about “woke-ism.” Interstate autocratization comes down to one simple truth: eliminating every ideology and movement left of your own autocracy.

As DeSantis closed out his California speech on Sunday, he left the audience with one last reminder: “The left is not going to let you advance [Ronald Reagan’s] agenda without contesting it.”

Around 100 anti-DeSantis protesters outside of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley on Sunday.

The DeSantis Doctrine is not an ambiguous one. It’s easier to define than Trumpism because DeSantis is quite a clear communicator. Autocratization is not his goal, it’s just the current tool in his hands. We are faced with a blueprint not unlike the first wave of autocratization. The original wave, which led to the invention of fascism and Nazism.

The University of Gothenburg study which first identified the third wave of autocratization made a point to remind its readers that as concerning as their findings were: panic wasn’t warranted. “The current declines are relatively mild and the global share of democratic countries remains close to its all-time high,” they point out. “As it was premature to announce the “end of history” in 1992, it is premature to proclaim the “end of democracy” now.”

Fascism is a loser ideology. It is an ouroboros that is innately outnumbered by the specifics of its beliefs. I would argue that there is certainly greater cause for concern nowadays than there was at the time of this study, but I agree with the study’s conclusion. Not only are autocrats and fascists heavily outnumbered (in the United States and on planet Earth), but solidarity among coalitions of human beings opposed to their rise is exploding across the globe. The more the far-Right overplays their hand, the more they lose moderates. Cultivating a popular front between liberals and leftists against this imminent fascist threat could easily topple the plans of would-be autocrats like DeSantis, Trump, or whoever the American supremacist machine proclaims as the nation’s next so-called leader.

cover photo: Vishal Singh

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Advocacy journalist and documentary filmmaker covering civil rights, police, and far-Right extremism. CashApp/Venmo: $vishalsinghfilms

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