Richard C. Gross
4 min readSep 1, 2023

DeSantis: ‘Love’s Labor’s Lost’

By Richard C. Gross

“Th’ abuse of greatness is when it disjoins remorse from power.”

— William Shakespeare, Brutus in “Julius Caesar,” Act II, Scene I

In a summer surprise, the progressive nonprofit magazine Mother Jones put a horror painting on the cover of its latest issue: Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, where American freedoms die rapidly in a culture war he helped lead. Well deserved.

Artist Scott Anderson depicted DeSantis as the Devil, staring out at the reader through red eyes, one yellowish fang protruding up from each side of the bottom lip of his red mouth, his furrowed face half submerged in a green body of water. Two alligators with razor teeth in open jaws swim just behind him. Lake Okeechobee?

Says it all. The black headline above his head: POWER HUNGRY: RON DESANTIS DREAMS OF AN AMERICAN AUTOCRACY. The essence of evil. And I thought Trump owned that title. Now the right has doubled down on us.

The 10-page piece by Pema Levy, a reporter in the magazine’s Washington, D.C., bureau, is headlined inside, LABORATORY OF AUTOCRACY. It makes it abundantly clear through a litany of disturbing new far-right Florida laws that the second term governor is trying to outdo Trump in seeking to attract votes. But it ain’t working.

DeSantis, 44, educated at Yale and Harvard Law, the Ivy’s Ivy of higher ed in America, initially appeared to be the Republican who could beat Trump in the primaries and get nominated. But despite the top schools, the donors and poll numbers faded away as he repeatedly bared his true colors as a dictator. Yet something, not as cute as a cat, got his tongue for much of the first debate.

FiveThirtyEight’s latest average polls Wednesday show DeSantis has dropped from just below 40 percent in February to 14.8 percent, still in second place behind Trump, who is at 50.3 percent.

DeSantis, of Italian heritage, may be learning that America isn’t Florida, where the numbers of folks between 65 and 85 are the second highest in the country after Maine at 18.7 percent. Older folks tend to vote Republican. Nationwide, the figure is 14.9 percent.

America isn’t Hungary and Poland, which have been giving up on democracy in favor of sticking with rightwing strongmen. I believe Americans generally, especially the youth, don’t want an authoritarian as president, to be restricted in what they can read, what they’re permitted to learn about race and barred from abortion. And they don’t like antagonism toward trans and LGBTQI+ folks.

And that’s precisely the tune DeSantis has been marching to.

There’s another, more popular, tune: Again, “the times they are a-changin’,” Bob Dylan sang in 1964, the year rightist Barry Goldwater lost big time to LBJ for president. But the hard right always has been behind the times.

They live for the past, DeSantis included. He’s back to at least 1963, when The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a Baptist minister, told America in front of the Lincoln Memorial, our secular temple, that he had a dream. It still hasn’t come true; racism is very much alive.

America isn’t the Republican Party that DeSantis is trying mightily to wrap his arms around. He’s taken the complaints of fanatics and got his supermajority Republican legislature to pass the “Don’t Say Gay” law last year, among other right-wing laws. It forbids teachers from kindergarten to third grade from discussing sex ed or gender identity.

The law formally is known as The Parental Rights in Education Act. Whose rights? Which parents? What about those moms and dads who want their kids to learn about these sensitive topics from professionals who know how to speak with children?

Disney in Orlando, the giant fun house beloved by kids that brings in tons of tourism dollars, objected to the law. The vain DeSantis took umbrage, naturally, and went after Disney. That’s when he started losing political support. That he doesn’t like being corrected strikes a similarity to the vindictive, vanity-flooded Trump.

Another possible setback for DeSantis was his removal a year ago of the Democratic state attorney in Tampa, Andrew H. Warren, for signing a statement with 89 other elected prosecutors nationwide pledging not to criminalize abortions. Doing so would mean the second-term Warren would violate Florida’s strict anti-abortion law.

DeSantis bragged about his decision to suspend Warren in his bid to woo Trump’s conservative base to his side. He has removed other Democratic opponents. Warren, whom I met years ago, is suing.

“This is about far more than my position,” he told Mother Jones, which says it reaches eight million readers monthly across various platforms. “If the governor can just remove an elected official from office, on a whim, without any legal basis, then it nullifies the meaning of democracy across our state. It means that elections have no meaning.”

DeSantis remained mum for most of the two-hour first Republican debate Aug. 23. Maybe he was overwhelmed by millionaire businessman Vivek Ramaswamy, now third in the FiveThirtyEight polls. His weird antics overshadowed everyone on the Fox “News” stage vying for a chance to beat the absent but frontrunner Trump.

As for the twice-impeached, four times indicted onetime president, federal Judge Tanya S. Chutkan set March 4 as the trial date on Trump’s charges of conspiring to overturn the 2020 election. Trump proposed a 2026 start date, two years after he hopes to win the 2024 election so he can pardon himself if convicted.

But don’t count on that March 4 date. Trump’s M.O. for years has been to delay, delay, delay court appearances with truckloads of legal proposals. He will be a very, very busy man, what with unique legal troubles plus campaigning for reelection. He can sleep on his plane. Or nod off in court.

Richard C. Gross, who covered war and peace in the Middle East, was a correspondent at the Pentagon and was foreign editor of United Press International and the opinion page editor of The Baltimore Sun.

Richard C. Gross

Correspondent, bureau chief and foreign editor at home and abroad with United Press International. Retired as opinion page editor of The Baltimore Sun.