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In the 1990s, the sharp-witted Texan and renowned progressive writer Molly Ivins regaled (and appalled) readers with her reports on the tragicomic awfulness of George W. Bush’s two terms as the Lone Star State’s governor. His tenure was notable for his deep ignorance, frat-boy arrogance, and flagrant servility to corporate interests. But those very qualities made America’s moneyed powers decide that–Wow!–wouldn’t he make a dandy president? Molly warned the general public about the folly of that choice, but in the 2000 race, W’s patrons stuffed him with money, buffed him up with a glossy coat of PR Shinola, pulled off a flagrant post-election political heist in Florida … and squeegeed him, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Ashcroft, and that whole regime of horrors into office.
Many Americans soon began expressing astonishment at how shallow, imperious, and dangerous Bush & Company were proving to be, leading Molly to say with a heavy sigh: “Next time I tell you someone from Texas should not be president of the United States, please pay attention.”
Don’t look now, but another Texas gubernatorial goober is coming at you. Named Greg Abbott, he’s insisting that he should be your next president. Sadly, Molly is gone, but I knew her well enough that I think I can speak for her on this matter of national import: NO!
I realize we haven’t even gotten to the midterm elections but, alas, we need to focus on presidential politics, too. An especially large danger looms, and progressives can’t just sit back and wait for it to hit us in November 2024. Excuse the redundancy here, but right-wing extremism has become extremely extreme, and a virulent version of it is now festering in the Republican hierarchy, about to erupt in the presidential primary.
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Perhaps you remember Sen. Barry Goldwater, the GOP’s 1964 White House nominee. A fringe laissez-fairyland ideologue, he famously said, “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.” Today’s Republican core, however, has gone so far beyond the fringe that they would boo Goldwater’s right-wingism as insufficiently rabid. Instead, their new rallying cry is: “Nuttiness in the defense of extremism is no vice.”
The GOP as a whole has mutated from a conservative party with some extremist factions to effectively proclaiming itself The Party of Extremism. Its mainline officialdom (governors, congressional leaders, state reps, judges, party chairs, et al.) are no longer just winking at such antidemocratic, far-right groups as neo-Confederates, paranoid “replacement” theorists, secessionists, and Q-Anon cultists–they are openly embracing The Crazy. Hoping to enlist the raw political fervor of dogmatic rightists, local, state, and national Republican establishments are mainstreaming the extreme: Parroting many of those groups’ wilder claims, adopting their code words, and endorsing their adherents for elected and appointed offices. And, of course, all of this fanatical horsepower is quietly being hitched to the party’s true purpose of entrenching the supremacy of corporate and moneyed elites.
In addition to the possibility of another Trump run, their 2024 presidential ballot is shaping up as a scramble among this breed of up-and-coming, unprincipled politicos. Several were once considered at least borderline sane, but all are now vying to out-extreme each other with raw-meat bigotry, total-BS demagoguery, and autocratic political stunts. To advance their own ambitions, they hope to pull America down into the political maelstrom they’re creating, which is why we cannot hesitate to call out and confront them.
As prime examples, the Lowdown crew has pulled together profiles of key policies and actions pushed by two of their loudest champions of radical rightism: Greg Abbott of Texas and Ron DeSantis of Florida. For months these big-state governors have been locked in a right-wing presidential Kook Off, hoping to be chosen standard bearer for the party’s new extremist mainstream. Bear in mind that Abbott and DeSantis are not merely pontificating, posturing, and promising what they might do in the White House–as governors they’re actually practicing it right now!
A Petty Potentate for President?
Abbott, a governor with no talent for governing, has run up a record noted for spectacular program failures, corporate bootlicking, widening inequality, corruption, and political buffoonery. If that’s your idea of a president, there he is. Let me bear witness to just a few of his shortcomings:
- An absolutist repressor of women’s fundamental right to control their own bodies, the guv rammed a vicious provision into state law last year forcing victims of rape to give birth to the rapist’s spawn. No problem, wizard Abbott explained, for he promised to “eliminate all rapists from the streets of Texas by aggressively going out and arresting them and prosecuting them” before they rape. So, he assures us, “no woman … will be a victim of rape.” Magical!
- He has repeatedly and churlishly refused to expand the federal Medicaid program to benefit about 5.4 million poor families (almost 20% of Texans, including nearly a million children) who have no health coverage at all–the worst record in America–while state taxpayers provide full health coverage to Abbott and family.
- The Texas energy grid, supposedly regulated by Abbott appointees, in fact is controlled by the corporate gas and utility profiteers who fund his political races. During a weeklong deep freeze in 2021, the entire grid failed, causing a statewide power and water outage, killing more than 700 Texans, and costing workers, farmers, and local businesses billions of dollars in losses. The main cause was abject failure by the governor and GOP legislature to require that energy giants simply weatherize the grid–like other states do. Abbott’s incompetence was a nationwide embarrassment, but the industry loved it, for it capitalized on the disaster by drastically jacking-up prices. Gas sellers reaped an $11 billion windfall, with just one of Abbott’s pipeline backers pocketing $2.4 billion (!). Only four months later, that pipeline huckster cut a $1 million thank-you check to Abbott’s re-election campaign.
There’s so awful much more in Abbott’s tenure: An ideological frenzy of book banning, his disastrous Covid policies that killed tens of thousands, a recent push to privatize schools, outlawing the teaching of real history, blatant suppression of Black voters, autocratic preemption of local authority, etc. But the centerpiece of Abbott’s extremist agenda, the one he’s banking on to catapult him to the top of the GOP’s 2024 heap: His relentless assault on Latino migrants seeking refuge from rampant murder, rape, gang brutality, and poverty in their homelands.
The Little General. For a guy who shunned actual military service, Abbott has gone all-MachoMilitaryMan as governor, casting himself as heroic general in the right wing’s fanciful “war” against these poor migrants, largely children, and shamefully demonizing them as marauding “invaders.” At ludicrous PR events he stages along the Rio Grande, Abbott dresses up in a field-command shirt with a fake badge insignia and positions armed troopers around him so he can pose as comandante of the farce he calls “Operation Lone Star.”
And what a costly political show it’s been. For over a year now, Abbott has diverted about a third of Texas Highway Patrol troopers to the borderland, and yanked 10,000 National Guard members from their homes and jobs to help “police” immigrants, the majority of whom are peaceful asylum seekers. In May, after his border bravado had already cost Texas taxpayers $4 billion, he lifted another half-a-billion bucks from other state programs to keep his show running.
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For what? Since only the feds can enforce immigration policies, and borderland crime or drug problems have not increased, Abbott has puffed up arrest numbers by directing police to catch-and-jail immigrants for misdemeanor trespassing on private property. Thus, hundreds of migrants were summarily incarcerated for weeks without formal charges or access to lawyers. This dragnet overwhelmed county jails and courts, so Abbott quietly issued “emergency” no-bid contracts to handpicked corporations to jerry-rig a whole new system of temporary jails and courts, costing taxpayers undisclosed millions more.
Meanwhile, National Guard soldiers, who have no authority to arrest migrants, had nothing to do but stand around, rarely ever encountering an “invader.” If they did see a criminal-looking person, all they could do was call the US Border Patrol. “We’re essentially mall security,” moaned one. “We are disposable in the eyes of top leaders, from the governor on down,” said another, adding that “the leadership failures of this mission will be a case study … for years to come.” In October, Abbott showed his appreciation for the guard members he’s using as political stooges by slashing their college tuition benefits in half.
Wait … there’s more! In a silly partisan ploy, El Jefe Abbott thought he’d embarrass Biden this spring by rounding up several hundred refugees at the border, pile them into buses, drive them to DC, and dump them on the White House lawn. Ha! Take that, Joe! Only, many of Abbott’s bussed pawns were hoping to link up with East Coast relatives and friends and were glad for the free ride. Churches and migrant advocates organized to welcome each of dozens of Abbott’s busloads, helping locate them in communities across the country. Thanks, Greg! Humiliated and mocked, he had to cancel his “joke”–but still hasn’t told Texas taxpayers how many millions of dollars it cost them. I’m telling you, the poor guy can’t even do wrong right. But he’ll keep trying.
The Sunshine State’s Dark Bully
Many members of the extremist establishment have a new darling in Ron DeSantis. For example, the editor of the far-right National Review recently gushed that, second only to Trump, the Florida governor is “the hottest thing” in GOP politics: “Ron DeSantis is the new Republican Party.”
Interesting, because what characterizes Ron’s tenure (and prompts a collective swoon for him within the rightist hierarchy) is his strongman authoritarianism. Indeed, DeSantis puts the bull in bully, bellowing “culture war” hooey, demonizing immigrants, fabricating claims of voter fraud, promoting Covid lies, and so forth. Then he imperiously asserts government power to bully majority will, local communities, workers, the poor, Florida’s environment, truth, fairness, honesty, and democracy. Consider just a few of DeSantis’ autocratic moves that, curiously, are thrilling many who once professed to be small government “conservatives.” They are now cheering for him to go national with his reliance on Big Government Boss-ism to usurp the people’s democratic authority:
Ron’s Poll Tax. Like other Republican-run states, DeSantis’s Florida keeps manufacturing ways to restrict voter participation, in particular blocking African-Americans from the polls. In 2018, however, Floridians themselves rebuked the suppressors by approving a ballot measure to expand the electorate. A whopping 65% said YES to eliminating a vindictive lifelong ban on voting by ex-felons–people who had served their time. This long overdue measure of simple justice (approved, in fact, by a much bigger margin of voters than DeSantis got that year) re-enfranchised about 1.4 million former felons.
But wait–DeSantis had old Jim Crow up his sleeve! In 2019, he rammed a mean technical gotcha into state law, preventing former felons from voting until they pay in full any court fines (many arbitrarily and unfairly assessed years ago for things like marijuana possession). The fines can run thousands of dollars, so the new law priced a big percentage of these newly eligible voters out of democratic participation. It’s nothing but a crude partisan poll tax to keep a select group of poor people from casting ballots.
DeSantis-Fication. Don’t like how people voted? Just nullify them. In Orange County–a sprawling central Florida region that includes Orlando, Disney World, and a blessing of lakes, marshes, and wildlife, including endangered manatees–years of heedless developer greed has been poisoning all of the above. The people have long petitioned their local and state officials to protect this invaluable ecosystem … but nada. So, in 2020, an innovative local group called Speak Up Wekiva worked to place an amendment on the county ballot to extend legal rights directly to waterways. This measure would allow nature itself to bypass do-nothing, corrupted officials and protect its inherent right to exist and thrive (see the January 2022 Lowdown). Corporate powers and their politicians squawked like Chicken Littles and went all out to kill the very idea of such direct grassroots democracy. To their astonishment, though, the initiative didn’t just pass, it was swept into law by a stunning 89% majority of the voters. (By the way, the county has a mainstream electorate, split more or less evenly among Republicans, Democrats, and Independents.)
The Speech Nanny
To relax, DeSantis turns to a favorite hobby: Monitoring, scolding, and proscribing Floridians’ free speech rights: [Read more]
But the people be damned. Unbeknownst to the voters, DeSantis’s legislative allies had snuck a nullification provision into state law just prior to the Orange County election, preemptively canceling any local attempt to grant protective rights to nature.
Appalled by such devious corporate servitude, the Florida Rights of Nature Network is now organizing a statewide constitutional ballot initiative to grant all Floridians a fundamental “Right to Clean and Healthy Waters”–an inviolate democratic measure enabling the people to hold state executives accountable in court when they fail to protect Florida waters (see floridarighttocleanwater.org).
It can happen here
As with Abbott, the extreme ugliness within DeSantis has yet to be fully plumbed. Indeed, it keeps surging as his ego and presidential ambition combine and combust, spewing out evermore autocratic, abusive, self-aggrandizing schemes and scams. For example, this month, Florida’s supreme leader announced that he intends to form his own military force, a state army that would report only to him (bypassing the US chain of command) “to protect the state” in case of “emergencies.” What’s an emergency? He’ll decide.
All of this comes at taxpayer expense, of course, but most intolerable is the steady drip-drip-drip of power it drains from America’s democratic ideals and commitment to the Common Good. I can’t say that Abbott and DeSantis are the worst that the GOP will try to put in the White House in 2024, but either one is a signpost of an increasingly assertive American fascism.
We have to call it what it is, and rise against it now.
👇 DO SOMETHING 👇
Rising up against the extremely extreme–and winning a democracy in which people are safe, healthy, happy, and whole.
Here at the Lowdown, we are continually inspired by the workaday Americans doing creative, multi-racial community organizing. Their tireless work is our best hope–not only for beating back authoritarian kooks like Abbott and DeSantis, but more than that, for winning a genuinely small-d democratic system that works for all.
Here are some groups in Texas and Florida you’ll want to know about. Our space is limited, so do some web surfing to find out more!
- Florida Rising floridarising.org
- Faith in Florida faithinflorida.org
- Progress Texas progresstexas.org
- Workers Defense Project workersdefense.org
- Jolt jolttx.org
And then there’s the $$$$ … Who gives the big bucks that fund Abbott, DeSantis, and other autocrat wannabes? A lot of their money comes from brand-name corporations. And guess what? We don’t have to give our business to those businesses. To follow the money, check out investigative digger Judd Legum’s digital newsletter: Popular Information popular.info