Omar El Akkad is the Scotiabank Giller Prize-winning author of What Strange Paradise.
One of the very few ideological ailments that seems to afflict both mainstream Democrats and Republicans is the delusion that politics and policy constitute a kind of sporting event: a game of rhetorical tennis in which the only thing that really matters is winning the next point.
But for the Republican Party, this game has become a blood sport.
Last week, in one of the more brazenly self-serving and inhuman publicity stunts in recent American history, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis chartered two planes to fly roughly 50 migrants to Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts, one of the richest neighbourhoods in the United States and a location frequently associated with the country’s wealthy liberal elite.
The idea, such as it was, was apparently to embarrass the blue-state enclave, and show how these monied regions – faced with even a sliver of the migrant flow that southern states deal with – would crumble and change their tune on immigration.
The residents of Martha’s Vineyard scrambled to provide food and shelter to the migrants, who attorneys say were lured onto the planes under false pretenses of jobs and expedited legal status, but were set up to fail when officials filled out their paperwork with fake addresses spanning the country. And in no time at all, Mr. DeSantis got exactly what he wanted: a national media frenzy in which he occupied the spotlight.
Mr. DeSantis wants to win the Republican nomination for President. He has the prerequisite instinct for demagoguery, but needs more name recognition, more of a national profile. Evidently, he has decided to build that profile by using some of the most vulnerable human beings in the world as props. None of this, of course, was ever about giving migrants even a fighting chance.
It is by now beyond pointless, and in fact actively harmful, to debate most of these Republican gimmicks in good faith. But for what little it’s worth, transferring planeloads of people seeking asylum at the U.S.’s southern border to Martha’s Vineyard is not a coherent immigration policy. And even if this was, as Mr. DeSantis so glibly put it, a “humane thing to do,” one would assume that giving the people in those locations a heads-up that this was going to happen would be the very least a humane-minded person could do.
The next presidential campaign was always going to be brutal. Now, Mr. DeSantis has once again expanded the spectrum of what’s fair game in electoral politics, clearly marking an entire group of human beings as subhuman, good only for however they might help Republicans capture the White House.
Of all the fuels on which the far-right feeds, perhaps the most difficult to counteract are apathy and fatigue. For half a decade now, the most consistently rewarding way in which any GOP candidate has been able to build a profile has been to engage in the wanton destruction of democratic and civic norms – from gutting long-established personal rights, to calling for the erasure of books and classes and entire swaths of inconvenient history, to cheering on an insurrection. And every time this happens, a thoroughly drained Democratic Party leadership can only counter with maddeningly impotent statements of vague concern and stern pronouncements that all of this could be fixed if only the people whose lives the Republican Party is actively trying to ruin would vote harder. Meanwhile, each GOP transgression, which only a few years ago might have been so far beyond the pale as to disqualify the transgressor from public life, becomes a little more normal.
Left unchecked, this will surely end in bloodshed. For years, Mr. DeSantis and his ilk have mobilized the base through appeals to loathing – be it of trans people looking to use the bathroom in peace or immigrants fleeing horrific violence or whatever group most conveniently fuels teeth-gnashing vitriol. But that’s a force the party has never been able, or even willing, to control. The frothing hatred whipped up by GOP demagogues doesn’t fizzle away at the end of the rally or just bounce around some white-supremacist Internet forum; it ferments and festers until violent rhetoric becomes physical violence. It’s not particularly hyperbolic to imagine that someone radicalized by this party’s rhetoric will take it upon themselves to exterminate what the leaders of the party have essentially labelled an infestation. And when this happens, the same politicians who so gleefully fanned these flames will gasp and feign offence at the very suggestion that maybe they’re responsible.
But they are. This isn’t a game, and it isn’t those migrants seeking shelter from death and destruction who are gnawing away at the foundations of American society – it’s the political party for whom any amount of human suffering is a small price to pay for power.