There’s evil, and then there’s cartoon villain evil, the kind of stuff so twisted that it’s best represented by caricature. Yosemite Sam’s unceasing hate for varmints and Wile E. Coyote’s obsession with the Road Runner come to mind.
In the cartoons, the bad guys tend toward fecklessness. You can laugh at Sam’s rootin’ tootin’ cowboy act because you know he inevitably shoots himself in the foot rather than harm anybody else. Wile E. Coyote never gets to feast on the Road Runner, no matter how many anvils he face-plants while in pursuit.
Our real-world cartoonish political villains, however, hold the levers of power, and they’re not comically benign. Their antics—such as finding increasingly more fiendish ways to look tough on the imagined evil of the day (insert here: crime/immigration/wokeness/CRT)—waste resources and upend lives even as their goofy posturing begs us to laugh.
The cartoonish GOP southern governors like Texas’ Greg Abbott and Florida’s Ron DeSantis invite us to reduce them to weirdo characters whose xenophobia we can laugh off , even when we should be vigilant. And maybe that’s what they want: to distract us from their cynical cruelty.
For months, Abbott has shipped migrants from his state to Democrat-run cities in the north (take that, liberal do-gooders!), looking for street cred among the anti-Hispanic immigrant, tough-on-the-border crowd. DeSantis, who fancies his next work address to be 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, couldn’t bear to be outdone, so he shipped a cargo of too-dark-for-my-politics immigrants by plane to Martha’s Vineyard, a late summer playground for left-leaning elites. The Obamas have a crib there. Middle class and wealthy Black folks take sabbatical there from whatever professional or social struggles wear them down on the mainland. The LGBTQ community is also a mainstay, as are many white, liberal academics and wealthy entrepreneurs. In other words, it’s a perfect backdrop for cartoon villaining that DeSantis couldn’t let go to waste.
Officials on the island weren’t even notified, and since a tiny vacation hub in the north Atlantic ain’t exactly a regular landing spot for unhoused migrants, they struggled to find them food, shelter and a means of processing their claims for entry. As I write this, my phone just went off with the following alert from the New York Daily News: “Texas gov drops two busloads of migrants near Kamala Harris’ home after DeSantis sends two planeloads of migrants to Martha’s Vineyard”. Picture that thought bubble over Abbott’s head.
The problem with these tactics—besides the obvious issue of involuntarily shipping people to places they’ve never been absent due process—is that they also recall uglier chapters in history. Racists in this country have never been above abusing their power to ship undesirables elsewhere, like that time in 1933 when cops in Beaver, Pennsylvania, near Pittsburgh, loaded 46 Black people in trucks, dropped them off near the West Virginia border and told them not to come back. The cops were never punished.
The Abbotts and DeSantises of our day aren’t ignorant of that history. They know they’re not the first bullies to use the power of their offices to score political points, using human beings as chess pieces. They know that challenging the federal government’s rules for processing people who cross the border illegally plays well in states where a good percentage of the population still yearns for states’ rights—especially as Republicans roll back abortion rights at the state level despite broad support for abortion’s legality across the country regardless of political affiliation. The fact that their behavior also wastes public resources in cities like New York, D.C. and Martha’s Vineyard is a cynical, added bonus: that, too, plays well among the GOP base in red states even though those states feed at the same trough of federal tax revenue from wealthier, blue states up north.
What the cartoon villains really want is to cozy up to old images of demagogues like George Wallace and Lester Maddox, Southern governors who in the 1960s treated their offices like mini-presidencies in the service of racism.
As long as they’re allowed to get away with it, they’ll be OK with us laughing at them along the way.