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The “E” Word

Osita Nwanevu
8 min read
The “E” Word
Ron DeSantis (Gage Skidmore)

Hey all. Let’s hop to it.


I have the same expectations for the midterms now that I did before the Democratic primaries in 2020 and even earlier, actually ⁠— whenever it was I first read, under Obama probably, that the party in the White House tends to lose a meaningful number of seats even under decent political circumstances. The Democrats hold the House by just four seats at the moment; every bit of historical data you might care to look at suggests that Biden’s legislative term is just about over. But I don’t think the optimism a lot of people are feeling about November right now is entirely irrational. As I’ve written, the administration’s notched a few major and popular wins over the summer.

More importantly and remarkably, though, the Republicans are blowing it. Some of what’s happened in recent months has been out of their immediate control. As deeply as they wanted to see Roe overturned, I doubt many of the powers that be on the right wanted to see Dobbs happen when and how it did; the polls clearly indicate that most voters didn’t want it to happen at all. But figures in the movement are still pushing abortion into the headlines anyway ⁠— not just downballot candidates and media provocateurs, but the likes of Lindsay Graham, who just introduced a national abortion ban after 15 weeks to the consternation and bewilderment of Republicans on the Hill. He was condemned by Charlie Kirk for doing so.

From Politico:

Graham’s past pitches for a 20-week abortion ban attracted most Republicans’ support and even the votes of some Senate Democrats. His latest effort would leave in place state laws that are even more restrictive while also imposing new limits in blue states that currently have none. Coming less than 60 days before the midterms, it’s riled some Republicans, who are watching their once-dominant polling advantage shrink since the Roe reversal.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said that questions about the bill should be directed to Graham and that most Republican senators “prefer this be handled at the state level.” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) suggested Graham had gone a bit rogue with his latest legislation: “That wasn’t a conference decision. It was an individual senator’s decision.”
“There’s obviously a split of opinion in terms of whether abortion law should be decided by the states … and those who want to set some sort of minimum standard,” Cornyn said of the 50-member Senate GOP conference. “I would keep an open mind on this but my preference would be for those decisions to be made on a state-by-state basis.”

Then you have the latest installment of the Ron DeSantis Show. I’m certain he knows this even if his mushhead followers don’t, but there are few things the kind of “In This House,” but Not in My Backyard liberals they targeted on Martha’s Vineyard value more than opportunities to demonstrate how virtuous they are. By the accounts I’ve read, the community acquitted itself pretty well. Most voters aware this happened are thus coming away from this episode less focused on liberal hypocrisies than they are on the bizarre cruelties of nativist politics. If they keep it up, Republicans will be facing down the same opprobrium they were treated to after the family separations in 2018.

But, of course, the election on Ron DeSantis’ mind is the Republican primary in ‘24, not ‘22. So the migrant abuse will continue. From Mother Jones:

“We’ve got an infrastructure in place now. There’s going to be a lot more that’s happening,” DeSantis said Friday, according to CNN.
He noted that he plans to use “every penny” of the $12 million that Florida legislators had allocated to relocate migrants. Further flights are “likely,” and he is considering sending migrant buses like those Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey have used to shuttle thousands of asylum seekers to DC, New York City, and other urban Democratic strongholds, leaving officials and nonprofit workers scrambling to accommodate the newcomers.
He might even try and collaborate with Abbott, DeSantis said.

While the odds in federal elections are stacked in the right’s favor and only growing more so, the party’s tendency to lose itself in the delusions and ambitions of its loudest voices is costly; they’ll lose more races than they have real reason to.

That said, an infrastructure’s being built that might allow Republicans to steal the elections they flub. And the consequences of the antics DeSantis and others are trying out will be destructive and deadly whatever the results at the polls are. We’ve seen it in Buffalo, El Paso, Pittsburgh, at the Capitol, and elsewhere. People have died. People will continue to die. And Republican politicians will continue to use whatever levers of power are available to them ⁠— local, state, or federal ⁠— to abuse and terrorize the vulnerable. Can you imagine seeking refuge from violence and poverty with your family here only to be dumped somewhere like refuse in a political game? Can you imagine treating a human being this way? Can you imagine cheering it? It’s all fully beyond me. Sarah Jones at New York Magazine:

When two planeloads of migrants from Venezuela arrived in Martha’s Vineyard on Wednesday, they had no idea where they were or where they could go to find shelter. A woman called Perla had lured them onto the plane with promises of a journey to Boston and expedited work papers, NPR reports. “She offered us help. Help that never arrived,” one migrant, Andres Duarte, said. “Now we are here. We got on the plane with a vision of the future, of making it.” Duarte’s plight provokes comparisons to kidnapping or human trafficking; either way, the culprit is Ron DeSantis, the Republican governor of Florida. Although the migrants had been in Texas, DeSantis paid for the flight and had them dropped like refuse a world away.
DeSantis is hardly the only Republican to abuse migrants in this fashion. In Texas, Governor Greg Abbott has been sending busloads of people to liberal enclaves including Chicago, New York City, and Washington, D.C. So has Governor Doug Ducey of Arizona. With each plane- or busload a transformation steadily nears its completion, and once finished, it can’t easily be undone: The GOP is becoming the party of inhumanity.

Yet again, there are strikingly clear and direct antecedents to what’s happening on the right today in America’s reactionary past. Mother Jones’ Isabela Dias on the “Reverse Freedom Rides” of 1962:

On May 22, 1962, Victoria Bell and her 11 children, ranging in age from two to 14, arrived in Hyannis, Massachusetts, after a days-long bus ride to Cape Cod from Little Rock, Arkansas. Amis Guthridge, an attorney and the leader of the southern segregationist group, the Capital Citizens’ Council, gave Bell $60 and paid for the family’s one-way tickets north. Bell was forced to care for her children with little support after her husband left and the local government cut off her welfare. In a photo from that time, she and her sons and daughters can be seen waving in front of a sign for the Cape Cod Community College, which had been turned into temporary housing for her and other families. “I hope my children get a better chance here,” Bell told the Boston Globe. The following day, Lela Mae Williams, a mother of nine from Huttig, Arkansas, disembarked from a Greyhound bus at a stop near President John F. Kennedy’s summer home in Hyannis. She had heard about “free rides” on a Louisiana radio station and been lured by promises of housing, job prospects, and a presidential welcome at their final destination.
It was all a cruel hoax.
Bell and Williams were among almost 100 people to be shipped under false pretenses to the resort town over the spring and summer of 1962 as part of a white supremacist campaign to send Black people from the South to northern cities. Overall, some 200 people were bused to Chicago, Cleveland, New York, Los Angeles, and other cities in Indiana, Idaho, and New Hampshire. The political ploy was a retaliation for the Freedom Rides from the previous year, when a group of 13 Black and white civil rights activists with the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) embarked on southbound buses from Washington, DC, to protest continued segregation in interstate transportation despite the Supreme Court having ruled that it was unconstitutional. What became known as the “Reverse Freedom Rides” was meant to embarrass liberal politicians fighting for civil rights and presumably expose their hypocrisy by confronting them with the demand to live up to their values and assist the Black southerners. “We want to see if Northern politicians really love the Negro or whether they love his vote,” Guthridge said. He framed the unapologetically racist campaign as being beneficent and humanitarian and then underscored its basic intent: “And we want to acquaint the North, which has been making the South a whipping boy with some Southern problems.”

As many times as I’ve said it over the past few years, it bears repeating. The problem we’re dealing with fundamentally here ⁠— the problem we’ll still be left with whenever Donald Trump leaves the stage ⁠— is conservatism. It is an ideology of cruelty in the service of hierarchy ⁠— of dominating the justifiably weak and powerless. Trump made himself a willing servant of that mission for baubles and praise; he wasn’t a particularly efficient one. DeSantis is. And people – left and right– are starting to get it. The New York Times Magazine profiled him just before the migrant stunt:

Across the Republican factions unsure if they are approaching an eventual Trump-free future or still living in an interminable Trump present, DeSantis has been permitted to subsist as a kind of Schrödinger’s candidate, both Trump and Not Trump. He can present as an iron-fisted imitation, touring the country in August with a slate of Trump endorsees who lie about the 2020 election. He can cosplay as the post-Trump choice for those desperate for a post-Trump party — a Yale- and Harvard-educated man of letters just winking at the party’s extremes. He can pitch himself, especially, as the “Trump, but ...” candidate — an Evolutionary Trump, the 2.0 — defined most vividly by what DeSantis has learned by watching: Here is Trump, but more strategic about his targets; Trump, but restrained enough to keep his Twitter accounts from suspension; Trump, but not under federal investigation.
[...] If a DeSantis campaign would be a referendum on which parts of Trumpism voters value most — the burn-it-all fury at elites? The perpetual grievances? The blunt-force magnetism of Trump himself? — DeSantis’s read is that the signal trait worth emulating, and then heightening, is more elemental. It is about projecting the political fearlessness to crush adversaries with administrative precision.
Perhaps no current officeholder has been more single-minded about turning the gears of state against specific targets. Trump groused about local Democrats who defied him; DeSantis dug up a 1930s precedent in suspending an elected prosecutor who, amid the overturning of Roe v. Wade and a state crackdown on providing gender-affirming treatment to minors, vowed not to criminalize abortion or transgender care. Other governors denounced Covid-vaccine mandates; DeSantis’s administration threatened the Special Olympics, hosting a competition in Orlando, with tens of millions in fines if the organization refused to lift a requirement for athletes and staff. (The group backed down.) Conservatives have long condemned creeping progressivism in classrooms and boardrooms; DeSantis last spring signed the “Stop W.O.K.E. Act” (short for “Stop the Wrongs to Our Kids and Employees”) aimed at race-conscious teachings. “For years, many conservatives understood culture war as lamentation: They believed that complaining about progressive ideology and hypocrisy was a victory in itself,” Christopher Rufo, a conservative activist who by invitation advised DeSantis’s policy team on “Stop W.O.K.E.” and appeared with the governor to promote it, told me. “Governor DeSantis understands culture war as public policy.”

I’ve written before about why I’m not happy with the phrase “culture war.” The “fascism” debate, while well-intentioned, still seems mostly academic to me. The word that fits best for me here ⁠— a word that even those most critical of the right have been loathe to use since Trump’s rise ⁠— is evil. I don’t think there are good substitutes. Materially and within living memory, America has been much worse. We’ve made an extraordinary amount of social progress over the last half century and even within the last decade. I take pains to remind people that even voters on the right are demonstrably more progressive on social issues than they were 20 or 30 years ago. All of that said, the conservative movement is in the throes of utter degeneracy. Its resentments have killed and will kill again; its allies in the world of business, who all of this is for, don’t care. We're up against forces that can't be defeated at the ballot box alone. The polls are looking up. But I’m not looking forward to November.

A Song

“Save the Country” ⁠— Laura Nyro (1969)