Opinion | Ron DeSantis Has a Secret Theory of Trump
Ron DeSantis has an enemies list, and you can probably guess who’s on it.
There’s the “woke dumpster fire” of the Democratic Party and the “swamp Republicans” who neglect their own voters. There’s the news media, with modifiers like “legacy” or “corporate” adding a nefarious touch. There’s Big Tech, that “censorship arm of the political left,” and the powerful corporations that cave to the “leftist-rage mob.” There are universities like Harvard and Yale, which DeSantis attended but did not inhale. There’s the administrative state and its pandemic-era spinoff, the “biomedical security state.” These are the villains of DeSantis’s recently published book, “The Courage to Be Free: Florida’s Blueprint for America’s Revival,” and its author feels free to assail them with a fusillade of generically irate prose.
There is one more antagonist — not an enemy, perhaps, but certainly a rival — whom DeSantis does not attack directly in his book, even as he looms over much of it. The far-too-early national polls for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination show a two-person contest with Donald Trump and DeSantis (who has yet to announce his potential candidacy) in the lead, and the Haleys, Pences and Pompeos of the world fighting for scraps. During his 2018 governor’s race, DeSantis aired an obsequious ad in which he built a cardboard border wall and read Trump’s “Art of the Deal” with his children, one of whom wore a MAGA onesie. Now DeSantis no longer bows before Trump. Instead, he dances around the former president; he is respectful but no longer deferential, critical but mainly by implication.
Yes, there is a DeSantis case against Trump scattered throughout these pages. You just need to squint through a magnifying glass to find it.
In the 250-plus pages of “The Courage to Be Free,” for instance, there is not a single mention of the events of Jan. 6, 2021. DeSantis cites Madison, Hamilton and the nation’s founding principles, but he does not pause to consider a frontal assault on America’s democratic institutions encouraged by a sitting president. The governor does not go so far as to defend Trump’s lies about the 2020 election; he just ignores them.
However, DeSantis does write that an energetic executive should lead “within the confines of a constitutional system,” and he criticizes unnamed elected officials for whom “perpetuating themselves in office supersedes fulfilling any policy mission.” Might DeSantis ever direct such criticisms at a certain former president so willing to subvert the Constitution to remain in power? Perhaps. For the moment, though, such indignation exists at a safe distance from any discussion of Trump himself.
When DeSantis explains how he chose top officials for his administration in Florida, he offers an unstated yet unsubtle contrast to Trump’s leadership. “I placed loyalty to the cause over loyalty to me,” DeSantis writes. “I had no desire to be flattered — I just wanted people who worked hard and believed in what we were trying to accomplish.” Demands for personal fealty have assumed canonical status in Trump presidential lore (who can forget his “I need loyalty” dinner with the soon-to-be-fired F.B.I. director James Comey?), and it is hard to recall another recent leader whose susceptibility to flattery so easily overpowered any possibility of political or ideological coherence.
Where he describes his personal dealings with the former president, DeSantis jabs at Trump even as he praises him. In a meeting with Trump after Hurricane Michael struck Florida in late 2018, DeSantis asked for increased federal aid, particularly for northwestern Florida, telling the president that the region was “Trump country.” In the governor’s account, Trump responded with Pavlovian enthusiasm: “I must have won 90 percent of the vote out there. Huge crowds. What do they need?” DeSantis recalls how, after the president agreed to reimburse a large portion of the state’s cleanup expenses, Mick Mulvaney, then the acting White House chief of staff, pulled the governor aside and urged him to wait before announcing the help, explaining that Trump “doesn’t even know what he agreed to in terms of a price tag.”
Even as DeSantis appears to thank Trump for assistance to Florida, he is showcasing an easily manipulated president who does not grasp the basics of governing.
DeSantis boasts of how Florida stood apart from other states’ lockdown policies and how Tallahassee dissented from the federal response. Though he criticizes Trump-era federal guidelines, particularly early in the crisis, he rarely blames the president directly. “By the time President Trump had to decide whether the shutdown guidance should be extended beyond the original 15 days, there were reasons to question the main model used by the task force to justify a shutdown,” DeSantis writes, in his most pointed — yet still quite polite — disapproval.
Rather than question the former president’s actions on Covid, DeSantis goes after Anthony Fauci, “one of the most destructive bureaucrats in American history,” an official whose “intellectual bankruptcy and brazen partisanship” turned major U.S. cities into hollowed-out “Faucivilles.” Fauci is the supervillain of DeSantis’s book, the destroyer of jobs and freedoms, the architect of a “Faucian dystopia.” Trump, it seems, was not in charge during the early months of Covid, but Fauci wielded unstoppable and unaccountable power — until a courageous governor had finally had enough. “As the iron curtain of Faucism descended upon our continent,” DeSantis writes, “the State of Florida stood resolutely in the way.”
In “The Courage to Be Free,” DeSantis displays only enough courage to reprimand Trump by proxy.
In fact, DeSantis’s broadest attack against Trump is also his most oblique. In the governor’s various references to Trump, the former president emerges less as a political force in his own right than a symptom of pre-existing trends that Trump was lucky enough to harness. Trump’s nomination in 2016 flowed mainly from the failure of Republican elites to “effectively represent the values” of Republican voters, the governor writes. DeSantis even takes some credit for Trump’s ascent: The House Freedom Caucus, of which DeSantis was a member, “identified the shortcomings of the modern Republican establishment in a way that paved the way for an outsider presidential candidate who threatened the survival of the stale D.C. Republican Party orthodoxy.”
Trump has argued, not without reason, that he enabled DeSantis’s election as governor with his endorsement in late 2017 — and now DeSantis is suggesting he helped clear the path for Trumpism. The governor even notes the “star power” that Trump brought to American politics, the kind of thing critics used to say when dismissing Barack Obama as a celebrity candidate.
If Trump’s success was not unique to him, but flowed from larger cultural or economic forces that rendered him viable, presumably someone else could channel those same forces, perhaps more efficiently, if only Republican voters had the courage to be free of Trump. And who might that alternative be?
DeSantis pitches himself as not only a culture warrior, but a competent culture warrior. The culture warrior who stood up for parents and stood against Disney (yes, the Magic Kingdom rates its own chapter here). The culture warrior with the real heartland vibe (DeSantis’s family’s roots in Ohio and Pennsylvania come up a lot). The culture warrior who is “God-fearing, hard-working and America-loving” in the face of enemies who are oppressive, unbelieving, unpatriotic. The culture warrior who takes “bold stands,” displays “courage under fire,” is willing to “lead with conviction,” “speak the truth” and “stand for what is right.”
The Free State of Florida, as DeSantis likes to call it, is not just the national blueprint of his book’s subtitle. It is “a beachhead of sanity,” a “citadel of freedom in a world gone mad,” even “America’s West Berlin.” (I guess the rest of us still live behind the Iron Curtain of Faucism.) No wonder Trump, who now says he regrets endorsing DeSantis for governor, has begun denigrating his rival’s achievements in the state where they both live.
The governor’s prose can be flat and clichéd: Throughout the book, cautions are thrown to winds, less-traveled roads are taken, hammers are dropped, new sheriffs show up in town, dust eventually settles and chips fall wherever they may. (When members of Congress attempt to “climb the ladder” of seniority, he writes, they “get neutered” by the time they reach the top. That is one painful metaphor — and ladder.) And DeSantis’s red meat tastes a bit over overcooked. “Clearly, our administration was substantively consequential,” DeSantis affirms in his epilogue. Still, DeSantis’s broad-based 2022 re-election victory suggests there the competent culture warrior may have an appeal that extends beyond the hard-core MAGA base, even if Make America Substantively Consequential Again doesn’t quite fit on a hat.
At times, DeSantis’s culture-war armor slips, as with his awkward ambivalence about his Ivy League education. He experienced such “massive culture shock” when arriving at the “hyper-leftist” Yale, he writes, that after graduating he decided to go on to … Harvard Law School? “From a political perspective, Harvard was just as left-wing as Yale,” DeSantis complains. Yes, we know. DeSantis informs his readers that he graduated from law school with honors, even if “my heart was not into what I was being taught in class,” and he mentions (twice) that he could have made big bucks in the private sector with a Harvard Law degree but instead chose to serve in the Navy. “I am one of the very few people who went through both Yale and Harvard Law School and came out more conservative than when I went in,” he assured voters during his 2012 congressional campaign.
DeSantis wants both the elite validation of his Ivy League credentials and the populist cred for trash-talking the schools. Pick one, governor. Even Trump just straight-up brags about Wharton.
Of course, whether DeSantis’s culture-war instincts are authentic or shtick matters less than the fact that he is waging those wars; the institutions, individuals and ideologies he targets are real regardless of his motives. But the blueprint of his subtitle implies a more systematic worldview than is present in this book. DeSantis’s professed reliance on “common sense” and “core” national values is another way of saying he draws on his own impulses and interpretations. It’s a very Trumpian approach.
When DeSantis highlights his state’s renewed emphasis on civics education and a high-school civics exam modeled on the U.S. naturalization test — an idea that this naturalized citizen finds intriguing — it is a particularistic vision informed by the governor’s own political preferences. When DeSantis goes after Disney’s governance or tax status over its opposition to a Florida law over what can and cannot be taught in elementary schools, he is not making a statement of principle about business and politics; he just opposes the stance Disney has taken. When he brings up Russia more than two dozen times in his book, it never concerns Vladimir Putin’s challenges to America or war against Ukraine; it is always about DeSantis’s disdain for the “Trump-Russia collusion conspiracy theory.” (DeSantis’s subsequent dismissal of the war as a mere “territorial dispute” is therefore little surprise.) When he accuses the news media of pushing “partisan narratives,” he is not striking a blow for objective, independent coverage; he just prefers narratives that fit his own.
DeSantis asserts that he has a “positive vision,” beyond just defeating his enemies on the left. But in “The Courage to Be Free,” defeating his enemies is the only thing the governor seems positive about. That may be enough to compete for the Republican nomination, but it’s not a blueprint for America. It’s not a substantive vision, even if it may prove a consequential one.
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