On Sept. 19, Donald Trump’s campaign passed through Fort Myers, Florida, on the Gulf Coast. “Oh boy, what a crowd,” the candidate marveled as he stepped on stage. “And outside, we have many more people than this outside. It’s incredible, incredible. Really incredible. Thank you very much, and it’s great to be back in Florida, my second home, as you know.”
Something bigger was afoot that afternoon than a wealthy New Yorker returning to his pied-à-terre. This was the craziest election in history returning to its spiritual home—Florida—where it could pay homage to its central totem: Florida Man.
As you have probably heard via Twitter, Reddit, or various aggregation sites, Florida Man is a popular meme—“the world’s worst superhero,” who takes the blame for all the bizarre and jaw-droppingly stupid behavior committed by certain members of the state’s populace. His exploits are legendary. Examples abound, but let me just cite a recent one: “Florida Man Arrested for Illegal Ride on Manatee.”
The 2016 presidential election is the Florida Man of elections, and with good reason. At one point there were four Florida Men in the running, plus one part-timer. Former Gov. Jeb Bush and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, you knew about. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee moved into a $3 million waterfront home in the Florida Panhandle in 2010, and Dr. Ben Carson retired to a golf course community in West Palm Beach in 2013.
You can easily tell they’re Florida Men: constantly committing gaffes, perpetually trying to explain their unsavory associates, doing their best to avoid questions about their finances, struggling to put on hoodies the wrong way, hitting kids in the face with footballs. The rest of America was amazed. Floridians just shrugged.
Florida has never spawned a president. Instead it tends to thwart presidential hopes and dreams. A Florida man named Lewis Powell took part in the conspiracy to assassinate Abraham Lincoln—and of course bungled his assignment. He was caught and made to pose for an early version of Florida Man portraiture, a police mugshot. The Watergate burglars were Bay of Pigs veterans who were recruited from Florida. Florida reporters caught 1988 Democratic front-runner Gary Hart engaging in monkey business on a like-named boat with a Miami “actress,” derailing his campaign. And who could forget the 2000 election debacle that guaranteed no one in Florida would name a child “Chad” for the next 20 years?
When it came time to vote in the Florida GOP primary, the winner was the part-time Florida resident, one Donald J. Trump. By that point he’d already chased three of the others from the race, including the former governor; then in the state primary he swamped the last man standing, the one he’d sneered at as “Little Marco.”
This led the Associated Press to ask: “Is Trump the quintessential Florida Man?”
After all, he has a legacy of business bankruptcies, not to mention lawsuits galore alleging fraud, and a habit of saying things that don’t match up with the truth. There’s also his history of marital and extramarital relations, not a problem for a state that once elected a congressman, Richard Kelly, who got married for the fifth time not long before going to prison over the Abscam scandal. The woman had been the wife of one of his character witnesses in his trial.
Trump’s part-time Florida home, Mar-a-Lago, is a showplace, quite in keeping with a state where the most recognizable piece of architecture is a sumptuous castle that nobody lives in (not even the nominal owner, Cinderella). In 1985, Trump paid $10 million for the 58-bedroom mansion and its 20-acre oceanfront estate. He then turned it into a ritzy club, offending his neighbors. Among his guests over the years: the Seminole tribe’s Chief James Billie, who put on an alligator-wrestling exhibition.
Offending the neighbors is a popular pastime in Florida. But I’d take points off because his many feuds with his Florida neighbors have mostly involved the use of lawyers, not machetes or samurai swords.
Although he’s best known as a developer—certainly the perfect job title for a Florida Man—down here his big business is golf. He owns three golf courses here: Doral, Palm Beach, and Jupiter.
That also puts him in the mainstream for Florida, which boasts more holes of golf than any other state. Florida is so identified with golf that it’s the home of the Professional Golfers Association of America. It’s also where Caddyshack was filmed. Last year, Golf.com declared Florida “the golfiest state.”
It was at Trump National Golf Club in Jupiter that Corey Lewandowski, his then-campaign manager, grabbed the arm of Breitbart’s Michelle Fields and yanked her away as she asked him questions. Lewandowski was first charged with battery, and then the charges were dropped. Trump initially denied anything had happened, then suggested that Lewandowski was right to do whatever he did because the reporter’s pen “could have been a little bomb.” Such an extreme effort at coming up with an oddball excuse for Lewandowski’s behavior is truly a classic slice of Florida Man, reminiscent of the Florida man who in 2015 tried to get out of a DUI charge by telling the cops, “My dog was driving that car.”
Such paranoia—about bomb pens!—is also in keeping with the Sunshine State psyche, given that we lead the nation in concealed weapons permits, as well as in gun-related accidents. Meanwhile our “Stand Your Ground” law (written by an National Rifle Association lobbyist who’s a grandmother in her 70s and backed by both Rubio and Bush) has been copied by lots of other states.
And yet, there is one thing that guarantees Trump will never be a full-fledged Florida Man.
It’s his signature issue, immigration. His campaign has been built on his promise to keep Mexicans out with a wall and Muslims out with an immigration ban.
Florida, meanwhile, doesn’t just thrive on immigrants; it actually requires them. Although our first state flag in 1845 bore the slogan “Let Us Alone,” Florida’s economy depends on new people showing up. It’s been that way ever since Uncle Tom’s Cabin author Harriet Beecher Stowe moved here after the Civil War and virtually invented Florida’s tourism industry. Stowe’s own home on the St. John’s River was one of our first tourist attractions.
Florida’s economy is not unlike a Ponzi scheme. (Appropriately, Charles Ponzi, the inventor of the Ponzi scheme, worked his scam in Boston, was caught, then moved to Florida and got involved in a real estate fraud.) Florida relies on an unending parade of new suckers bringing in more money. Otherwise the whole thing folds up like an empty wallet. That influx is why Florida surpassed Trump’s New York to become the third most populous state in 2014.
A lot of the people who moved to Florida in the past were from within the U.S, particularly the chilly Northern states where there’s an income tax, something Florida got rid of in the 1920s. More recently, Puerto Rico’s financial woes drove a lot of the island’s residents to move to the Orlando area.
These days, though, a lot of the people snapping up Florida real estate are from somewhere outside the U.S. They’re from South America, or from China, or one of the countries known for having a large population of Muslims. Instead of telling them to get out and stay out, as Trump would do, Floridians have welcomed them—and their money—with open arms. A true Florida Man would not build a wall. A Florida Man says, “Come on down, no matter who you are and where you came from, and bring your cash and credit cards!”