In the 24 hours or so since Ron DeSantis sent two planes carrying migrants to Martha’s Vineyard, the move has dominated the political world. Every newspaper and cable channel is filled with thoughts about the move, with much of that opinion tilting toward outrage over the Florida Republican governor treating people like political pawns.
“It’s outrageous,” New Jersey Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez said of the move. “They lure people, like human traffickers lure people, onto buses and unknowing where they’re going to. They have no concern for – they supposedly are the advocates for human life. They have no concern for the lives of these people.”
DeSantis couldn’t have scripted it any better politically.
The simple fact is that DeSantis made this Martha’s Vineyard gambit solely to draw attention to himself and his opposition to the border policies of the Biden administration. It was, to be frank, a stunt. And it’s not the first time he’s done something like this.
* In the spring of 2022, DeSantis’ administration rejected 41% of proposed math textbooks because they were allegedly “indoctrinating” kids. “Some publishers attempted to slap a coat of paint on an old house built on the foundation of Common Core, and indoctrinating concepts like race essentialism, especially, bizarrely, for elementary school students,” DeSantis said in a statement explaining the move.
* At a press conference at the University of South Florida earlier this year, DeSantis scolded students for wearing masks while indoors. “You do not have to wear those masks,” he said. “I mean, please take them off. Honestly, it’s not doing anything. We’ve got to stop with this Covid theater. So if you want to wear it, fine, but this is ridiculous.”
* DeSantis revoked Disney’s special self-governance status in Florida following the company’s criticism of the state’s passage of legislation that bans the discussion of gender and sexuality among young people in public schools. “You’re a corporation based in Burbank, California, and you’re going to marshal your economic might to attack the parents of my state,” said DeSantis. “We view that as a provocation, and we’re going to fight back against that.”
Each of these incidents drew national headlines. Each of them drew intense criticism from the left. And each of them drew equal amounts of praise from the conservative right.
Which is exactly how the Martha Vineyard’s stunt has played out. While DeSantis was blasted by Democrats, the right ran to defend him. “DeSantis was right to send migrants to Martha’s Vineyard. We need to bring border crisis to Democrats,” read an op-ed on Fox News’ website.
For DeSantis, the outrage – on both sides – is the point. He has built a political brand on the idea of standing up to what he views as political correctness and wokeness. (DeSantis signed a bill into law earlier this year designed to “protect Floridians from discrimination and woke indoctrination.”) In order to maintain and burnish that image, he has to do even more outrageous things – like the Martha’s Vineyard move.
The fact of the matter – whether you like DeSantis or not – is that his outrage machine is humming along. Largely riding his knack for stirring controversy, he has emerged by many measures as the second-most popular Republican in the country – behind only Donald Trump. He is regarded as a heavy favorite to win a second term over his Democratic opponent, former Gov. Charlie Crist, in November. And he is widely regarded as the only candidate who could credibly challenge Trump in a 2024 Republican primary.
Which is somewhat ironic. Because, as Trump likes to remind anyone who asks, he helped make DeSantis by endorsing him in a primary fight in 2018. And DeSantis has quite clearly modeled his approach to politics off of the ripped-from-the-headlines strategy employed by Trump.
In fact, what DeSantis is offering Republican voters amounts to Trumpism without Trump. In DeSantis, you get all the anti-wokeness that Trump built a presidential campaign and presidency on, but just without some of the more embarrassing personal foibles and tics that the former President brings with him.
And, just like Trump, covering DeSantis provides a significant challenge for the media as well. DeSantis wants – and even courts – the scorn of the mainstream media for gambits like the one in Martha’s Vineyard. He knows that the more negative attention he gets, the better liked he is among the Republican base and the more money he can raise for his future political endeavors.
Not covering someone like DeSantis – the governor of a major state and someone with national ambitions – is out of the question. But how DeSantis – and his stunts – are covered is something that the media needs to think seriously on as we move closer to 2024.