Commentary: Southwest Florida’s lying liars who lie—a lot

Heather Fitzenhagen takes aim in her TV ad, “If you see Ray.” (Image: In Florida we Trust)

Aug. 14, 2020 by David Silverberg.

Nobody likes to be lied about. Whether you’re in kindergarten or elder care, it’s hurtful.

People who run for public office know that they’re going to be maligned; it’s part of the process. You put yourself out there and anyone can throw a rotten tomato; it comes with the territory in an electoral contest. In politics, if you can’t take the hit, don’t run for it.

But there are political lies, shadings of the truth and spins of the facts, and then there are lies, malicious falsehoods of whole cloth, entirely made up, untruths so stinging and painful they can even get under the skin of a thick-skinned politician. They’re more than lies, they’re smears.

Swamp creatures

In Southwest Florida the smears are getting smearier and penetrating Republican candidates’ skins, like chigger bites. The candidates are getting irritated and especially for the novices and amateurs, that burning itch just has to be scratched, as can be seen in their television ads. Everyone is accusing everyone else of lying. The Republican field has steadily descended into a mud pit so deep not even a swamp buggy could escape.

As one example, take the battle between businessman Casey Askar and state Rep. Byron Donalds (R-80-Immokalee).

Donalds was so exercised by Askar’s advertising charging that Donalds once supported Barack Obama that Donalds was moved to retain a lawyer (Todd Allen of Naples) to send a cease and desist letter to Askar.

“There is nothing you could have discerned from Mr. Donalds’ social media activity or his political activities that indicates that he actually did vote for or support President Barack Obama. Despite having that knowledge, you proceeded with the allegation out of pure malice toward Mr. Donalds,” charges the Aug. 7 letter.

The letter goes on to point out that Askar has some thin skin of his own: He’s suing Andrew Duskin, a conservative activist in Naples, for $30,000 for alleging that Askar didn’t really earn the Harvard Business School degree he claims.

Stop leveling this terrible charge, says the letter to Askar. “If you choose to continue with these false statements, Mr. Donalds will follow your lead and protect himself from misguided and unfounded attempts to assassinate his character”—and we all know how terrible a crime it was to vote for Barack Obama, an offense committed by over 65 million Americans in 2012. But this is Southwest Florida and the two men are running in a Republican primary.

Chris Gober, Asker’s Austin, Texas-based attorney shot back on Aug. 10 with a 4-page letter of his own. In it he detailed all of Donalds’ Democratic transgressions, noting that he was a registered Democrat in 2003 and “did not register as a Republican until March 11, 2010, 484 days after Barack Obama was elected President of the United States.”

“In summary, your letter does more to confirm the reality that Mr. Donalds supported President Barack than to rebut it”—a charge so grave that Mr. Gober was apparently unable to bring himself to type out the name “Obama.”

“In conclusion, I would be remiss if I did not explicitly state the obvious: The truth is an absolute defense to a defamation claim,” Gober wrote. “Thus, because your letter does more to confirm the reality that Mr. Donalds supported President Barack Obama than to rebut it, your client has no legal basis to demand that our campaign cease airing its advertisements.”

To the best of this author’s knowledge, this is the only time a cease and desist letter has been sent between political campaigns over so serious a charge.

And clearly, neither party is ceasing or desisting. The cost of those lawyers and letters might as well be banknotes burned in an ash tray.

Similar charges are being made against state Rep. Dane Eagle (R-77-Cape Coral). He’s an endangered species, states a TV ad that puts him in a gunsight’s crosshairs, because he’s a “surprisingly liberal Republican” who supported former Republican presidential candidate and Utah senator, Mitt Romney—the only Republican senator to vote for President Donald Trump’s impeachment.

This charge came out of an independent super political action committee (PAC) called Conservative Outsiders PAC, based in Athens, Ga., according to Federal Election Commission filings.

One interesting bit of hypocrisy comes courtesy of the campaign of Dr. William Figlesthaler, who has tried to transition from enraged, belt-wielding gonna give you a whuppin’ dad to genial barbequing paterfamilias in his latest TV ad, “Choices.”

“I’ve been focused on one thing: fighting for you and the conservative values we hold dear. Because tearing each other down is no way to build our country up,” he says as he benignly serves up lumps of charred flesh. That’s a laugh and a half considering that Figlesthaler has been a serial violator of President Ronald Reagan’s 11th commandment—“Thou shalt not speak ill of another Republican”—in the 19th Congressional District race to date.

But no primary race has generated more heat and anger over lying than the one for state Senate District 27, which covers Cape Coral, Fort Myers, Sanibel, Pine Island and Fort Myers Beach. There, state Rep. Heather Fitzenhagen (R-78-Fort Myers) has characterized state Rep. Ray Rodrigues (R-76-Estero) as “Sugar Ray,” a lackey of the sugar industry, which is blamed for polluting Lake Okeechobee and the Caloosahatchee River.

She in turn is being portrayed in TV ads as an abortion-loving, open borders-abetting liberal by Rodrigues and the Florida Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee.

Fitzenhagen is so mad about what she says are lies told about her that she’s grabbed a gun in a TV ad called “If you see Ray.” The ad is produced by something called In Florida we Trust, formed in June and located in Bonita Springs. It is aimed—literally—at Rodrigues.

“If you see Ray Rodrigues, tell him to stop lying about me and my record. I’m pro-life, pro-gun, pro-Trump,” she snaps, blasting away with a rifle—presumably what she’d do to Ray Rodrigues if she ever saw him on the street.

Commentary: The father of all lies

Why all this lying? And why does it seem worse than usual?

Every single Republican candidate in Southwest Florida has pledged his or her eternal loyalty to the Great God Trump and there is no liar in this or any other universe like Donald J.

Trump built his 2016 campaign on lies: he lies as president; he lied in his inaugural address; he lied about Ukraine; he lied about coronavirus; he lies about people close to him; he lies about his opponents; he lied about his marriage vows; he lied about his oath of office; he lies about Russia; he lies about America; he lies on Twitter; he lies incessantly, compulsively, daily, hourly—he even lies when truth might help him and he probably lies in his dreams.

This is the man all these Southwest Florida candidates “stand with,” praise, exalt and swear undying fealty to—and base their own behavior upon.

The Republican candidates of Southwest Florida can see that lying got Donald Trump elected. Since he’s elevated as the model of perfection and he lies constantly, his acolytes clearly feel no compulsion to tell the truth about themselves or anything else. Since lying is acceptable at the very pinnacle of the nation and there are no consequences for doing it, why not lie about their opponents to get elected?

What they did not take into account is the impact of being lied about.

It hurts. It’s painful to have your life and career and motivations and intentions and actions twisted and distorted and even completely fictionalized. In Trump, they all identify with the liar but have no empathy for the victims. So while it’s easy to fire outgoing lies at opponents and perceived enemies, it’s something else entirely to take incoming lies blasting you. Put another way, they can dish it out but they can’t take it.

While politics have always had an element of falsehood, Trump has lowered the bar to a whole new level. He’s dragged down all his adherents with him, even in places as remote and obscure as Southwest Florida. Most of these candidates have never run for office before and never experienced the slings and arrows of normal political brawling. When a lie punches you in the face, it’s painful and that’s a new and surprising sensation to them.

“You are not dealing with rational actors,” writes Republican political consultant Rick Wilson in his brilliant book, Running Against the Devil: A Plot to Save America from Trump—and Democrats from Themselves. “They are in service to an utterly amoral man, and by both inclination and necessity they will mirror his behaviors.”

So lies and insults are the order of the day among the Trumplettes of Southwest Florida.

Voters and television viewers can take comfort that the primary ordeal is almost over: this coming Tuesday, Aug. 18, the ballots will be counted and winners will emerge. Then will begin a simpler battle for the general election, when a decision will theoretically be rendered on Nov. 3.

If you haven’t voted already, in person or by mail, make sure you do, whatever your affiliation.

Keep in mind as well that this year nearly every race will have a Democratic candidate who will provide an alternative to this madness.

And instead of imitating Trump, you can take as your model someone else and follow his advice—to do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Liberty lives in light

©2020 by David Silverberg