DeSantis: A governor flirting with authoritarianism

By Dennis Catrini

Benito Mussolini, founder of modern fascism and former Prime Minister of Italy, was known for his authoritarian rule and suppression of democratic values. During his reign, Mussolini championed policies that restricted freedom of expression, stifled dissenters, and spread distrust in the media and democratic government institutions. When Mussolini established the High Commission for the Press in 1929, he claimed that the commission would not infringe on the press’s liberty. However, Mussolini’s minister of justice, Alfredo Rocco, exploited loopholes to censor non-compliant newspapers and leveraged  existing laws to prosecute journalists and editors for offenses such as “libel,” or “inciting-violence.” Sound bites such as “activities against the national interest” and “loyalty to the Fatherland,” frequently replaced any mentions of opposition.

And then there’s Republican Governor of Florida, Ron DeSantis. DeSantis gained national attention and popularity during his successful 2018 campaign for governor, largely due to an endorsement by former President Donald Trump. Currently, he is being touted as a potential presidential candidate, with some Republicans viewing him as a potential contender for the party’s presidential nomination in 2024. 

In February 2023, at a press conference in Ocala, Florida, DeSantis dismissed an attack from Trump, and when asked about it, he very clearly stated, “I spend my time delivering results for the people of Florida and fighting against Joe Biden; that’s how I spend my time,” he continues, “I don’t spend my time trying to smear other Republicans.”

That statement perfectly defines DeSantis, a governor whose leadership mantra diverges from Trump’s loud, obnoxious, and ineffective leadership style that did little to promote, deliver, or codify the conservative agenda for Republicans. Conservatives looking to recoup from Trump’s poor performance count on DeSantis instead and mostly appreciate his strong legislative action against progressive-associated ideals. His campaign website even advertises $25 t-shirts with the phrase “Freedom Lives Here,” implying that freedom dies over “there”—with the Democrats.

DeSantis’ overwhelming support among Floridians began when he beat Democrat Charlie Crist in the 2022 midterms by a wide margin of 20 points. His victory proved that conservatives could rally behind a new leader who can walk the walk, and DeSantis’ “no-words, just action” leadership is doing just that. During January’s inaugural address at the Florida capitol, DeSantis echoed his new vision for Florida, announcing “Freedom lives here in our great sunshine state of Florida.” There is just one problem: freedom won’t thrive in Florida because of DeSantis.

While Mussolini rallied his group of supporters and forced the King of Italy, Victor Emmanuel III, to appoint him Prime Minister; DeSantis won a majority of his votes and worked hard on his campaign—but that does not mean DeSantis’ actions don’t raise concerns.

DeSantis claims to be a role model for free speech and expression, however, he has leveraged state  authority to actively retaliate against private companies for speaking out against his “Parental Rights in Education Bill,” also known as the “Don’t Say, Gay Bill.” In April 2022, DeSantis signed a bill revoking The Walt Disney Company’s control over its own self-governed special district within the state, putting an end to the benefits Disney has enjoyed for 55 years. 

So why, after fifty years, was Disney’s special district suddenly revoked? Answer: Bob Chapek, the CEO of Disney at the time, had the audacity to publicly condemn the new Parental Rights in Education Bill. Chapek, speaking on behalf of Disney, assumed that American companies, under protection from the First Amendment, could freely criticize public policy without fear of government retaliation. What Chapek didn’t realize was that DeSantis’ feelings had been hurt. 

Shortly after Disney’s statement on the bill, DeSantis enacted a style of revenge governance by using legislation to harm a private company, simply because the company publicly opposed a bill he enacted. This was a clear sign of DeSantis acting out of pure emotion, anger, and personal vendetta rather than political/legislative necessity. A spokesperson for DeSantis told Bloomberg that his attempt to remove Disney’s special tax district wasn’t a retaliation, but rather an attempt  to create a “fairer environment for all companies to do business.” However, DeSantis himself seemed to contradict this in his remarks before signing the bill into law. 

“You’re a corporation based in Burbank, California,” DeSantis proclaimed. “And you’re going to marshall your economic power to attack the parents of my state? We view that as a provocation, and we’re gonna fight back against that.” 

As of February 2023, DeSantis signed another bill granting the state full control of Disney’s special authority district, technically recognized as the Reedy Creek Improvement District. It authorizes the governor to select a new five-member board, in lieu of the present board, which consists primarily of individuals affiliated with Disney. 

“Today, the corporate kingdom finally comes to an end,” DeSantis ominously stated on Feb. 27 at a Reedy Creek fire station in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. “There’s a new sheriff in town and accountability will be the order of the day.” 

To clarify, Disney was not threatening anyone in the state. They were not breaking any laws. The company simply expressed an opinion about one of the governor’s bills, now DeSantis is waging war. Anyone who claims to respect the U.S. Constitution, in particular the First Amendment, should be very concerned about this. 

Fortunately, even though the governor’s goal was to hurt Disney, it failed to do so. Many on the Right expressed joy, falsely claiming that “woke” Disney will now have to pay $200 million in taxes annually. However, Disney World actually contributed more than $780 million in state and local taxes in the fiscal year 2021 as indicated in their company disclosure. Many actually argued that the benefits offered by Disney’s special district far outweighed the harm. 

For example, before the district revocation, Disney was responsible for bearing the cost of maintaining and funding all of the civil and utility infrastructure in the zone. This is significant because the cost of maintaining and funding civil and utility infrastructure is very burdensome for state budgets, and this is happening at a time when Florida currently holds the fifth-largest amount of outstanding debt among all fifty states in the US. It is believed that Florida taxpayers could be on the hook for $1 billion in Disney debt bonds as the special district is revoked. Thanks, DeSantis! The average Floridian citizen issues their gratitude for your service as governor!

On a separate note, in April 2021, DeSantis signed an “anti-riot” law that stiffened penalties for demonstrators in the aftermath of the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests. Many legal experts and judges saw the bill as excessive and unclear, meanwhile, local towns saw it as the state government overstepping its authority because the state would now have greater control over their local budgets. Most notably, it includes provisions that grant the governor control over local budgets, and whether elected leaders choose to reduce law enforcement funding. In response, Tallahassee joined eight other cities in Florida challenging the law. So what happened to Republicans opposing “big and evil” government involvement? 

State attorney Andrew Warren noted that the anti-riot bill does nothing to help police identify bad actors within larger law-abiding groups and determine who did what, and consequently, law enforcement faced challenges enforcing it. Additionally, the bill does nothing to improve public safety, as existing laws are already powerful enough to limit any unrest. The new bill just adds additional regulation in areas where it isn’t warranted. Strengthening bills that suppress dissenting voices, is a favored tradition among authoritarians, specifically because it increases the likelihood of dissenters, innocent or not, being arrested and charged.

Warren continued, noting that his office is currently prosecuting dozens of people in connection to last May’s unrest following the death of George Floyd. Other legal figures such as Chief U.S. District Judge Mark Walker affirmed that Gov. DeSantis could not credibly argue that this new definition of ‘riot’ was not intended to empower law enforcement officers against those who may criticize their legal authority. U.S. Circuit Judge Elizabeth Branch, a Trump appointee, questioned a hypothetical scenario in which a protest initially begins peacefully, but then a group of 10 individuals with ill intent begin to cause violent disruption. The judge warned that “certain lines get blurry” when deciding who is committing wrongdoing. Identifying the individuals accountable for an abrupt and unforeseen escalation of disorder can be complex, and therefore increase the probability of convicting innocent people. Furthermore, U.S. Circuit Judge Edward Carnes, appointed by former President George H. W. Bush added there doesn’t seem to be a clear line between what defines peaceful and violent protests. As indicated by these judges, both liberal and conservative, the vagueness of the bill easily subjects nonviolent participants in certain protests to criminal liability. 

Authoritarian leaders, like Mussolini, love ambiguity because it gives them broad powers to interpret and enforce the law as they see fit, often with little oversight or accountability. Interestingly, the U.S. Constitution does not tolerate the degree of vagueness, as instituted in the anti-riot bill. The due process doctrine, or Vagueness Doctrine, in the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments, prohibits criminal prosecution for laws where it is impossible to understand what conduct is prohibited. In September 2021, U.S. District Judge Walker would later block the law, ruling that it is “vague and overbroad” and amounted to an assault on First Amendment rights of free speech and assembly as well as the Constitution’s due process protections. As of Jan. 10, 2023, the preliminary injunction blocking the law remains in effect as the Federal Appeals Court seeks guidance from the Florida Supreme Court.

DeSantis’ irreverence for free speech has precipitated into the legislative branch of the state government. Republican state senator Jason T. Brodeur proposed Senate Bill 1316: Information Dissemination, which would require bloggers who write about DeSantis, Attorney General Ashley Moody, and other members of the state’s executive cabinet or legislature to either register with the state or face the possibility of fines (up to $2,500 per report). As expected, the proposed bill is causing a great deal of bipartisan concern. Just recently, the former Republican Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, criticized the bill. 

“The idea that bloggers criticizing a politician should register with the government is insane,” Gingrich wrote on Twitter. “It is an embarrassment that it is a Republican state legislator in Florida who introduced a bill to that effect. He should withdraw it immediately.”

The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), the nation’s leading defender of First Amendment rights, scathingly noted that “The Bill is an affront to the First Amendment and our national commitment to freedom of the press.” Adding that, “It is an unimaginable legislative proposal that would undoubtedly make John Peter Zenger and James Madison turn in their graves.” FIRE is 100% correct. 

The bill is yet another recent attempt by DeSantis and his allies to stifle any form of dissent in Florida. It is evident that mandating citizens and journalists to register their publications with the government while facing the possibility of fines fundamentally contradicts the core values upon which our nation was founded. DeSantis has not marked any opposition towards the bill, and it would still need to pass both chambers of the Florida legislature. However, if recent actions from DeSantis offer any insight, the governor would assuredly sign the bill into law to benefit his own interests, similar to the way Mussolini structured public policy to ensure his rise to power. 

The Governor’s actions demonstrate a poor commitment to democratic principles and a high potential for authoritarianism; his willingness to use his power to restrict civil liberties and limit public dissent should be noted. Voters should judge DeSantis, as with any politician, with a critical eye and a willingness to engage in a thoughtful and informed discussion about the issues at stake. By doing so, voters can help to ensure that the democratic system remains strong, vibrant, and responsive to the needs and concerns of all citizens. 

It is impossible to overlook the similarities between the leadership styles of Mussolini and DeSantis. What makes DeSantis unique and poses a serious threat to American freedom is his intellectual capacity to effectively combat opposing views, something which the last Republican poster child, Trump, lacked. This intellectual prowess grants DeSantis the ability to formulate and implement policies that, although on the surface may seem reasonable, actually serve to undermine the very principles of democracy and civil liberties that America holds dear. As a result, it is imperative that the public remain vigilant and informed to ensure that their voices are heard and that their rights are protected.