‘The Courage To Be MAGA-Free’: Not a Book by Ron DeSantis
The Florida governor’s campaign volume reveals another populist authoritarian, not an alternative to Trump
Many Republicans see Ron DeSantis as a welcome contrast to Donald Trump, DeSantis being disciplined, focused, knowledgeable and comparatively young. In style and appearance, they’re as different as two doughy white male Republican politicians could be. An optimist can hope that DeSantis is a more restrained and temperate politician whose experience in office has given him a grasp of the complexities of governing and the value of pragmatic compromise.
But an optimist who starts out with such hopes will finish his new campaign book, The Courage To Be Free: Florida’s Blueprint for America’s Revival, in a slough of despond. DeSantis seems more intent on emulating Trump than on distinguishing himself from his onetime patron. What emerges in stark relief from these pages is their conspicuous similarities. Like Trump, DeSantis never tires of boasting about himself. Like Trump, he heaps hot coals on anyone who disagrees with him. And like Trump, he exhibits an authoritarian bent and a blithe tolerance for right-wing extremism.
In Which Wokism Is Viewed as Vain, and Trump and DeSantis Are Not
All this is clear from his record in office and from the new book. The cover features DeSantis with a smile I have never seen on him before and do not expect to see again on someone who usually looks as though he just swallowed a jar of vinegar. Sunny and warm is not his thing. In keeping with the acrid mood of the modern Republican Party, the governor prefers the joys of resentment and revenge. Hardly a page passes without a sneering swipe at the “partisan media,” Big Tech, the “ruling class,” public health experts, Ivy League professors and “aggressive, powerful institutions hell-bent on imposing a woke agenda on our country.” Standing against all these nefarious villains is DeSantis, who bills himself as “God-fearing, hard-working, and America-loving,” a dauntless hero with the stones to do what’s right.
His book asserts that these smug malefactors have “driven the country into a cycle of repeated failures” while trampling on our founding ideals and the values of ordinary Americans. This arrogant cabal obsesses over gender ideology and critical race theory even as criminals run wild and foreigners pour across our border. Fortunately, an indomitable governor has established Florida as “a citadel of freedom in a world gone mad.” During the pandemic, he says, “We witnessed a great American exodus—with Americans fleeing states dominated by leftist governments and Florida serving as the promised land.” Every promised land needs a messiah, and modesty is not a quality to be expected in a savior. DeSantis extols his own “determination,” “strategic judgment” and “courage.”
His vanity is rarely under wraps. DeSantis boasts that last year, he was “the first Republican to win Palm Beach in a governor’s race in nearly forty years.” He slathers praise on himself for refusing to secure a Washington residence during his time in Congress, choosing instead the creepy option of sleeping in his office. He frequently reminds us that he played varsity baseball at Yale—even mentioning that he compiled a higher batting average than an earlier Yalie, George H.W. Bush.
This high self-regard is surpassed only by his boundless contempt for his adversaries. His favorite insult is “woke,” which encompasses any viewpoint that suggests the need to admit and address such problems as racial inequity, poverty, police abuses, climate change and gender dysphoria. DeSantis says his state is “the place where woke ideology goes to die.” His use of the term as a jeering pejorative will no doubt appeal to the GOP base, but it may hinder him with the rest of the electorate. A recent USA Today/Ipsos poll found that 56% of Americans think that “woke” means “to be informed, educated on, and aware of social injustices.”
DeSantis has no interest in educating the public, or himself, about social injustices. He has nothing but scorn for the Black Lives Matter protests that arose early in the coronavirus pandemic. How does he introduce that topic?
By May 2020, when video footage of the death of George Floyd while in the custody of four Minneapolis police officers began to circulate on social media, the left pounced, citing Floyd’s death as confirmation of systemic racial bias in law enforcement across the country.
Death while in custody. Note his studious refusal to acknowledge that police officer Derek Chauvin murdered Floyd—and his immediate pivot to slamming those who decried it. For the four cops, who were convicted of felonies and sent to prison, he cannot summon a word of condemnation.
He saves his censure for the “antifa-type agitators” who rallied noisily—and “shouted very nasty expletives”—outside the governor’s mansion during those protests. He proudly signed legislation that “increased penalties for those engaging in mob violence.” But in this entire volume, he finds no reason to mention a certain violent mob that took over the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
He also goes out of his way to defend Trump against accusations of wrongdoing. DeSantis finds space in his book to attack The New York Times for reporting that Trump’s 2016 campaign aides had contacts with Russian intelligence officials—even though a Republican-controlled Senate committee issued a report confirming that they did. But he devotes zero space to Trump’s baseless claims that he won the 2020 election and his desperate—and likely criminal—efforts to overturn the result.
Freedom’s Just Another Word for Anything But Blue
A big part of DeSantis’ claim to higher office is his handling of COVID-19. In his views on the pandemic, he is not entirely wrong. Public health officials, from Anthony Fauci down, made plenty of mistakes in dealing with a dangerous and highly contagious new disease. With the benefit of hindsight, the lockdowns and school closures can reasonably be criticized as overreactions. DeSantis claims that “heavy-handed public health ‘interventions’” only “curtailed freedom, destroyed livelihoods, hurt children, and harmed overall public health.” What he omits is that early on, he issued a stay-at-home order, limited restaurants to takeout service, shut down schools and closed beaches in Broward and Palm Beach counties. What he says instead is, “Within six months, I would emerge as one of the leading anti-lockdown elected officials in the world.” It would be illuminating if he explained this shift, but he’d rather not admit that there was a shift.
He insists that overall, his pandemic policy was a success, writing, “On an age-adjusted basis, more than thirty states had higher COVID-19 mortality than Florida.” Of course, another way to read the numbers is that 20 states and Puerto Rico had lower age-adjusted death rates than Florida—including deep-blue California, Illinois, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Oregon. Even graded on a curve, Florida would not get an A.
This is just one of the many topics on which DeSantis portrays his policy as a model while telling only part of the story. He is probably correct that Florida’s lack of an income tax and its business-friendly policies help explain why it ranked first in the nation in population growth last year, but the rise of remote work during the pandemic also made it easier for many Frostbelt residents to seek out warmer weather. Similarly, Florida is among the top states in students’ fourth-grade reading and math scores, as DeSantis notes. But its eighth-graders scored just above the national average in reading and just below average in math. On the SAT, Florida students ranked near the bottom nationally.
DeSantis portrays Florida as superior in every way to “big Democrat-run states.” Unmentioned is that the five states with the highest mean household income are New Jersey, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Maryland and California, where Democrats hold the governor’s office and the statehouse, while Florida’s mean household income falls below the national average. Florida has a higher crime rate than New York, Illinois, New Jersey, Connecticut and Massachusetts. Thirty states have lower poverty rates. The governor also observes, “Perhaps the greatest difference has been how much more content people have been in Florida.” Says who? The latest survey by WalletHub, using 30 indicators, scores Florida 18th in happiness, well behind lots of big blue states.
Central to DeSantis’ outlook is his unshakable conviction that no one who opposes him on any issue could possibly be acting in good faith. All he knows about liberals, progressives and civil libertarians apparently comes from Fox News and talk radio, not actual conversations with human beings whose views differ from his own. Concerns about climate change, he asserts, are merely “the pretext for massive social engineering.” The purpose of The New York Times’ 1619 Project on American slavery was to advance an “anti-American ideological agenda.” He says, “Ingrained in Beltway thinking is a contempt for average voters.”
It’s not enough, then, for DeSantis to rebut his critics. In the manner of Trump, he has to demonize them.
Throughout the book, DeSantis trumpets his commitment to freedom. But he takes a peculiar, cramped view of what “freedom” encompasses. You can make a credible conservative argument that he upheld personal liberty by rejecting a state mask mandate. But he went further by depriving private businesses of the right to decide that a mask requirement was needed to protect their employees or customers. DeSantis also prohibited private companies from requiring customers to show proof of vaccination. He writes, “I cared more about protecting the freedom of individuals to participate in society more [sic] than I cared about protecting the ability of corporations to exclude people.” It’s a line that sounds uncannily like Bernie Sanders. If vaccine mandates are so distasteful to Floridians, why not give them the freedom to decide individually which companies they want to work for or patronize?
Then there is DeSantis’ war on Disney for “bending to the leftist-rage mob” when it criticized this law. DeSantis writes that by repealing the special public services district that the state had granted Walt Disney World in 1967, he was ending “an anachronistic example of corporate welfare.” Moreover, he claims, “Disney’s special arrangement was premised on the notion that the company would act in the best interests of the State of Florida, which, unfortunately, was no longer the case.”
But DeSantis didn’t go after Disney because it had a cozy state deal; he went after it only when the company had the nerve to disagree with him. He punished it because it exercised its First Amendment rights in a manner he found intolerable.
A Reality as Unpleasant as the Book
In his time in office, DeSantis has repeatedly shown his disdain for freedom of speech. He has endorsed a bill that says general education courses in Florida’s public universities and colleges must “promote the values necessary to preserve the constitutional republic” and define American history “as the creation of a new nation based largely on the universal principles stated in the Declaration of Independence.” Elementary and secondary school teachers fear that the vague terminology of his Parental Rights in Education Act, commonly known as the “Don’t Say Gay” law, puts them at risk for any discussions that touch on sexual orientation. It’s not hard to imagine a teacher being sued for letting a student do an oral report on a book featuring gay characters. The American Bar Association has noted that, “The law arguably runs afoul of the First Amendment’s stringent prohibition on viewpoint discrimination and imposes an unconstitutional chilling effect on disfavored speech.” DeSantis’ press secretary even tweeted on her personal Twitter account the astonishing though unsurprising claim that if you are against the bill, “You are probably a groomer or at least you don’t denounce the grooming of 4-8 year old children.”
DeSantis habitually cites the popularity of his policies with the people of Florida. His fondness for democratic procedures, however, goes only so far. In 2018, voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment to automatically restore the voting rights of most felons who have served their sentences. Even a large majority of Republicans favored the change. But DeSantis signed a “pay to vote” measure flouting that expression of popular support. It denies the franchise to anyone who has not paid off all fines, legal fees and restitution—neatly excluding some 774,000 Floridians. His administration created an election crimes squad that last year arrested 20 felons for voting illegally—several of whom said they thought they were allowed to vote. The result will undoubtedly be to deter not only ineligible felons but eligible ones. The surest way to avoid being charged with illegal voting? Don’t vote at all.
As his book suggests, DeSantis remains intent on ingratiating himself with the MAGA crowd. Recently, he described the Russian war against Ukraine as a “territorial dispute” and denounced the Biden administration’s “virtual ‘blank check’ funding of this conflict”—words that could have come from Trump’s mouth. He said Silicon Valley Bank failed because, “They’re so concerned with DEI and politics.” He has moved to revoke the liquor licenses of a hotel, a restaurant and a foundation for allegedly allowing minors to attend a drag show. Targeting pharmaceutical companies, he asked for a grand jury to review “any and all wrongdoing in Florida with respect to COVID-19 vaccines.”
In 2020, Trump went down to defeat, though he and most Republicans hold fast to the preposterous view that the election was stolen. The hope among Americans who abhor the increasingly illiberal bent of the GOP is that his loss meant the demise of his toxic, repressive, racist brand of populism.
In the next election, however, Trump hopes to prove that Trumpism is alive and well. Unfortunately, as this book shows, so does Ron DeSantis.