Sometimes politicians try to emulate Donald Trump’s strongman approach to politics by exercising cruelty, but they don’t come off as strong, they just come off as cruel.
That’s the lesson of Ron DeSantis’ executive action this past week to relocate 48 migrants already 1,000 miles away from his Governor’s mansion to a destination far, far away from the Florida capital. It wasn’t strength on display, nor swagger, it certainly wasn’t conservatism, nor charity, nor Christianity — it was cruelty. Selfish and dark hearted. Racist in its foundation, xenophobic, and hateful.
The Florida Governor seized on the peril of these men, women, and children in one of the most vulnerable moments in their lives, treated them as political chattel in service to his own White House ambition, and rather than offer them respite in what he promotes as “The Free State of Florida”, instead shipped them to Massachusetts as his political pawns, as his property. It was a despicable, disgusting act of inhumanity worthy of universal condemnation.
And though the moral sin is what must be recorded by history, his predictably incredulous defense likewise reflects a dishonesty too often accepted by voters, and at times the press.
The Governor’s defense, and that of leading Republicans, was to suggest that these actions were taken in response to failed federal border security policy. Essentially offering a both-sidism defense, or as one leading analyst suggested in their reporting this week, “on the one hand, on the other hand.”
But there are not two sides to cruelty. There’s one. The Governor did not act in furtherance of a change to federal border security policy, he lashed out cruelly, with smugness, and to elicit tacit prejudices against black and brown individuals, against migrants, and against those with little means.
Which is why his actions must not be given equity with discussions of federal border security policy. It is more accurate instead to understand that multiple things may be true at the same time.
A governor can reveal himself an inhumane performative politician, and U.S. border policy under multiple administrations can be scrutinized for having failed to fully achieve both security and humanity.
In the case of the Florida Governor, he has spent three years urging people to leave Democratic-run states and move to Florida, under his vision of a welcoming Administration. He has bragged about the Sunshine State’s friendly climate for business, for taxes, and the chance to be free of community regulations he despises. He wants to “Make America Florida”. But it’s now clear those are merely promises for the wealthy and white.
The U.S. Supreme Court declared immigration a matter of federal jurisdiction, not state, in a landmark 1875 decision. In the years that followed, the poet Emma Lazarus penned her famous “The New Colossus”, which school kids learn as the inspiring words of welcome now inscribed on the pedestal of the Statute of Liberty.
We know the line by heart. “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” But it’s the line that precedes those famous words that bring the actions of this past week into stark clarity.
“Keep, oh ancient lands, your storied pomp,” the poem reads. Other nations may keep, she is saying, their famous, their fabulous, their wealthy and successful. “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”
Where Emma Lazarus saw despair, she declared a refuge. Where Governor DeSantis saw despair, he declared his cruelty.
The words of Ms. Lazarus have been remembered for generations. May the actions of Governor DeSantis this past week be remembered for generations as well.