If Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis gets his way, people who merely attend a protest that results in property damage will be prosecuted for felonies. Yelling at someone in a restaurant as part of such a protest will be a criminal offense. And a driver who kills demonstrators with his car will not be liable for their deaths, as long as he is “fleeing for safety from a mob.”
These are just a few of the policies proposed by DeSantis in a package meant to chill dissent and punish those in the streets demanding an end to racist police violence. Republican leaders in the Florida Legislature have promised to file the bill in 2021. By introducing it now, DeSantis clearly hopes to rile up Trump’s base in Florida, one of the most crucial swing states, with fears of black-clad cabals rampaging through their gated communities. But the specifics of the proposal are worth close consideration, because it represents a rising consensus among conservative leaders under Donald Trump: A governing ethos that once boiled down to “troll the libs” is steadily escalating toward “kill the libs.”
As my colleague Tom Scocca observed one year ago, Trump was elected as the ultimate expression of a political party more concerned with taunting and obstructing its opposition than with any specific governing agenda. Others have noted that, for decades, the driving principle behind the Republican project has been the conviction that people of color and their political allies are undeserving of full participation in American democracy. The push to shield those who murder protesters with their cars from criminal or civil liability, which Republican legislators have attempted to do in at least eight states, is a particularly gruesome offshoot of these two philosophies. It’s also not solving any problematic gap in the legal sphere: Property damage is already a criminal offense; self-defense is already an accepted legal defense for causing others harm. DeSantis and his peers are simply trying to create space within the law—or the perception of it—for their political supporters to kill their political opponents.
A few years ago, after Black Lives Matter demonstrators staged protests on highways and demonstrators blocked roads at Standing Rock, Republicans around the country proposed protections for people who drove their cars through crowds of protesters. James Alex Fields Jr., who killed Heather Heyer at a Charlottesville, Virginia, Unite the Right rally in 2017, may have been emboldened by these bills: According to a civil suit, before Fields drove his car into a crowd of demonstrators, one of the rally’s organizers falsely claimed that “driving over protesters blocking roadways isn’t an offense,” pointing to states that had considered such bills.
This hideous tactic of suppressing political dissent is spreading. This year, in the months since protests first erupted around the country after Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd in May, two people have been killed by drivers who drove their cars through demonstrations. Dozens more have been hit. At one June protest in Memphis, Tennessee, two separate drivers, both of whom appear to have exhibited animosity toward protesters on social media, hit demonstrators within the span of one hour. The Sioux Rapids, Iowa, police chief called protesters “road bumps.” The Auxvasse, Missouri, police chief posted on Facebook, of protesters blocking roads, “You deserve to be run over. That will help cleanup the gene pool.” Officers in several other states have endorsed using cars to murder protesters.
Instead of taking action to quell this type of violence at protests, Trump and his supporters are attempting to incite more violence, and create more victims. After Kyle Rittenhouse, a 17-year-old who traveled from his home in Illinois to fight protesters in Kenosha, Wisconsin, killed two demonstrators with a military-style firearm he was not legally permitted to carry, Trump called it an “interesting situation” that looked justifiable. Rittenhouse “was trying to get away from them,” Trump said, of the victims. “[Rittenhouse] would have been—probably would have been killed.” That’s certainly a possibility, but instead, he killed two people.
As more Republicans spoke up about Rittenhouse, the rhetoric they used shifted from simple defense to full-on admiration. Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin said Rittenhouse’s victims were killed because the governor of Wisconsin didn’t accept Trump’s offer to send the National Guard to Kenosha. This led people to “believe they’ve got to protect their own property and take matters into their own hands.” CNN’s Dana Bash asked him multiple times whether he condemned the shootings. All he’d say was “it’s a tragedy.” Rep. Thomas Massie of Kentucky has actually praised Rittenhouse for his “incredible restraint and presence and situational awareness.” Again, he killed two people.
In the popular conservative imagination, Rittenhouse has become more than just a teen who did something regrettable in the process of defending himself. By killing two protesters at a protest for Black lives, he became a righteous crusader for the Americans who really matter. Fox News host Tucker Carlson said Rittenhouse “had to maintain order when no one else would.” Former Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi called him “a little boy out there trying to protect his community” and “mitigate the chaos out there.” Conservative writer Rod Dreher maintains that “Rittenhouse did no wrong”—he was ridding Kenosha of “the enemy of civilization,” the people “vandalizing, burning, and looting.” Trump supporters have called him a “hero” and raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to support his legal defense.
This applause for the killing of the right’s political nemeses is everywhere these days, popping up wherever the GOP can be found. It was there in one of Trump’s first tweets about the George Floyd protests: “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.” It was at the Republican National Convention, which honored Mark and Patricia McCloskey, a random St. Louis couple who earned a moment of fame for threatening protesters with guns, as esteemed representatives of the party. It’s in ads for Republicans like Georgia Sen. Kelly Loeffler, whose recent TV spot suggests she’ll “eliminate the liberal scribes,” and QAnon supporter Marjorie Taylor Greene, who posted a photo of herself brandishing an assault rifle next to images of Reps. Ilhan Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Rashida Tlaib. “Squad’s worst nightmare,” it read.
The rhetoric is repulsive. But the GOP’s kill-the-libs ethos is not limited to violent rhetoric. It’s becoming policy. And I don’t just mean DeSantis’ bill—indifference to American death, as long as the Americans dying are liberals, is one of the many horrors we’ve been forced to witness this year. From the very start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Trump has explicitly, shamelessly hastened the deaths of tens of thousands of Americans living in blue states, then smirked as they perished. Every step of the administration’s pandemic response has been undergirded by the assumption that it’s fine for the president’s putative opponents to die. In March, the federal government shorted several blue states on the protective equipment and ventilators they’d requested from the national stockpile (while furnishing GOP-led Florida, which carries the most electoral votes of any swing state, with far more supplies than it needed at the time). One public health expert involved in the White House’s coronavirus task force told Vanity Fair that “the political folks” on the team dismissed the idea of producing a national pandemic response plan once it appeared that the virus “was going to be relegated to Democratic states.” According to a “senior administration official” who spoke to the Washington Post, it took evidence that COVID-19 was killing “our people” in red states and would probably start killing more people in swing states to get Trump to care about stopping the spread of the virus. Trump has also publicly argued against coronavirus-related relief bills because he believes they’d help blue states more than red states.
These have always been the stakes of politics: When lawmakers block Medicaid expansion, slash funding for affordable housing, bow to police unions, or redistribute wealth from the bottom to the top, they’re expressing their beliefs about who deserves to live and who deserves to die, whose lives matter and whose lives don’t. The pandemic and the national uprising for racial justice are slightly new terrains, but the stakes haven’t changed. The quiet part is just getting louder.
Earlier this month, the president encouraged his supporters to stop counting the people who’ve died in blue states as part of the official U.S. COVID-19 death toll. “If you take the blue states out … we’re really at a very low level,” he said. It was as if their deaths, which resulted from his politicized negligence, were no loss at all.