Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks to supporters at a campaign stop on August 24 at the Horsepower Ranch in Geneva, Florida.
CNN  — 

Disgust, shock and condemnation are not an unfortunate by-product of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ decisions – like the one to fly 50 migrants to Martha’s Vineyard.

They are the desired outcome of the hard-driving Republican’s approach to politics as he seeks reelection and eyes a possible presidential campaign designed to appeal to a radical party base that relishes candidates who stoke outrage.

DeSantis was panned as inhumane, authoritarian and even accused of human trafficking as the millionaires’ playground off the coast of Massachusetts was forced to deal with the unexpected arrivals.

In an earlier political age, DeSantis’ hopes for higher office might have ended right here. Using desperate migrants fleeing repression and economic blight in Venezuela as pawns in a power play hardly seems compatible with American ideals of welcoming poor, hungry peoples yearning to breathe free.

Yet it is a commentary on today’s politics – and the incentives for radicalism and extreme gestures that define the modern Republican Party – that the Florida governor’s move was being seen in some quarters as his most audacious yet. It again displayed the uncanny talent for weaponizing cultural issues that excite GOP grassroots voters and how DeSantis uses his gubernatorial perch to create record of action on the “Make America First Again” agenda. It’s a strategy that has made him a megastar on conservative TV and means he would be a formidable 2024 presidential primary candidate, whether his former mentor – ex-President Donald Trump, the champion of extreme gesture politics – runs or not.

The storm over the migrants in Martha’s Vineyard played out exactly according to the hardline governor’s playbook – just like previous controversies over the teaching of sexuality in schools, transgender athletes, masks during the coronavirus pandemic and his vow to go after nearly non-existent voter fraud. In this as in other cases, DeSantis took action that some on the left and in the media deemed extreme and beyond the pale. Then, he appeared on camera defiant – not only owning his decision but taunting those whose criticism he turns into yet more fuel to grow his power and appeal to the GOP base. The image of an unapologetic conservative standing up to his critics is politically very effective – for now, at least, given that he’s not facing a broader national electorate.

But there remain some mysterious aspects of the episode – not least the fact that DeSantis, who runs Florida, organized flights for migrants from Texas.

And there are growing signs that the migrants sent to Martha’s Vineyard may have been misled to convince them to get on the planes. CNN’s Maria Santana reported, for instance, that three migrants who were sent to the island were told by a woman named “Perla” that they would get help with shelter and jobs once they arrived at their destination.

Biden administration is offering Republicans an opening on immigration

DeSantis’ dispatch of migrants may be inhumane. But it’s got its own harsh logic.

He claims cities like Washington, DC, and states like Massachusetts are encouraging the flow of migrants because they do not fully cooperate with immigration enforcement authorities. His disdain for “sanctuary” cities and states is shared by another Republican governor keen on stunt politics – Greg Abbott of Texas. The staunch conservative from the Lone Star State sent two new busloads of migrants to Washington where they were deposited Thursday outside Vice President Kamala Harris’ official residence to make a similar point. Volunteers had said they were prepared to receive the group at the city’s Union Station. It was not clear whether the change of destination was motivated by a desire to make a political splash to match the impact made by DeSantis.

There are some grounds to suggest the strategies are having an impact. The Democratic mayors of New York and Washington, Eric Adams and Muriel Bowser, have said their cities’ capacity to deal with an influx of migrants sent by Republican governors is close to being overstretched. Such comments lend credibility to warnings by border states that their resources are overwhelmed by surges in migrant crossings. Still, publicity ruses like those pulled off by DeSantis and Abbott are doing little to actually solve a complex problem. They instead serve as a political launch pad – much like the one that rocketed Trump to the White House with his searing anti-immigration rhetoric in 2016.

But when it comes to solving the problem, the Biden administration is not blameless either. It has long struggled to find a way to talk about border security, which, for all the hysteria on the right, is a real issue and one that concerns many voters.

Harris, for instance, said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday that the border was “secure” – a comment that conflicts with the views of many voters and the evidence of nearly 2 million border encounters reported by US Customs and Border Protection in the fiscal year that ends September 30.

Yet the right’s demagoguing of migrants only serves to further politicize the immigration issue that Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama both tried to solve with a coalition of bipartisan lawmakers, only to founder on the unwillingness of Capitol Hill conservatives to compromise. In the volatile politics left by the Trump presidency, there’s no chance a serious immigration reform bill could get anywhere near passing.

In a Pew Research Center survey from August, for example, 73% of Americans said increasing security along the US-Mexico border to reduce illegal crossings should be a very or somewhat important goal. But the issue is more important to Republicans than Democrats, helping to explain why GOP politicians concentrate so heavily on border issues.

DeSantis seeks to spite the left

DeSantis left no doubt that he was motivated by a desire to spite authorities in liberal states and even to seek revenge on anti-Trump voters.

“All those people in DC and New York were beating their chests when (Donald) Trump was president, saying they were so proud to be sanctuary jurisdictions, saying how bad it was to have a secure border,” DeSantis said Thursday.

“The minute even a small fraction of what those border towns deal with every day is brought to their front door, they all of a sudden go berserk.”

Yet while it’s possible to see a coherent political strategy behind the migrant transportation policies of DeSantis and Abbott, it is inescapable that both governors are exploiting the tragedies of vulnerable people for political gain. In fact, the Venezuelans taken to Martha’s Vineyard are actually victims of the kind of vengeful socialist dictatorship DeSantis can normally be relied upon to condemn.

These are desperate people, and whatever the merit of their asylum claims, they’re being treated as a faceless group and not as individual humans. Christina Pushaw, director of rapid response for the DeSantis reelection campaign, left no doubt that they are mere props.

“Martha’s Vineyard residents should be thrilled about this. They vote for sanctuary cities — they get a sanctuary city of their own. And illegal aliens will increase the town’s diversity, which is strength. Right?” Pushaw tweeted.

Still, if DeSantis hoped to highlight hypocrisy among east coasters on an island packed with vacation homes, he was disappointed.

The people in Martha’s Vineyard didn’t go “berserk,” as he said. Instead they rushed to help. Residents provided food, clothes and shelter, despite having no prior notice from DeSantis about the migrants’ arrival on Wednesday.

“We’ve been through Covid. we’ve been through hurricanes. we’ve been through this. … Every one of those we’ve risen up as the Vineyard, ‘cause we’re resilient,” Edgartown Town Administrator James Hagerty told CNN’s Miguel Marquez.

“We take care of our own, we take care of the community, help people out.”

White House slams ‘cruel’ migrant transport scheme

Democrats were quick to seize on the cold-heartedness of the DeSantis and Abbott tactics, even at the risk of providing more grist for the conservative media mill.

“What they are doing is an illegal stunt, is a political stunt. And it’s really just disrespectful to humanity,” said White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre. “It is just cruel.”

David Leopold, a legal adviser to America’s Voice, an immigration advocacy group, said: “Forcible transfer of a civilian population is a crime against humanity. And human trafficking is a serious federal crime in the US. Both of these are hallmarks of an anti-democratic totalitarian leader.”

Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns also sensed a sinister political motivation on the part of DeSantis.

“It’s basically saying that you can use a human life … and to put it in the position of becoming a political pawn in somebody’s authoritarian game,” Burns said on CNN’s “New Day.”

While it’s clear these migrants are being used as pawns, accusations of human trafficking do not take into account the fact that some migrants welcome the chance of transportation away from border states and deeper into the United States, ahead of appointments with authorities for immigration and asylum hearings that could take months or even years to arrive.

But Republican reaction to the drama in Martha’s Vineyard underscored the electric effect it has on the GOP base.

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who is running for reelection and once was a proponent of comprehensive immigration reform, strongly backed DeSantis.

“Immigration is a federal responsibility, which this administration is not meeting. A handful of communities and states are carrying the predominant burden of it,” Rubio told reporters. “And so if a migrant voluntarily – which is what it is, the case in most of these, not all of them – if a migrant voluntarily offers to go to another part of the country, I think it’s perfectly reasonable for a state to assist them.”

As Rubio understands, any Republican who wants a future in the party must talk tough on immigration. For that reason, the latest deliveries of migrants to liberal jurisdictions by Abbott and DeSantis are unlikely to be the last such stunts.