Exploiting the vulnerable for political advantage, by Ben Jealous

9/29/2022, 6 p.m.
There is always a new low for Trump Republicans. And that is pretty frightening.

There is always a new low for Trump Republicans. And that is pretty frightening.

Take the latest exercise in lawlessness, dishonesty and cruelty from Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. He chartered a plane to send dozens of mostly Venezuelan asylum

seekers from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard, an island community off the coast of Cape Cod in Massachusetts. He clearly was gleeful about the idea of sticking it to liberals and gloating about it on right-wing media.

It wasn’t even an original idea. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott had already been putting migrants on buses to cities like Washington, D.C., where they have been dropped off in front of Fox News and outside the vice president’s residence—a giveaway that the purpose is publicity.

The news of the Gov. DeSantis flight made it clear that he was exploiting vulnerable people for his own political advantage. And the more we learn, the worse it gets.

A lawsuit filed on behalf of people deceived into taking the flight says the migrants were approached in San Antonio by people pretending to offer humanitarian assistance. They were promised that jobs, housin, and other assistance were waiting for them if they were willing to get on a plane.

None of it was true. These vulnerable people were reportedly told lies about where they were going, and given brochures with false information about help that would be waiting for them. Even worse, they may have unknowingly threatened their asylum claims by making it likely that they would miss scheduled court appointments.

Gov. DeSantis and his henchmen hadn’t contacted government officials or nonprofit organizations in Massachusetts. It was a photo op. It was definitely political. And it was possibly illegal. The sheriff in Bexar County, Texas, has opened a criminal investigation into the false pretenses under which people were lured onto the planes. A lawsuit has been filed on the migrants’ behalf.

White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre slammed Gov. DeSantis for “alerting Fox News and not city or state officials about a plan to abandon children fleeing communism,” calling it “a cruel, premeditated political stunt.”

Of course, it’s not the first time that dishonorable politicians have exploited vulnerable people. In fact, racist white southerners who were resisting segregation in the early 1960s did almost the same thing to Black Americans 60 years ago.

The Washington Post recently highlighted that history. A group of segregationists organized “Reverse Freedom Rides” in 1962 as retaliation for the Freedom Rides that carried civil rights activists throughout the South in 1961. According to the Post, “The plot was organized by white supremacist Citizens’ Councils in Arkansas, who bought radio ads and made fliers advertising the ‘opportunity’ to African-Americans.” One Arkansas woman and nine of her children were dropped off on Cape Cod near the President Kennedy family’s compound because she had been falsely told that Kennedy was going to greet them.

Sounds awfully familiar, doesn’t it?

Last year, journalist Adam Serwer published a book called “The Cruelty is the Point: The Past, Present, and Future of Trump’s America.” Serwer has made the point that Donald Trump is a symptom, not the cause, of a cruel streak in American politics. )

Gov. DeSantis’s scheme to deceive, manipulate, and harm vulnerable people seeking asylum in our country is evidence that the cruelty wielded by Donald Trump and embraced by so many of his followers will continue to poison our politics if Mr. Trump or Gov. DeSantis or someone of their ilk is the Republican presidential nominee in 2024.

We should be outraged at the cruelty displayed by some of our leaders. Let us also be motivated, and optimistic, that we can out-organize and overcome them.

The writer is president of People For the American Way and Professor of the Practice at the University of Pennsylvania.