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The Battle Between Cruelty and Kindness
From Florida to Arizona, America will again decide what kind of country and people we are
I didn’t intend to return to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis so soon, but the combination of his latest nastiness combined with the emerging approach of his newly decided Democratic opponent, Charlie Crist, made it clear that the Florida race for governor represents more than the question of who will lead Florida into the future. This is shaping up to be a battle between leadership driven by anger and cruelty and leadership that believes kindness and compassion must define our fate.
And it’s not the only one: We’ll also take a look at the gubernatorial battle in Arizona between Kari Lake and Katie Hobbs from that perspective and recall the fundamental difference in values in the 2020 election. That includes keeping in mind the assumptions of who’s included and who’s excluded—whose needs matter and whose don’t—that influence how these leaders choose to motivate their voters.
We are the real Americans, say DeSantis, Lake and Trump. We want to make America great again, they say. We believe in freedom, they say, then assert what freedoms they want to take away from those who don’t fit their vision of the real America, the great America, the white America they want to put first.
On Wednesday, the day after Congressman Crist won Florida’s Democratic primary by an almost 2-1 margin over Florida Secretary of Agriculture Nikki Fried, DeSantis decided to grab back the attention. Standing before a “Don’t Tread on Florida” backdrop, he went on the attack against White House Chief Medical Adviser Anthony Fauci, one of his favorite targets of abuse.
“I’m just sick of seeing him!” DeSantis declared with obvious pleasure. “I know he says he’s gonna retire—someone needs to grab that little elf and chuck him across the Potomac.”
Never mind that DeSantis is reportedly a mere two inches taller than his despised target, his words reminded Daily Beast media reporter Justin Baragona of the recent three-year prison sentence for a virulent anti-vaxxer who threatened to break every bone in Fauci’s “disgusting elf skull.” This crowd, unconcerned like their governor about myriad death threats against Fauci, cheered wildly.
That same day, tired but uplifted after his primary victory, Crist made the rounds on television to assert what makes him different. He called the Florida 15-week abortion ban—that makes no exception for rape or incest—“barbaric,” highlighted DeSantis’ attacks on LGBTQ schoolchildren and noted that the governor redlined two predominately African American districts. Crist’s summary?
This is a battle of hate versus nice and love. People need that now. People are tired of having all the politics of people sniping at each other, the backbiting and all the bickering that goes on. And the governor, he’s great at it. He likes to bicker, he’s a bully, and Florida’s tired of it. I’m convinced of it. So I think they’re going to want a governor who has a heart, who has compassion.
Crist talked about a budget proposal that passed nearly unanimously in the Florida legislature to give financial support to the families of the 49 victims of the mass murder in the Pulse night club in Orlando—a line item that DeSantis vetoed. (He also cut funding for homeless LGBTQ youth.) “I don’t understand that level of hate, that lack of compassion, lack of empathy, lack of kindness,” he said. “Florida really does deserve better.”
Is he right? Are Floridians tired of the politics of hate, where their elected leader’s focus is on stripping away rights, silencing those who disagree with him, and scoring points by punching at vulnerable and typically minority communities? Is the path to power strewn with the metaphorical corpses of enemies—or do people want better?
Arizonans will answer a similar question with their gubernatorial option between GOP extremist and 2020 election denier Kari Lake and Democratic Secretary of State and former social worker Katie Hobbs. Less than two weeks ago, DeSantis strode onto an Arizona stage (with Rick Derringer’s song “Real American” playing) to support Lake.
Lake was excited to say that it was the “greatest compliment” that she’d been characterized as the “DeSantis of the West"—except of course to be called "Trump in a dress." A Salon reporter summarized the political rally’s opening, after a prayer, as “insult comedy.”
The former Fox affiliate news anchor suggested her Democratic opponent, Katie Hobbs, looks better in a mask than without, made Trumpian puns about the names of other states' Democratic governors (Gavin Nuisance, Gretchen Witchmer), and, not least, declared that both Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Donald Trump possess "Big Dick Energy.”
Kari Lake may be convinced that her road to victory has been illuminated by the aggressive cruelty of DeSantis and Trump, but Joe Biden’s presence in the White House belies that assumption. His race for the presidency can be recalled as the battle between the empath and the sociopath.
You may remember how Biden put it back in February of 2020: “Empathy matters. Compassion matters. We have to reach out to one another and heal this country—and that’s what I’ll do as president.“
It was a stark contrast to the message then coming from the White House. “His only fundamental belief is that the United States is the birthright of straight, white, Christian men, and his only real, authentic pleasure is in cruelty,” wrote The Atlantic’s Adam Serwer in his 2018 article, “The Cruelty Is The Point.” Its subtitle: “President Trump and his supporters find community by rejoicing in the suffering of those they hate and fear.”
It may be easy to minimize this notion that kindness and compassion are on the ballot once again. Crist himself suggested that some may find these concepts “corny.”
The more explicitly policy-minded among us may want to see kindness and compassion through a prism like this: Battling against the ban of abortion and women’s reproductive rights, the blockage of funding for Medicare and Medicaid, the suppression of freedoms of LGBTQ and Black youth, the bans of books, the hostility toward free and open school dialogue about America’s racist history, the rejection of voting rights for every American and democracy.
Fair enough. These are among the issues that will decide the coming midterms. (In Florida, so may DeSantis’ $140 million re-election war chest.)
But Biden was and is right to say that America is still facing a fight for “the soul of the nation." And that means deciding on the kind of leaders and leadership that will shape the country’s future. In little more than two months, we will learn—and have the opportunity to help determine—whether compassion and kindness mean more than cruelty and hate. This will tell all of us what and who the “real Americans” really are.
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