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We Can't Let the Bullies Win
From Russia and Ukraine to America, we can see the consequence of electing bullies and letting them act with impunity
Maybe you saw the video clip. In the scheme of things, it might seem like a minor event. Ron DeSantis, the governor of Florida, had come to the University of South Florida to give a speech about cybersecurity education funding.
But before he spoke, he looked at the row of high school students spread out behind him and wearing masks. He didn’t say hi. He didn’t thank them for coming. “You do not have to wear those masks,” he said, obviously aggravated. “I mean, please take them off.” Jabbing his finger at them, he went on, “Honestly, it’s not doing anything. We’ve got to stop with this Covid theater. So, if you want to wear it, fine. But this is—this is ridiculous.” Most of the students sheepishly took off their masks.
Then DeSantis turned around toward the podium with a huff, shook his head and began: “Alright, well, it’s good to be at USF.”
This could be a discussion of Florida’s coronavirus death rates (over 70,000) and its governor’s aggressive refusal to mandate mask-wearing, all in the name of freedom and the right to choose. I could focus on the fact that Hillsboro County, where this group of high school students live, is still experiencing high rates of hospitalization because of the virus and, as a result, is still urged by the CDC to wear masks indoors.
But this is about bullying—and the unfortunate propensity for bullies to seek out positions of power.
Some of the people who saw the DeSantis video didn’t see what I saw. They heard those modifying words—“So, if you want to wear it, fine…”—and didn’t see a bully. As if DeSantis wasn’t making clear what he expected. As if the most powerful man in the state—an adult authority jabbing his finger at teenagers and telling them they are wrong—gave them the space to make, in that split second, a reasonable decision. Yes, at least one student did not remove his mask.
“I am responsible for him and I told him to wear that mask,” said one mother interviewed later, adding, “It’s just shocking that the governor told these kids, ‘Take off your mask.’ He pretty much told them, ‘Take off your mask, it’s stupid.’ And ‘take off your mask, your parents don’t matter.’”
Over 5,700 miles away from Florida, the people of Ukraine are suffering the consequences of an unchecked bully, a murderous thug bent on running roughshod over democracy, convinced international law does not apply to him, certain that he can lie and wreak deadly vengeance with impunity, seeing only green lights to keep going until he’s silenced a sovereign nation and a free people.
We are witnessing extraordinary, inspiring acts of courage in the face of this brutal bully. “There is no question over whether the city will give up,” Kharkiv Mayor Igor Terekhov said Thursday. “We will not give up.” Yet we have to remember how many chose to admire and applaud the Russian president, even as the death count among journalists, political opponents and other critics was rising. Each day as the unfolding horror of Ukraine appears on our TV screens, let’s not forget that it’s been eight years since Vladimir Putin invaded and occupied Crimea and paid little consequence.
Over 5,700 miles away from Kharkiv and Kyiv in Florida, another unchecked bully remains determined to run roughshod over democracy, convinced the law does not apply to him, certain that he can lie with impunity—and sees only green lights in his criminal focus on perpetuating the lie of a stolen election, taking back power and wreaking vengeance on his enemies.
In yesterday’s split screen, the House Select Committee investigating January 6 made its strongest claims yet about the criminal culpability of the former occupant of our White House. The committee’s lawyers filed a 221-page brief in a civil case in California, saying they had evidence demonstrating that Donald Trump, his lawyer John Eastman and others could be criminally charged with obstructing an official proceeding of Congress and conspiracy to defraud the American people. They also contended that his repeated lying about the election results—despite being told over and over that there was not election fraud from many of his own aides—could be grounds for charging common law fraud.
While the fact remains that the House committee has no authority on its own to charge a crime, this new filing increases the probability that the committee will make a criminal referral to the Justice Department involving Trump and his operatives. But as we know too painfully well, we have plenty of reason to wonder whether even the committee’s mountain of evidence will motivate Attorney General Merrick Garland to pursue the case.
What would be the consequence of letting this particular bully continue without consequence? Would the failure to prosecute him lead to further political violence, increase the prospects that he will be the GOP nominee in 2024 or ensure that others will continue to emulate his sociopathic refusal to take responsibility and blame others for his failures?
Kevin Brown is the father of the one high schooler who refused to take off his mask, despite the pressure from his state’s governor. He was asked what he would say to DeSantis if he could speak to him. “I would tell him to stop bullying kids,” he said.
That sounds about right. And if you ask me, I would say to every voter: We need to stop electing bullies and start recognizing their danger before it’s too late.
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