Every election cycle, no matter the stakes, I’m reminded of the joke about Florida. It doesn’t have a setup or, come to think of it, even a punchline; it’s just an example of pure gawking spectacle. Florida, the land of fundamentalist crooks and corruption, where anything goes. Florida Man, the bogeyperson of societal breakdown. What’s happening in Washington, D.C., these days feels pretty Florida to me. Having left the state after my formative years on the Panhandle, the function of the joke is clearer to me. The Florida of the abstract joke is a worthy cipher for America’s signature blend of incompetent savagery. The joke may even be therapeutic.
The origin of the joke as it relates to internet culture, and by extension, popular culture, stretches back to February 2, 2013, the day of @_Florida Man’s inaugural tweet. “The world’s worst superhero,” proclaims the account’s bio, which appeared on a Reddit thread just days before. Further back, it’s possible to peg it to a viral job posting, circa 2011, by the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. “For those unaware of Florida’s reputation,” the post reads, “It’s arguably the best news state in the country and not just because of the great public records laws. We have all kinds of corruption, violence and scumbaggery. The 9/11 terrorists trained here. Bush read My Pet Goat here. Our elections are colossal clusterfucks.” If you can bear the pedantry, and the history lesson, the Miami New Times dares to suggest that the 1909 introduction of open government laws, and subsequent easy access to police reports and mugshots, is the spiritual forebear to this rite of indulgent shaming.
The joke feels especially relevant as Florida’s Republican candidate for governor, Ron DeSantis, does his best Florida Man impersonation on the campaign trail: first when he implored Floridians to not “monkey” up the election by voting for Andrew Gillum, the African American mayor of Tallahassee; next with the unearthing of a white-nationalist Facebook group that listed DeSantis as a moderator. (He claims he was added without his knowledge.) That DeSantis, a three-term congressman with virtually no legislative achievements to speak of, could be the Republican nominee after ousting Adam Putnam, the party’s favored son, with help from a single Trump tweet and a constant presence on Fox News, is the more insidious truth obscured by the joke. Nothing, though—not even readymade euphemisms like “racial flare-ups,” “issues of race,” or “the racial controversies” frustrating the DeSantis campaign—can conceal the fact that to be Republican in Florida in 2018 is to be complicit in a flagrantly racist effort to consolidate political power. That Florida is a state in which there’s not just a poverty of the wallet but of political vision explains another part of it. There are reasons why we’ve been the butt of the joke for so long.
For a person of a certain age who grew up in Florida, this sad joke is all we’ve known. In the last two decades, Republican “innovation” and experimentation have run wild. The party has controlled every branch of Florida’s government, named the heads of state agencies, nominated the supreme court’s justices, distributed the state’s budgets to cities, stripped regulatory agencies of their power, and drawn the lines for congressional districts. When Democrats last managed to elect a governor to the state house it was 1991.[*] For a younger voter in a state with the third largest population in the nation, this exercise of unchecked political madness has become something of a lifelong lesson in subjugation and control, one that has likewise warped Democratic Party politics in the state, which is itself infamous for its corruptibility and incapacity to field worthy candidates. It has also warped the state’s conception of itself, the identity of those who adopted it as home and those born into its blighted legacy.
But what may be a joke to the nation at large has always been, for me, a source of guilt. Rick Scott, despite it all, was my governor for eight years. Charlie Crist (four years) and Jeb Bush (eight years) were my governors for a total of twelve years before that. As a Florida voter, Republican intransigence is the only political style I’ve known; malediction and hostility the tenor of the voice representing the people in my state. It’s a voice that coined the term “justifiable homicides” and lauded the ideal of standing one’s ground with a loaded weapon. And it was one that told the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School that the “adults make the laws.” It made a pledge to the Dream Defenders occupying the halls of the state capitol to change “not one damn comma” of the law that condoned George Zimmerman’s murderous rage. Perhaps the saddest joke of all is that no one in power stopped to recognize that others were learning from a language of violent contempt.
The Florida of the abstract joke is a worthy cipher for America’s signature blend of incompetent savagery.
If I cut you off before you can crack wise about the “swamp” or the Florida man and his deranged performance, it’s because I feel guilty for fleeing it all. Wanting what you can’t have in Florida: public transit, jobs, something like a safety net. Self-exiles still defend it in conversation. “It could have been better,” a former Palm Beach resident tells me. “I am constantly defending Florida,” says another formerly of Tallahassee. “It’s that thing, You don’t get to shit on Florida. You don’t know us like that. But then, I look around and see how few of my friends are actually still there.” Another exile calls me from London: “Florida is fucked. Its waterways, big sugar, the tourism industry is fucked, but that’s not the Florida I identify with. It’s the Haitians I grew up around in Coral Springs. The Jamaicans, the LGBTQ kids in Miami. The deep blue state I know it to be is my Florida.”
But our Florida has been reshaped by years of Republican rule, which has terraformed the state in its own image. Decadent, wasted physical beauty and senseless violence are now the strange flora and fauna of the state—both are easily accommodated. The “big, damp, irregularity” of Florida, as Diane Roberts wrote in a Guardian op-ed before the 2012 presidential election. It is, or should be irregular: Sabal palms and white oak trees hanging in the breeze in Parkland while horrified students snake through the parking lot in single file; seventeen tons of dead fish scraped off the beach by John Deere tractors into temporary dumpsters, the byproduct of a toxic red tide and a handcuffed Department of Environmental Protection. Miami Beach neighborhoods now flood daily in a state where “climate change” is a dirty phrase. “The level of disconnect from reality is pretty profound,” journalist Jeff Goodell told the New Yorker. “[In] Florida there are real consequences. The water is rising right now.” The land takes back when and where it can, too. Near Tampa Bay, sinkholes swallow houses whole, no exception given to humans or cars, as the state’s limestone foundation grows increasingly brittle. Another joke: welcome to the “Swiss Cheese State.”
My family was a part of a strange population, the 35 percent who can’t claim Florida as a birthplace but still call it home—an extension of the state’s reputation as a hub for transience. My parents fled in 2009 when the Great Recession, which hit Florida harder than most, swallowed our house whole. In a darker frame of mind, it feels as if we were scrubbed away like a poorly built structure on the beach, a casualty of the desperate effort to lay down roots in an ecology of extremes. And when I look at what remains of the state’s social landscape, it’s hard to ignore that the Republicans’ longstanding project remains, so far, unscathed—not unlike the Sand Palace on Florida’s Panhandle. It’s an ideology on stilts, sober while the red tide comes in, buttressed by the denial of social services, an edifice built to spite the 3.8 million Floridians uninsured as of 2012—the second highest group in the country. (Six years on, the number still easily exceeds the national average.) It’s all a shelter for the rich designed to withstand decay from below: infected orange groves, decimated industries, towering student loan debt, and fourteen opioid deaths a day. It’s a clubhouse for those who see Florida as the promised land of privatization and permanent tax cuts, no-bid prison contracts, and free market values.
Few intelligent attempts have been made in the corridors of state power to counter this reactionary and destructive political stranglehold. No matter the millions in out-of-state PAC money or the proliferating Rick Scott memes or John Oliver quips—the Republicans just squeeze tighter. To blunt the proto-Trump governorship of Rick Scott, the state Democratic Party offered voters a former Republican—prolonging their midterm losing streak to five electoral cycles. In a year of resistance politics and mass tragedy, Democrats in Florida’s state house voted for Rick Scott’s latest permanent tax cut. Nor are the stakes of the Democrats’ political dunciad in Florida restricted to the state. “If Rick Scott was not governor it would have been very hard for us to win Florida,” Steve Bannon explained to a room of Republican donors last week. One Florida Man’s gift to the nation.
It’s strange, then, to hear a different voice enter the fray—a voice that has nothing to do with the Florida Man. Since his nomination in late August, Andrew Gillum has at least been able to stitch together Florida’s unique geography—what is five disparate states, essentially—into an unlikely if viable coalition of voters. White women, independent voters, and grassroots organizations are among the previously silo’d groups powering his run. “We must not sound like and act like we are Republican Lite, y’all,” he implored a crowd in West Palm Beach, last week. “We have a belief system.” In campaign stops on the forgotten coast and the emerald coast, he’s promised to raise the minimum wage to $15, restore voting rights to Florida’s 1.5 million felons, abolish ICE, and expand Medicaid. His administration, he says, will “believe in science.”
Science—not exactly the domain of the Florida Man. Nor, apparently, is reason. One day before the election, Trump—the one-man wormhole connecting D.C. to South Florida, the National Florida Man—appears nervous. “If @AndrewGillum did the same job with Florida that he has done in Tallahassee as Mayor,” he tweeted this morning, “the State will be a crime ridden, overtaxed mess.” Overtaxed? One Florida Man, Rick Scott, claims to have cut taxes in Florida no less than seventy-five times—he’s now attempting to buy a U.S. Senate seat for more than $68 million dollars. Crime-ridden? Another Florida Man, Cesar Sayoc—a fervent Trump supporter—has been arrested on suspicion of mailing more than a dozen explosive devices to prominent Democrats around the country. Whether Gillum can change the stakes in Florida remains to be seen. But, either way, we know who can’t.
[*] When Governor Lawton Chiles died in office in 1998, he was briefly succeeded by another Democratic governor, Kenneth Hood “Buddy” MacKay.