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If His Martha’s Vineyard Stunt Helps DeSantis Politically, What Does That Say About America?

8 minute read

Tell me if this sounds familiar. They were promised jobs and housing, a welcoming community that had a record of helping newcomers. The transition might seem scary, but it was definitely going to be worth it to leave behind a hopeless place for a better raft of opportunities. For those simply looking to find an easier life, the offer surely sounded too good to be true, but absent another option, they piled into the buses.

The script for such a mean-spirited stunt is playing out this week in Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., but its original run dates back a full 60 years to Hyannis, Mass. Back then, Black Southerners were the political pawns being relocated to near the Kennedy family’s compound at the end of Cape Cod. The goal was to embarass Democrats just in time for the centennial of the Civil War that freed the slaves of the South. These days, the unwitting props are migrants seeking refugee status, and the setting for the scheme has moved to not far from the Obama family’s island home.

Both versions, to be clear, are shameful, small-scale stunts that are unlikely to benefit the confused communities of color being treated with manifest indifference, if not malice. If you look at it in purely political terms, the moves are unlikely to help Republicans’ standing with those same communities whose political power is only growing—and shifting away from Democrats. Still, it may energize the GOP’s spiteful base, many of whom want nothing more than to “own the libs.” Yes, it may just be possible to troll your way to the White House on the backs of the vulnerable in this current Republican Party.

Some facts about what is happening are in order. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, about as MAGA as anyone not named Trump these days, is taking credit for a two-plane caravan carrying about 50 migrants northward from San Antonio. (That’s right; these weren’t even migrants holding in Florida. The planes left Texas for Crestview, Fla.; one then stopped in Spartanburg, S.C., while the other stopped in Charlotte, N.C., before both landed at the Vineyard’s small airport within minutes of each other on Wednesday.)

The move had a distinct echo of Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s recent efforts bussing migrants north, including a deployment of about 100 people to just outside Vice President Kamala Harris’ home Thursday and last week’s dispatch of 75 migrants to Chicago. And Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey has played similar tricks, sending busloads of immigrants to New York and Washington, D.C.

All three men, it must be noted, have their eyes on White House runs of their own.

Their official line is that the destination cities are so-called sanctuary cities that have professed inclusion of undocumented immigrants, and are better equipped to handle the influx. But the obvious reason is to make life difficult in cities run by Democrats. D.C. has taken in more than 10,000 migrants from Texas, prompting Mayor Muriel Bowser last week to declare a limited state of emergency. New York is at a breaking point, according to Mayor Eric Adams.

The staged sabotaging of cities and migrants alike may win its architects early admirers in the GOP’s anti-immigrant wing. On Fox News Thursday evening, the graphics telegraphed just how pleased that corner of the Republican Party was with the results. “Great News: Martha’s Vineyard is Finally Diverse!” crowed the graphic during Tucker Carlson’s show. Sean Hannity was giddy with what he described as hypocrisy in the outrage on the liberal enclave: “Just 50 migrants later, the entire island has now entered into a state of full-blown state of panic, racism—according to their definition—and xenophobia,” he said in his monologue.

That isn’t exactly what is happening. According to interviews with these island newcomers, they were promised jobs in Boston, a city they never saw. Instead, they were loaded onto planes in San Antonio and dropped off in the Vineyard, where officials were caught completely by surprise and scrambled to provide housing, food, and even a play area for the children. State institutions—helmed by Republican Gov. Charlie Baker—sprung to action to accommodate these pawns, many who hail from Venezuela. Local nonprofits, businesses, and churches are working in overdrive to ease the indignity of those who now find their entire lives upturned so that men they’ve never met can score political points.

Back in 1962, the earlier version of this weeks’ surprise was orchestrated as payback for liberal activists’ work a year earlier in breaking down racist barriers to housing, transportation, voting rights, and simple human decency. Racists in the South lured Black neighbors onto Greyhound buses headed North in what is now known as a Reverse Freedom Ride.

In one case described in historian Clive Webb’s research, the White Citizens’ Council in Little Rock, Ark., recruited indigent Black residents to go to Hyannis, as reprisal for Attorney General Robert Kennedy’s order to desegregate interstate bus terminals and to ding Edward Kennedy, who was preparing for a Senate run of his own. “President Kennedy’s brother assures you a grand reception to Massachusetts. Good jobs, housing, etc. are promised,” according to one poster. (Not one to be outfoxed, Ted Kennedy actually organized a welcoming committee for the newcomers, who often were also greeted by reporters and photographers.)

Other White Citizens’ Councils sent Black residents to the New Jersey community of Nicholas Katzenbach, who was a top Justice Department official during the Kennedy years before becoming Lyndon Johnson’s Attorney General, and the towns where other top officials in the civil rights divisions lived. The Kennedy Presidential Library tweeted a link to the newspaper article from the time in which the segregationists bragged about their plans.

The numbers then were relatively small and not entirely out of line with the broader migratory patterns of Black people at the time; an estimated 5 million Black individuals moved out of the South in what is known as the Second Great Migration between 1941 and 1970. The developments remade American cities, but not necessarily small enclaves like those found on Cape Cod or on Martha’s Vineyard. In Hyannis, many of those relocating persons felt duped. Of the 96 Black people who were tricked into going to the Cape in 1962, only one remained in Hyannis by 1965. In other words, the pawns caught on pretty quickly and deftly reclaimed control over their lives away from their part in white politicians’ photo-ops.

It’s entirely reasonable to expect something similar now on an island that is a liberal, summer playground just seven miles off the coast from Cape Cod. The island voted by a 4-to-1 margin for Biden over Trump, and Sasha Obama spent a summer there slinging seafood, not far from the $12 million estate her parents would later buy.

But the season there more or less ends on Labor Day. Many of the restaurants have already shuttered and the seasonal workers—many from international destinations—are starting to shuffle off the island. The summer population swells to 200,000; the year-round population drops to about 17,000. Fifty more people wouldn’t fundamentally change the tenor of the place, but it’s not as if there are a ton of available jobs or homes as temperatures are already dropping into the 50s.

Still, the stunts—then as now—reek of exploitation, and the victims are those least equipped to resist. The relocation of these migrants may prove temporary, but it is instructive of how one tribe of the American electorate see it as smart politics. As The Atlantic observed of the Trumpists: “the cruelty is the point.”

The moves of Abbott, DeSantis, and Ducey might even be worse than the earlier iteration. Unlike the 1962 stunts funded by private segregationist groups who shared more than a few beliefs with the Ku Klux Klan, these 2022 moves are expressly actions by the state, carried out in the name of all citizens. That’s right: your taxpayer dollars picked up this expert-level trolling meant to grease the path for potential Republican presidential contenders.

For these would-be-refugees—and potentially future voters—their abrupt relocation was one of their first experiences in the United States, and an eye-opening peek into how many of the country’s citizens see newcomers. These three governors are soaking up the praise from MAGA Twitter, but consider the broader damage this is doing to the Republican brand, particularly with Latino voters who are watching people who look like them treated as second-class humans, drawing the variety of the smirks only misery can inspire.

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Write to Philip Elliott at philip.elliott@time.com