Ron DeSantis’s decision to send migrants from near the Mexico border to the capital city of California is at first glance the latest in a series of escalating clashes between the Florida governor and his Democratic counterpart, Gavin Newsom.
But the performative gambit in the early days of Mr. DeSantis’s 2024 presidential run is better understood as an opening bid to prove to Republican primary voters that he can be just as much a provocateur, and every bit as incendiary, as former President Donald J. Trump.
For Mr. DeSantis, the flights illustrate the broader bet he has made that the animating energy in the Republican Party today has shifted from conservatism to confrontationalism. And that in this new era, nothing is more fundamental than picking fights and making the right enemies, whether it’s the migrants who have slogged sometimes thousands of miles to slip through the border, the news media or the chief executive of the biggest blue state on the map.
Mr. DeSantis has used this playbook before. He ordered up flights from the Texas border last year to the symbolically liberal hamlet of Martha’s Vineyard, a stunt that drew exactly the outrage he sought. Those flights are now a staple of his stump speech, usually to cheers from the crowd. His allies in the Florida Legislature earmarked $12 million of taxpayer money into the state budget this year for just this purpose.
“The easiest way to prove one’s tribal loyalty in 2020s America is by theatrically hating the other tribe,” said Russell Moore, the editor in chief of Christianity Today and the former president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.
In recent days, two charter flights orchestrated by the DeSantis administration carried roughly three dozen migrants from a New Mexico airport to Sacramento. The migrants, who are mostly Venezuelan, said they had been recruited from outside a shelter in El Paso, with promises of employment that California officials have said amounted to deception. Mr. Newsom, the California governor who is a potential future presidential contender himself, has suggested that the affair could merit “kidnapping charges,” calling Mr. DeSantis in a tweet a “small, pathetic man.”
Mr. Moore said he believed “that migrants and asylum seekers are created in the image of God and shouldn’t be mistreated or treated as political theater for anybody.” But he could also see the more crass calculations that Mr. DeSantis is making in a polarized era where politicians are most clearly defined not by what they’re for, but who they’re against.
“The one heresy that no tribe seems to allow is a refusal to hate the other tribe,” Mr. Moore said.
Mr. DeSantis, who flew to Arizona on Wednesday for a border event, is not a trailblazer in this regard. It was Mr. Trump who began his 2016 campaign by calling Mexicans rapists, who promised to “build the wall” and later pitched a Muslim ban, making an “America First” approach to immigration a central theme of the party. And it was Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas who first began busing immigrants to blue cities and states last year (an idea Mr. Trump floated as president in 2018 but never pursued). Mr. DeSantis later one-upped Mr. Abbott’s buses with the dramatic flights to Martha’s Vineyard, which are now the subject of a federal class-action lawsuit.
At the demographic and geographic epicenter of Mr. DeSantis’s presidential candidacy is an effort to appeal to deeply conservative evangelical voters in Iowa, where the Republicans’ 2024 nominating contest begins. Evangelical voters helped propel the Iowa victories of Ted Cruz, Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee in the last three open contests.
Yet the DeSantis campaign and its allies see fighting the left as the fastest way to appeal to those voters rather than overt displays of religiosity. “Christians aren’t looking for a savior to be a president, they already have one,” said one DeSantis adviser, who was not authorized to speak publicly to discuss strategy, explaining how Mr. Trump has dominated that voting bloc despite concerns about his moral character.
Kevin Madden, who served as a top adviser on Mitt Romney’s 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns, said transporting migrants, however cynical, allowed Mr. DeSantis to agitate all the right people.
“He’s provoking Gavin Newsom,” Mr. Madden said. “He’s provoking the most extreme liberal voices to attack him. He is provoking media voices. And that works to his favor because it endears him to the forces on the right who want to see a clash of political civilizations.”
Outrage sells. Campaign contributions have repeatedly surged to the fury merchants on the right, whether the politicians selling the lie that the 2020 election was stolen or the G.O.P. hard-liners who battled Representative Kevin McCarthy’s ascent to the House speakership. An “own the libs” mentality has come to drive, if not define, the right online.
On the left, Mr. Newsom has sought to elevate himself through his tussles with Mr. DeSantis, too. He ran a television advertisement in Florida attacking him last year. He challenged him to a debate. He traveled this spring to the New College of Florida, a public liberal arts institution where Mr. DeSantis is engineering a right-wing intellectual takeover. In his personal Twitter account, Mr. Newsom has slammed Mr. DeSantis by name at least 20 times.
“I think I’m being generous — ‘small and pathetic’ — very generous,” Mr. Newsom said in an interview on NBC’s “Today Show” broadcast on Wednesday. He accused Mr. DeSantis of using migrants as “pawns,” adding, “He’s just weakness masquerading as strength.”
Mr. Newsom’s new PAC has been running a rotation of online fund-raising ads that attack Mr. DeSantis. “In my book, a bully and a coward doesn’t deserve to be the leader of the free world,” Mr. Newsom says of Mr. DeSantis in a video ad that began running on Facebook on Wednesday.
Mr. DeSantis’s round-table discussion in Arizona on border security was a government event underwritten by taxpayers, not his campaign. After days of mystery, Mr. DeSantis’s administration took credit for the Sacramento flights on Tuesday. On Wednesday, he did not mention Mr. Newsom by name, though he said “sanctuary jurisdictions” had “incentivized” illegal immigration.
Then Mr. DeSantis shifted to pick another fight with President Biden. “I don’t know how you can just sit there and let the country be overrun with millions and millions of people coming illegally,” Mr. DeSantis said.
Mr. DeSantis has become expert at agitating the right’s boogeymen. He once called Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious disease expert, a “little elf” who needed to be chucked “across the Potomac.” And when Mr. DeSantis’s motives are questioned by reporters, his snapbacks have been quickly packaged and posted on social media in hopes of generating viral hits.
If he were to become president, Mr. DeSantis has made plain he would use the White House’s powers to the fullest. He is fond of saying that he first won the governorship in 2018 with barely 50 percent of the vote, but that victory came with 100 percent of the executive authority.
As governor, he proudly used the power of the state to overrule local governments, ousting a prosecutor and prohibiting school districts from imposing mask mandates. Such actions are a departure from the limited-government conservatism of yesteryear. His allies say it is a vivid signal to voters that Mr. DeSantis will leverage the powers of government to battle their enemies, at a moment when many Republicans feel that their values and nation are under siege.
Cesar Conda, a former chief of staff to Senator Marco Rubio of Florida who, two decades ago, served as the top domestic policy adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney, said that “Ronald Reagan would be rolling over in his grave using taxpayer dollars” to fly migrants from one faraway state to another.
“DeSantis’s move is part of a growing strain in conservatism, endorsed by younger conservatives, to aggressively use the power and resources of government to achieve — or coerce — policy goals,” Mr. Conda said. “The ‘less government, lower taxes, more freedom’ mantra of conservatism is becoming quaint and old-fashioned, unfortunately.”
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