The leading Republican alternative to Donald Trump is still, at least for the moment, Florida governor Ron DeSantis. Whatever benefits DeSantis brings compared to Trump, he is absolutely not promising to safeguard democracy. To the contrary, he is running as a more effective authoritarian.
The latest evidence is an order the DeSantis administration has issued, fed to an approving Fox News, for universities in his state to shut down chapters of National Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP).
Free speech often protects people with awful beliefs, and the beliefs promoted by SJP are genuinely horrific. The group not only endorsed but glorified the October 7 Hamas terrorist attack against against Israeli civilians. In its “Day of Resistance Toolkit,” created the day after the attack, SJP defined the entire State of Israel as a “settler colony,” insisting “Settlers” — i.e., any Jewish man, woman, or child in Israel — “are not ‘civilians’ in the sense of international law, because they are military assets used to ensure continued control over stolen Palestinian land,” and proclaiming that “ liberating colonized land is a real process that requires confrontation by any means necessary,” including “armed struggle.”
But in the United States, the government can’t shut down a student group simply because its beliefs are ghastly. DeSantis is trying to change that.
His state order rests on a transparently flimsy case for trampling on free speech. “We as Palestinian students in exile are PART of this movement” — meaning Hamas and affiliated terror organizations — “not in solidarity with this movement,” the tool kit proclaimed. DeSantis uses this line to treat SJP as literally part of Hamas, as if its members were themselves going to carry out terrorist attacks.
But the document is obviously not arguing that. Its comprehensive list of steps it urges activists to take: “Table/Flyer on campus,” “Teach-ins,” “Sign onto statement from Bears for Palestine,” “Write a local statement of solidarity,” “Share within your network/region,” and “Help spread the word by sharing widely on your campuses and in your communities.” And it defines the Palestinian struggle as taking place “within historic Palestine,” which means Israel proper and the occupied territories. There is nothing in the document explicitly or implicitly endorsing violence outside Israel.
The reasoning DeSantis employs to close down SJP could be used to shut down almost any student group — or any political group at all. If they support abortion rights, you could say they advocate murder. If they support Trump, you could say they endorse violent authoritarianism.
DeSantis’s brand of authoritarianism is nonviolent, but this comes as little comfort. The hallmark of his governing style has been to use the powers of government to crush political enemies without any concern for democratic rights. He held up his crude retaliation against Disney for having the temerity to make a statement opposing one of his policies as a model for his plans as president to intimidate the opposition. His “Stop WOKE” law has already been struck down as a First Amendment violation. And his education agenda has revolved around naked partisan control of both primary and higher education, seeking to turn schools into propaganda factories.
It’s understandable that Jewish students would feel nervous about campus chapters openly glorifying violence against Israeli Jews. But DeSantis’s crude methods are unlikely to reduce this threat. To the contrary, they are likely to fail in the courts while driving student activists toward those groups, which will enjoy the mantle of free-speech martyrdom.
It has come to sound corny to say that the antidote to hateful ideas is better ideas. But that is the American way, and the American way, for all its flaws, has held up longer and better than all the others. Illiberal extremists thrive on pitting themselves against other illiberal extremists. There are more humane alternatives than either SJP’s bloodlust or DeSantis’s thuggery.