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Ron DeSantis' Florida state military plan echoes Trump's autocratic aspirations

The governor is a leader in GOP efforts to create environments conducive to authoritarianism, from opposing Covid vaccination mandates to critical race theory fearmongering.

Dressed in a dark suit and flanked by robust National Guard members, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis projected a tough-guy air as he proposed a Florida State Guard that would assist the National Guard in state emergencies. Hurricanes and other disasters occur regularly in Florida, and 22 other states have similar guards, also known as state militias, that answer directly to their governors. DeSantis' request for an armed corps "not encumbered by the federal government" that could "mobilize very, very quickly" isn't unprecedented.

Yet, this is an exceptional, and exceptionally dangerous, time in American history. And DeSantis has emerged as a leader in the Republican Party's efforts to create an environment conducive to authoritarian actions. He clearly views the autocratic former President Donald Trump as his role model, down to his mimicry of Trump's body language, and he has made Florida a laboratory of a Trump-style governance in which the goal is less public welfare and more the accumulation of personal power. Having several hundred people trained in military as well as emergency management tactics is very much in keeping with that trend.

From his June education bills that ban the teaching of critical race theory in public schools to his ongoing crusades against commonsense public health protocols like vaccination and mask mandates, DeSantis has made Trump's lines, and lies, his own. His embrace of ideology over science (the surgeon general he appointed, Dr. Joseph Lapado, has spread misinformation about Covid-19 prevention) has had tragic consequences for Floridians. Undeterred, DeSantis has invited out-of-state police who don't want to get vaccinated to seek safe haven in Florida.

Following the perverse logic of today's GOP, DeSantis has become a political star. He rigidly champions "freedom" — including the choice to self-harm and endanger others. He topped the list in a June poll of possible 2024 contenders, besting even Trump, 74 percent to 71 percent.

This success has empowered him to take more extreme positions, like creating a law enforcement agency charged with "election integrity." Today's autocrats, who stay in power by manipulating elections and trumping up charges against their critics, would most likely approve of DeSantis' plan to empower armed agents to make warrantless arrests for violations of Florida's election laws.

Today's autocrats would most likely approve of DeSantis' plan to empower armed agents to make warrantless arrests for violations of Florida's election laws.

Since many such violations would now be deemed felonies, rather than misdemeanors, and this new agency would have in-house investigators and prosecutors, anyone who gets in the way of DeSantis' preferred electoral outcomes could, hypothetically, be jailed. This includes election workers, officials and judges — categories of people currently being threatened around the country by far-right extremists.

These ominous developments provide context for DeSantis' decision to expand the resources of his in-state armed forces, from the creation of three National Guard armories to the new civilian military guard that would answer not to the Pentagon but to him.

And that's why some Florida politicians who have seen firsthand how DeSantis operates are worried.

Rep. Charlie Crist, a Democrat who is challenging DeSantis for governor next year, tweeted, "No Governor should have his own handpicked secret police." State Sen. Annette Taddeo called DeSantis a "wannabee dictator trying to make his move for his own vigilante militia like we've seen in Cuba."

After the Jan. 6 coup attempt designed to keep Trump in office, we have our own home-grown example of what can happen when civilian militia members feel empowered to take the law into their own hands. After the U.S. armed forces refused to back Trump's illegal action, a custom thug army, including retired and active-duty military and law enforcement members, along with several National Guard officials, rallied to his side.

Violence has increasingly become an acceptable aspect of the public discourse. Crist isn't quite right: DeSantis does have the right, as do other states and governors, to have their own armed bodies. The question is more whether, given his consistently autocratic tendencies, he can be trusted with one.