COMMENTARY: The Cruelty of Exploiting Vulnerable People for Political Advantage

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 Wash., 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 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, housing, 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 court appointments scheduled far from where they had been flown.

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 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.

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 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 Trump is a symptom, not the cause, of a cruel streak in American politics. There is a long history of backlash against progress, going back to the post-Reconstruction period in which white supremacists used violence to reverse the enfranchisement of Black people.

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

Recognizing this truth is important to understanding the work we have ahead of us. We must also recognize that the cruelty in our past and our present is not our whole story.

Our story also includes good people in Hyannis in the 1960s and in Martha’s Vineyard this year who responded by mobilizing to welcome and support the arrivals. It includes the people of all colors and faiths who have repeatedly built movements to expand civil rights and promote human dignity, and who have given their time and treasure to elect political leaders who appeal to our national ideals rather than trash them.

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.


Ben Jealous serves as president of People For the American Way and Professor of the Practice at the University of Pennsylvania. A New York Times best-selling author, his next book “Never Forget Our People Were Always Free”will be published by Harper Collins in December 2022.

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