In the sway of sadists, the Republicans are testing whether the celebration of cruelty can be the motivating force for a U.S. political party. But this experiment in grounding the GOP’s identity on the veneration of deliberate harm, while obviously immoral, may also be a political error.
As social science teaches, many people have a disturbing level of tolerance for the suffering of others, but also don’t like to admit it; and prefer to see themselves as victims, forced to tolerate (or perhaps even cause) harm to others.
By contrast, sadists openly relish punishing the vulnerable. It therefore remains questionable whether most Republicans—let alone a majority of voters—are willing to overtly identify themselves as people who enjoy causing torment.
DeSantis has shown himself to be a supremely non-creative politician. He has systematically copied whatever happens to be the extreme right-wing trolling strategy of the moment, and then amped it up. And at every point during his tenure, the governor has anxiously looked backwards to see if any rival (including Trump) had out-extremed him.
What has differentiated DeSantis from others in the GOP has not been so much his policy positions, but, rather, the extent to which cruelty and humiliation have been central to his governance and political activities.
Florida’s surgeon general ostentatiously refused to wear a mask while in the office of a state legislator who had cancer, with the backing of his boss, while DeSantis himself publicly scolded high school students for having the temerity to wear masks in his presence. And he’s thumbed his nose at doctors and nurses in hospitals overwhelmed with COVID patients and asking for help. But the Martha's Vineyard stunt was DeSantis’ national coming-out party as a political sadist, and gained him unexpected attention, far beyond his usual orbit of Fox News viewers and donors.
Last December, DeSantis publicly chuckled over what he called a “tongue in cheek” idea: put some asylum seekers on planes and leave them in “Delaware” (President Joe Biden’s home state) or “Martha’s Vineyard” (a Massachusetts vacation spot known for being favored by well-to-do African Americans, including former President Barack Obama). Last week, after Texas Gov. Greg Abbott began dumping migrants, reportedly including at least one infant, on the doorstep of Vice President Kamala Harris’ residence, DeSantis rushed to make his “joke” a reality.
DeSantis engaged a shadowy group of contractors to find asylum seekers in Texas that he could rapidly ship to Martha’s Vineyard. Reports indicate that at least some of the migrants were duped into “voluntarily” getting on planes with false promises of jobs, housing, or a ride to a place near their next court appearance. While DeSantis chose not to inform authorities in Massachusetts of his gambit, he provided Fox News with an “exclusive” and reportedly sent his own film crew on at least one of the flights.
Apparently, DeSantis expected that the Vineyard’s residents would recoil from the desperate asylum seekers, allowing Fox News’ viewers to savor both the suffering of the migrants and seeing the “libs” exposed as hypocrites, expecting them to be just as cruel as DeSantis encourages his own followers to be.
It didn’t work out that way. The Vineyard’s residents responded to the unexpected presence of viciously victimized asylum seekers with compassion and assistance. And then government officials relocated the migrants a short distance to the Cape Cod mainland, which had facilities and resources available to help them.
The sadistic stunt has left DeSantis, at least momentarily, politically unbalanced.
While he initially promised to gratuitously victimize more vulnerable migrants, after at least one law enforcement investigation of the scheme became public, DeSantis tried to distance himself from a reported flight to Delaware. The famously thin-skinned governor has also retreated to the confines of right-wing media, even as many in the wider public are being—accurately—introduced to him as a person consumed with working maximum harm on the most vulnerable.
This is unsurprising, given that, apart from taking pleasure from causing pain, DeSantis knows only one way to respond to a mistake: to double down upon it. He seems determined to do that, despite the fact that he is about to face a general election in which performative cruelty might not prove to be a winning hand. Indeed, DeSantis is already receiving blow back from the Venezuelan community in Florida, given that many of the of the migrants he tried to victimize had traveled thousands of miles to escape that country, which has been victimized by a failed socialist regime.
But it is also notable that many other GOP “leaders” have refused to criticize DeSantis’ and Abbott’s performative sadism, apparently believing that, in the GOP’s ongoing Trump era, forthrightly taking joy in the suffering of the weak is actually a winning political strategy.
For example, Marc Short, political consigliere for the ostentatiously “pro-life” former Vice President Mike Pence, refused to criticize Abbott for dumping a 1-month-old baby on the streets of the nation’s Capitol to “highlight the hypocrisy” (never mind that he had a devil of a time explaining what the hypocrisy was). And Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell—a sometime critic of Trump’s—said he thought dumping migrants in Martha’s Vineyard “was a good idea.”
GOP weathervanes like these guys apparently believe that the lesson of the Trump era is that sadism wins elections.
There is evidence, however, to the contrary. When it came to light that Trump—in a palpably lustful celebration of cruelty—had young children ripped away from their mothers and then caged en masse, it was a critical moment in his political decline. Similarly, Trump’s open calls for police violence during the summer of 2020 failed to win the election for him. And the revelations of his personal involvement in the events leading up the Jan. 6 Capitol riot finally left some Republicans openly wishing he does not run again.
Too Much Cruelty Isn’t Always a Winning Hand
History likewise demonstrates that open appeals to sadism are far from politically astute. The Abu Ghraib revelations of prisoner abuse were a signal moment in the cratering of the George W. Bush administration. The images of civil rights advocates being clubbed and ravaged by dogs during the 1964 civil rights campaign known as Freedom Summer demonstrated the aesthetic of violence that underlay Jim Crow, and thereby led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act, which segregationists had long bottled up in Congress.
Given this historical background, it may seem puzzling that an open and notorious sadist like DeSantis has become the clear Trump replacement choice for many GOP kingmakers (who have provided him with a stupefying war chest), and that Republican insiders fear even criticizing DeSantis’ performative cruelty.
But if there is one thing that the last several years has demonstrated, it is that the “leadership” of the GOP is not only strikingly amoral, but also frequently politically unwise.
After all, this is a party that has long tied itself to the worst kind of loser—one who can’t admit he lost and will burn the house down to prove it. Republicans have yet to find a way to detach themselves from Trump, even as he is appealing to an ever-smaller cadre of openly neo-fascist followers.
Indeed, the one lesson GOP leaders seem to have drawn from the last several years appears to have been a profoundly incorrect one: that most voters are like participants in Trump rallies, and take the same unalloyed pleasure from harming others as Trump and DeSantis do.
Now, many in the GOP seek to “move beyond Trump” by replacing him with a supremely non-charismatic and thoroughly disagreeable figure, who seems only to come alive while coming up with new ways to performatively humiliate and harm the vulnerable. The GOP, therefore, appears to be on the verge of a political science experiment with very high stakes: Testing whether sadism can become the foundation for political success.
If they are wrong, the Republican Party may be heading into a political abyss. If they are right, the country is going there.