By Diane Roberts, Washington Post, Jan. 22, 2021 at 6:00 a.m. EST
Diane Roberts is a journalist and professor of English at Florida State University. Her most recent book is “Tribal: College Football and the Secret Heart of America.”
Donald Trump has flown off to Florida, which is, after all, what New Yorkers of a certain age tend to do. But it was long overdue, even when his mailing address was on Fifth Avenue: With his candied-yam tan, his commitment to year-round golfing and his inability to distinguish between reality and fantasy, Trump’s always been more Florida Man than Manhattan sophisticate.
Taking up full-time residence at Mar-a-Lago — assuming the town council of Palm Beach decides not to enforce the 1993 agreement he signed barring anyone from making the club a permanent residence — the twice-impeached Trump joins a long list of shady characters who found a refuge, even if only fleeting, in sunny South Florida. What with its paradisal weather and a certain ethical looseness when it comes to the rich and famous, Florida has always been a desirable location for the well-heeled disreputable. Richard Nixon ruminated over the Watergate break-in at his Key Biscayne compound. O.J. Simpson lived in Kendall until he was convicted of armed robbery in 2008. In 1928, Al Capone bought a Palm Island mansion from brewery heir Clarence Busch, and in 1929, he threw a lavish party there the same night that hit men killed rival mobsters in the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre, giving himself a copper-bottomed alibi. Former despots have also aimed for soft landings in South Florida over the years: Fulgencio Batista, overthrown by Fidel Castro’s Cuban revolution, bought a vacation home in Daytona Beach and a house in Miami’s Spring Garden, and Nicaragua’s Anastasio Somoza Debayle (who was kicked out by U.S. authorities) and Haiti’s Prosper Avril (who wasn’t) both made their way there after fleeing their countries.
Trump isn’t exactly a deposed dictator, though he wasn’t shy about asserting autocratic power as president, repeatedly insisting that Article II of the Constitution allowed him to do anything he wanted. It didn’t. But in Florida, reality is negotiable. Trump still won’t admit he lost the election, and he still denies any responsibility for inciting the mob that looted, pillaged and desecrated the Capitol, leaving four rioters and a police officer dead. In Florida, he won’t have to. The Bay County Republican Party, for example, refuses to acknowledge that Trump is no longer in office, officially referring to President Biden as “president-imposed.”
Florida is the Looking-Glass Land of the nation, where it’s not only possible but perfectly normal to believe six impossible things before breakfast. Andrew Jackson — Trump’s favorite president — burned native people out of their homes and ran them off their land, clearing Florida for enslaving cotton magnates. The White gentry named their plantations after Sir Walter Scott novels and played at being British aristocrats, with jousts and “knightly” pageants and Queens of Love and Beauty. Standard Oil founder Henry Flagler turned the Atlantic coast of Florida into a make-believe Mediterranean, his hotels mash-ups of the Alhambra, the Palace of the Doges and Windsor Castle. Walt Disney bought unprepossessing chunks of central Florida land from unsuspecting citrus farmers and transformed them into a Neverland of princesses and talking mice.
Washington now teems with Democrats sporting their diversity and their masks, their Chuck Taylors and their selfies with Lady Gaga and J-Lo. That makes Florida a much friendlier place for Trumpist Republicans. Gov. Ron DeSantis is one of Trump’s more limpet-like supporters, an early adopter of hydroxychloroquine as a Covid-19 miracle cure, hostile to lockdowns and social distancing, and an enabler of Trump’s claims of a “stolen” election. He has declared that the most important issue in Florida now is the perfidy of Twitter and other social media platforms that are supposedly muzzling conservative voices. Rep. Matt Gaetz, often not so much economical with the truth but in pitched battle against it, is only the loudest of the baker’s dozen members of Congress from Florida who refused to certify Biden’s election.
While Sen. Rick Scott has supported Trump since he announced his presidential run in 2015, Sen. Marco Rubio was an early rival for the Republican nomination and may find his slower conversion to MAGAism rewarded with a primary challenger for his seat in 2022 — because Ivanka Trump is also moving to Florida. She and husband Jared Kushner have bought a $30 million, two-acre lot on Indian Creek Island in Biscayne Bay. For that matter, newly engaged Tiffany Trump has been looking at properties in South Beach, and Don Jr. and his shouty girlfriend, Kimberly Guilfoyle, have been touring upscale houses in Jupiter. Only Eric Trump and his wife, Lara, seem to be resisting the lure to head south, possibly because she may be planning a run for the U.S. Senate from her native North Carolina.
But Florida still isn’t completely Trump territory, as the ex-president will find. Palm Beach County is deep blue. Rep. Lois Frankel, Trump’s congresswoman, was, like Trump, born in New York, but she’s a progressive Democrat. She won reelection by 20 points in November, even though Trump captured the state easily and her opponent, Republican conspiracy theorist Laura Loomer, had endorsements from Roger Stone (also a Florida resident), Roseanne Barr and the founder of the Proud Boys.
South Florida, more broadly, also remains majority Democratic, but that probably won’t trouble Trump. As long as he owns the clubs, he’ll have golfing partners. As long as the likes of the Boca Raton-based Newsmax can sell ads, he’ll have a political megaphone. Unless the Senate votes to convict him in his impeachment trial, or the Fulton County, Ga., district attorney or city, state or federal prosecutors in New York file charges against him, Trump will go on spinning dark dreams from his Florida fastness — just another old caudillo trying to relive the glory days.