A NEW JOB FOR THE GOP: SCHOOLYARD BULLY In Florida and Texas, governors open a fresh, if shameful, front in the Republican culture wars.
RON DE SANTIS, Florida governor. CREDIT: State of Florida
GREG ABBOTT Texas governor. CREDIT: Gage Skidmore
IT’S HARD TO KEEP TRACK of all the ways that Republicans pursue their agenda of hatred, racism and sedition, so let’s focus on just one: their attacks on children. In the Age of Instant News, this may strike you as ancient history, but let’s review two examples: * Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida on March 2 belittled a group of high school students for wearing Covid face masks at an indoor news conference. DeSantis walked up to them and said: “You do not have to wear those masks. I mean, please take them them off. Honestly, it’s not doing anything. We’ve got to stop with this Covid theater. So if you wanna wear it, fine, but this is ridiculous.” * In Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott has been on the warpath against transgender children and their families, issuing a directive Feb. 22 instructing a state child welfare agency, to open abuse investigations into parents who help their children with gender medical and psychological care. Nine such probes already had begun when a state district court judge on March 11 halted enforcement of the directive, according to the Texas Tribune news organization. The governor’s order had followed an opinion by the state’s attorney general, Ken Paxton, promoting the investigations. This is the kind of stuff you expect to find on playgrounds, where child bullies go after weaker kids physically and mentally. Grownups try to protect kids, but given the chaos endemic to schoolyards, they usually fail, and the scars can last a lifetime. DeSantis and Abbott, at least technically, are grownups, ages 43 and 64. And during The Before Times – before Donald Trump – we expected grownups to model and promote basic standards of everyday living: big kids don’t pick on little ones. And in the grownup world, governors were our states’ super-grownups, guardians of our most vulnerable citizens, the sick, the poor, the frail, the homeless and the children. DeSantis and Abbott, on the other hand, are graduates of Trump University’s advanced studies in legal and moral depravity, qualifying them for leading roles in the Republican culture wars as bullies-in-chief, beater-uppers, name-callers, intimidaters, who dispense ridicule, injury and death. “Death?” you say. “That’s the kind of stupid-speak that makes it hard to take liberals seriously, and maybe why Donald Trump has a higher approval rating today (44.8 %) than Joe Biden (43.1 %).” But bullies can kill as well as wound, and when you’re in the positions that DeSantis and Abbott hold, what you do has life-and-death consequences.
DE SANTIS CREDIT: Gage Skimore
LET’S TAKE DE SANTIS first since, on the surface, his episode seems less noxious. According to the Associated Press and other news reports, the governor was speaking at a press conference at the University of South Florida in Tampa about cyber-security education. High school students were among the attendees, and before it began, the governor spotted some of them, and admonished them for wearing masks, urging the teenagers to remove them. Kevin Brown, a 14-year-old freshman, told the AP that “I was a little bit surprised at his tone” and felt pressured to take his mask off. But he chose to keep his on, because many others in the crowd weren't wearing masks, and he was wary of Covid. Kevin had good reason for that. Even though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had loosened masking rules, the agency still recommended that masks be worn at indoor events held in areas of high Covid-19 risk; the university was in that high risk category. Kevin Brown Sr., the student’s dad, said in a TV interview that DeSantis should “stop bullying kids.” He said of his son: “I tell him it’s his choice, so he made that choice, and the governor has no right to tell no kid or no one who they can or can’t wear a mask.” The second part of Kevin Sr’s comments sort of align with DeSantis’ approach to Covid, the governor having banned mask mandates in schools, saying that parents should control their children’s health care. But let’s visit a bit more with the governor’s Mean Boys' performance. Kevin Jr. is a kid, in his first year in high school, a freshman, 14 years old. Ron is the most powerful official in Florida, a Navy veteran of Iraq, with a chestful of honors, including the Bronze Star, a one-time assistant U.S. attorney, later a Congressman, 43 years old. Big ones picking on the little ones used to be wrong. But all-grown-up DeSantis did bullying two ways. He mocked the kids in public, chiding them for “Covid theater,” and labeling their mask-wearing as “ridiculous.” Secondly, as an adult, and powerful official, he tried to browbeat them into removing masks: “I mean, please take them off. Honestly, it’s not doing anything.” It’s a fact that lots of kids don’t get Covid, and when they do, they don’t get very sick. Nevertheless, children have died during the pandemic, according to the CDC – 1,341 so far.
ABBOTT CREDIT: State of Texas
NOW, TO TEXAS, where Gov. Greg Abbott, among other things, is teaching us a thing or two about compassion. Lesson one: just because you’ve spent half your life in a wheelchair doesn’t keep you from being mean, especially to some of the most vulnerable people among us. Abbott’s used a wheelchair since he was 26, when a tree fell on him while he was jogging, damaging his spine. He sued and won a settlement that’s helped pay for his care. I don’t know much about Abbott, but I appreciate his grit and being unafraid to show up in a wheelchair. It’s also possible that his personal experience has informed his approach to others facing extra hurdles. But from here in faraway Rhode Island, his official activities seem to go in the other direction; for example, he appears to have little interest in extending healthcare. Before he was governor, Abbott spent 12 years as the Texas attorney general and challenged the Obama administration by filing 31 suites, some trying to derail “Obamacare,” the Affordable Care Act. At a gathering of Republicans, he described his job: “I go into the office in the morning. I sue Barack Obama, and then I go home.” He was elected governor in 2014 with 59 percent of the vote. He’s still interested in healthcare: most of us have heard about Texas’ pioneering approach to abortion. The state has outlawed abortion to the degree that women may not know they’re pregnant before legal time limits have expired. Texas has empowered citizen vigilantes to sue people facilitating abortions, entitling them to awards of at least $10,000 if they win. Here, however, we’re focused on a smaller segment of the Texas population, children who were born with characteristics of one gender, but whose bodies and brains tell them they belong in the opposite gender. I’ve never talked with anyone who’s gone through this, but from what I’ve read and heard, it’s no picnic. The children have to come to terms with powerful forces telling them that their biological identities at birth are wrong; and their parents likewise have to hear what the children are telling them, and then, in the best cases, support them and get them the counseling and medical care they need. Every life is different, but it’s not a stretch to assume these families have had more than their fair share of trauma, both on the home front and in dealing with a society that can be hostile to the whole idea. Which is where Governor Abbott comes in. Taking bullying to a whole new level, Abbott has tried to focus the power of state government to a full-force attack on these fragile families, issuing a directive to the Department of Family and Protective Services to investigate parents who provide what the Texas Tribune calls “gender-affirming care” to their children. When the child welfare agency held a public meeting on the issue, more than 80 people spoke, but most transsexual children and their families stayed away, frightened of being exposed to persecution, while speakers and advocates read their anonymous statements, including one from an 8-year-old. A mother who did speak said that her child had attempted suicide before she “affirmed” the child’s gender identity, the Texas Tribute reported. The news service said a CDC report found that 40 percent of transgender young people attempt suicide. Some Texas families considered moving to other states; children were frightened of being removed from their parents’ care; kids were scared that their treatments would be interrupted; some feared being alone at home when their parents were at work. So, now there's an injunction in place. But for how long? Who knows whether a high court will reverse that? Whatever the outcome, the bully has done his work. Abbott's picked on one of the most fragile, most vulnerable groups of children in his state and turned their lives into train wreck.
SO, HERE’S TO YOU, Greg Abbott. You’ve made Republican hearts beat faster while beating up transgender children. And here’s to you, Ron DeSantis, badgering teenagers, who were trying to protect themselves and others from a terrible disease. You are role models for a Republican Party gone bonkers. You’ve charted a whole new frontier for bullies, expanding the hunting fields from the schoolyards to entire states; and you’ve proved that bullying is too important to be left to children, but now has become a job for grownups. Who’s to say this is folly? Texas and Florida are huge success stories, if you judge them by the number of people who want to live there. Even before Abbott and DeSantis started picking on children, Texas saw its population grow by 310,000 residents between July of 2020 and 2021, according to the U.S. Census Bureau; Florida came in second, adding 211,000. Whether these figures indicate approval of issues involving justice, fairness and compassion, there’s little reason to think those growth patterns will change, or that kind of affirmation will be limited to Texas and Florida. Bully, bully.
I'VE BEEN a reporter and writer for 58 years, long enough to have learned that journalists don't know very much, although I've met some smart ones. Mainly, what reporters know comes from asking other people questions and fretting about the answers. This blog is a successor to one inspired by our dog, Phoebe, who was smart, sweet and the antithesis of Donald Trump. She died Feb. 3, and I don't see getting over that very soon. Occasionally, I may try to reach her via cell phone.