by David Silverberg
New Year’s parties are celebrations of hope that the year to come will be better than the year past; that problems will be solved, challenges met and new opportunities open.
But just what are the political challenges and events Southwest Florida, the Sunshine State and the nation are likely to face in 2023? As the immortal Yogi Berra once put it so well: “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.”
Tough as predicting is, existing trends provide some indication of where things are going and when it comes to politics, it’s wise to be ready for what’s ahead—or at least to brace for it.
Don vs. Ron vs. Joe
Are you already tired of hearing about the rivalry between former President Donald Trump and Gov. Ronald DeSantis (R)?
Well, too bad. You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.
This is the political story likely to dominate the year. It’s got everything: colorful characters, high stakes, nasty insults, personal rancor, fanatical partisans, absurdity galore, mentor vs. protégé, sorcerer vs. apprentice, and horse-race polling to generate headlines as each candidate pulls ahead or behind ever more exotic and narrow slices of the electorate.
What’s more, the rivalry will fill in the news gap between election years, when there’s usually little happening, so political reporters can always cover the contest when they’re on deadline and there’s nothing else to report.
As a result, every belch, snort and fart from these two will be analyzed and evaluated through a campaign lens.
At issue, of course, is the presidency and with it the future of the United States. That part is serious.
Integral to this story will be the indictment and prosecution of Trump for a long list of transgressions stretching back from before his presidency.
Not only has Trump now officially been accused of actual crimes: obstructing an official congressional proceeding; conspiracy to defraud the United States; conspiracy to make a false statement; and aiding an insurrection, but if tried and found guilty, he’s facing punishment. Whether this actually happens is already a major story and it won’t be resolved any time soon.
But beyond that question, the entire political establishment, both Democratic and Republican, the “deep state” and the mainstream media and a majority of voters don’t want him back and genuinely fear his possible return. They will do all they can to stop him. The fate of American democracy hangs in the balance.
Also, while it’s easy to forget the existence of Democrats in Florida, nationally they’re still a force to be reckoned with and the chief Democrat, President Joe Biden, has a big decision of his own to make: will he run again?
Expectations are that an announcement may come in February. If he announces another run, the media will focus on that. But if he chooses to retire there may be another Democratic stampede for the nomination as there was in 2020. If he decides to anoint a successor, the focus will be on the heir apparent, who, like DeSantis, will have to walk a narrow and difficult course for the next two years to preserve his or her viability. Or if he decides not to declare, the speculation will be prolonged for another year.
A more intense and exhausting drama than all this could not have been dreamed up by William Shakespeare. And all next year’s a stage.
Congress and revenge
Had the hoped-for Republican “red wave” materialized, Republican members of Congress would have taken revenge on Democrats in a thousand different ways. They would have pushed legislation to turn back the clock to implement the Make America Great Again (MAGA) agenda. They very well might have impeached President Joe Biden for the high crime of being a Democrat. They would have tried to undo or cover up the felonies of the insurrection and would have done all they could to exonerate, excuse and elevate Trump.
Republicans are still likely to try those things. Expect a cascade of House investigations in an effort to weaken and undermine the administration and Biden’s re-election. It will be a replay of Benghazi and Hillary Clinton’s e-mails on steroids.
However, when it comes to substantive legislation, Democrats kept the Senate, meaning that no matter how extreme the proposals coming out of the House, none are likely to make it into law.
The United States has dealt with divided government before and some sessions were surprisingly productive. That doesn’t seem likely this time, though.
In the past, reasonable compromise was considered not just respectable but a strength of the American system. Trump, though, brought an absolutist, zero-sum, win-lose approach to government and politics. He infected his party and about half the population with that attitude. Until time passes and that fever burns off, much of the essential functioning of government could be stymied by political intransigence.
This could especially manifest itself in September when the new fiscal year appropriations must be approved. We could see a government shutdown—or shutdowns—at that time if House Republicans dig in.
The possibility of that happening means that measures to protect Southwest Florida need to be implemented before the showdown. In particular, Congress needs to pass the Harmful Algal Bloom Essential Forecasting Act, which would ensure that federal activities monitoring and responding to harmful algal blooms like red tide will continue despite any shutdowns.
This legislation needs to be passed early, with bipartisan support. The bill was originally the idea and a priority of former Rep. Francis Rooney, who was unable to advance it.
Unfortunately, the key congressman on this legislation, Rep. Byron Donalds (R-19-Fla.), who introduced the bill in the last Congress, has shown little to no interest in it. Nor has he shown any legislative ability, so it has few prospects in the 118th Congress.
Unless someone in the Florida delegation is willing to pick up this cause and champion this legislation, Southwest Florida will be at the mercy of a deadlocked, recalcitrant Congress, which in turn will leave the region, literally, at the mercy of the tides.
DeSantis and the race to the right
The most dangerous kind of politician is the kind who actually believes what he says. Ron DeSantis appears to believe a lot of the extremism he espouses.
He has clearly decided that when it comes to policy he cannot allow himself to be outflanked on the right, either at home or nationally. No matter how absurd or illogical the premise he seems convinced that he must be leading the ideological charge—even if it’s headed over a cliff.
This led him to wage cultural war on science, education, vaccines, immigrants, gays and public health during 2022. It won him a resounding re-election in Florida. There’s no reason to expect any change in the next year.
In fact, it’s likely to intensify given his presidential ambitions and the rise of his rivals. For example, in September DeSantis generated headlines by spending state money to fly Venezuelan asylum-seekers from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts without any prior notice or coordination. Potential presidential candidate Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) couldn’t let that go unanswered, so, in December he similarly bused Central and South American immigrants from Texas to Vice President Kamala Harris’ official residence in Washington, DC.
We’re likely to see a lot of such posturing in the year ahead, using people as pawns.
But it won’t just happen at the presidential level. In Florida, given the Republican supermajority in the legislature, the race to the right will be a dominant force there too. State legislators can be expected to prove their MAGA bona fides and curry favor with DeSantis and the far-right base by introducing ever more extreme measures.
One place where this is likely to express itself is in abortion. Last year Florida passed a 15-week abortion restriction. That’s unlikely to stand as state legislators vie to show the depth of their extremism. Anti-abortionists want a complete ban on abortion in the state. DeSantis has coyly stayed uncommitted. Republican legislators have no such restraints. A total abortion ban looms. And who’s going to stop them? Democrats? Certainly not Naples’ own Sen. Kathleen Passidomo (R-28-Naples), who now presides over the state Senate.
Another area is education. DeSantis reached down into local school boards to endorse his own partisans. In the past year state legislators proposed their own measures and Southwest Florida representatives were in the lead. State Rep. Spencer Roach (R-76-Fort Myers) proposed making school board races overtly partisan. Rep. Bob Rommel (R-81-Naples) wanted to put video cameras in classrooms to monitor the dangerous teachers teaching there. In 2023 not only are we likely to see more such measures introduced, they’re likely to pass and be signed into law.
This kind of extremism is particularly manifest locally in Collier County where MAGA candidates now constitute a majority of the county school board. Jerry Rutherford (District 1) revealed after his election that he wants to impose corporal punishment to enforce more rigid and punitive conformity on students, a MAGA rallying cry.
Despite the outrage from parents who suddenly woke up to what they had elected, Rutherford was officially ensconced in his position as was the rest of the board. The Collier County school system, which was previously rated the gold standard for the state, is now likely to crater as dogma, discipline and docility take the place of education, enquiry and enlightenment as priorities for students.
Madness at the margins
One might think that all this success for MAGAism would satisfy its adherents. But exactly the opposite has proven to be true. The level of MAGA anger and rage is absolutely incandescent. Reflecting the fury of their increasingly cornered idol, Trump, MAGAs are lashing out in fury and their first target is the one closest at hand: moderate, traditional Republicans, the so called Republicans in Name Only, or RINOs.
MAGAs blame a less than fervent pro-Trump RINO establishment for the dissipation of the expected red wave. Their hatred is manifested in opposition to electing Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-23-Calif.) as Speaker of the House. In Florida they’ve made a determined push to take over county Republican executive committees.
Will this rage dissipate in 2023? This does not seem likely. In fact, it’s likely to increase.
While DeSantis and MAGAs dominate Florida, in the rest of the country MAGAism is being marginalized as people defend democracy. Trump’s big lie about a stolen 2020 election appears more and more delusional and threadbare every day. Only the truly incredulous can continue to believe it. Election deniers did notably poorly in the 2022 election. More losing conservative candidates conceded defeat than followed the examples of Trump or Arizona gubernatorial hopeful Kari Lake in charging fraud. And the conspiracies behind the insurrection were exposed by the January 6th Committee.
MAGAism is gradually being pushed to the fringes of American political life, where it lived before the advent of Trump. For those committed to the creed, however, the sheer frustration, the looming powerlessness, and the futility of their feelings are fueling a bitterness that is truly amazing to behold.
The advance of Republican centrism, the marginalization of extremism and the defeat of MAGAism will be a trend to watch over the coming year, especially as the majority of Americans outside Florida embrace more normal, constitutional politics. But every setback, every defeat, every restraint will fuel MAGA “hatred, prejudice and rage,” as Trump once put it. How that resentment expresses itself, in Florida and elsewhere, will be the other part of this story in 2023.
The 2023 political agenda of Southwest Florida is already set but its creator was not any politician. Rather, it was a storm named Ian.
Hurricane Ian was a force beyond the capacity of any human to alter or stop. Its sheer devastation and destruction will influence Southwest Florida for many years, probably for a generation at least.
In the coming year all Southwest Florida politicians will have to cope with and contribute to the recovery of the region, regardless of their political beliefs. The need is real and continues to be urgent.
Officials at all levels can assist by getting the money for rebuilding that the region is entitled to receive from the state and the federal government and doing what they can to get more. However, the fanatical anti-federal, anti-government, anti-tax, anti-investment ideology most local politicians espouse will not help. Instead it will lead to more actions like the mass resignation of North Captiva firefighters who were denied a reasonable budget increase and so left the service.
Nor will the governor’s line-item vetoes of local funding requests or the refusal of members of Congress like Donalds to request earmarks help the region. Voters and the local mainstream media have to keep watch and ask: who is helping Southwest Florida recover? Who is helping it get the resources it needs? Who is shirking? Names need to be taken and asses kicked when necessary.
Hurricane Ian should have also completely put to rest any residual argument about the reality of climate change. Between ferocious storms like Ian, the Christmas bomb cyclone and fire, flooding and blizzards, climate change is here. No reasonable, sentient human can muster an argument to deny it. Politicians of all persuasions have to acknowledge it and prepare the coastal population for its effects.
Will Florida and its politicians finally acknowledge this? Their sense of reality needs critical scrutiny in the year ahead.
If they need a reminder they need look no further than the famous dome homes of Cape Romano. Built on solid ground in 1982, with every passing year the Gulf encroached and the waters rose around them. This year Hurricane Ian provided the coup d’grace. The homes are now completely under water.
Unless Floridians wake up, the rest of Florida will follow.
Beyond the abyss
If current trend lines are projected outward, Florida’s political future in 2023 looks like a dark, gaping sinkhole of ignorance, illness and intolerance.
But it doesn’t have to be this way and the story that proved it in 2022 took place half a world away from Florida and the United States.
When Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022—a date that will live in infamy—Russian president Vladimir Putin expected the war to be over in two to three days.
The world didn’t have much greater expectations. Ukraine was outnumbered, had less than half the population of Russia, had far fewer resources and a weaker army and appeared to be a rickety, corrupt ex-Soviet colony presided over by a former comedian.
Instead, through patriotism, determination and astonishing courage, Ukraine, its president Volodomir Zelensky and its people fought for their lives and country—and are winning battles and may actually achieve a clear, just victory.
It’s unlikely to occur soon, however. When wars break out people often expect a quick resolution to what is clearly a terrible and painful conflict. That’s what happened at the outset of the American Civil War and the First World War.
However, if history is any guide, Putin’s war in Ukraine may last through 2023 and beyond—as long as Putin is in power. Both sides have too much at stake to give in.
But the Ukrainian case serves as an example to everyone facing apparent inevitability. Determination and courage do make a difference and can hold or turn back a seemingly unstoppable tide of tyranny despite overwhelming odds. It happened in the American Revolution and in Britain’s defiance of Nazi Germany in World War II.
In Florida and the United States in the coming year those who still put their faith in justice and democracy and enlightenment can look to Ukraine’s example for inspiration.
When it comes to human events it’s always wise to remember that humans can affect those events and alter their course. Nothing is set in stone until after it happens.
The San Francisco radio station KSAN used to have a tagline: “If you don’t like the news, go out and make some of your own!”
So in 2023, to paraphrase KSAN: if you don’t like this future, go out and make one of your own.
Special to Big Mouth Media from the Paradise Progressive. Originally published January 1, 2023.