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Ron DeSantis and His State Guard Aren’t Happening in a Vacuum

Maybe it's innocent. Maybe it's not.
December 6, 2021
Ron DeSantis and His State Guard Aren’t Happening in a Vacuum
Florida National Guard members wear protective masks as Gov. Ron DeSantis gives updates on the state's response to the coronavirus pandemic during a press conference on April 17, 2020 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

In case you hadn’t noticed, some weird things have been going on with certain states and their military forces. First, we had South Dakota sending members of its National Guard to Texas to help patrol its border with Mexico—the tab to be picked up by a zillionaire with no particular connection to South Dakota.

Then we had Oklahoma, whose governor got rid of the highest officer in his state’s National Guard, replacing him with an officer he must have thought would be more pliant, apparently with a view to facilitating resistance to the Defense Department’s schedule for vaccination of military personnel. The inevitable litigation has begun, but it’s unclear whether other states will join Oklahoma in the vaccine mutiny.

Now Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, who would like to be president, is rattling his sabre, proposing to spend $3.5 million to support a revived Florida State Guard composed of 200 volunteers. If the pattern of Trumpist subversion of the federal union were not so persistent, it would be sufficient to chalk this off as something out of an operetta, reminiscent of President Nixon’s short-lived 1970 effort to dress the White House police in uniforms Franz Lehar would have approved. Light-hearted essays could be penned comparing DeSantis’s initiative with the kilt-clad Atholl Highlanders, the Scottish private army authorized in the 19th century by Queen Victoria that is still commanded by the Dukes of Atholl.

What’s this all about? There’s nothing inherently wrong with a state having a “state guard.” Nearly two dozen do. They are not part of the U.S. armed forces and no federal money is involved. By law, their members cannot be in any of the federal military reserve forces. These are the people who are called out to assist with disasters when the National Guard is otherwise occupied. Florida used to have a state guard, although it seems to have gotten along quite nicely without it for decades.

If Florida is so flush with money that it can come up with $3.5 million to cover the cost of 200 volunteers, that’s for the Sunshine State’s taxpayers to ponders. But more is going on here. It is, at best, a shameless political act in service of DeSantis’s presidential ambitions. Reviving a defunct state force is not needed to protect Florida’s long coastline. For that we have the U.S. Coast Guard and Customs and Border Protection, established federal agencies that have the necessary personnel, gear, funding, training, experience, and apolitical, merit-based professional leadership.

Again: Political grandstanding is the most innocent possible explanation. But not the only possible explanation. DeSantis’s private force cannot reasonably be viewed in isolation from the other challenges Republican governors and legislatures have been raising—not only with their National Guards, but by probing every possible weak point in the Constitution when it comes to vaccines, voting, vote counting, and more.

At some point, whatever is going on here—be it bits of MAGA posturing or genuine attempts at subverting the Constitutional order—we are running the risk of things getting out of hand and pitting the states against the federal government in ways we haven’t seen since the Nullification Crisis of the 1830s.

To this point, the Biden administration has generally tried to avoid the anti-Constitutional fallout of Trumpism so as to focus on legislating what it hopes will be kitchen-table issues for most Americans. That’s a luxury this administration may not always be able to afford.

Eugene R. Fidell

Eugene R. Fidell is an adjunct professor of law at NYU Law School, a senior research scholar at Yale Law School, and a former president of the National Institute of Military Justice. A co-author of the textbook Military Justice: Cases and Materials (3d ed. 2020), he is of counsel at Feldesman Tucker Leifer Fidell LLP. Twitter: @globalmjreform.