Campaign books written by politicians are often dismissed as focus-grouped fluff. I disagree. You can learn a lot about people by paying close attention to how they want to be seen. And so it is with Ron DeSantis’s “The Courage to be Free.” It’s not a good book, exactly. But it is a revealing one.
As I read through it, I started marking down every time he told a story about using the power of his office to punish or sideline a perceived enemy or obstacle. There is his bill to make it easier to sue tech companies if you feel they’re discriminating against your politics. Here are his laws limiting what teachers can say about gender identity and imposing criminal penalties on medical providers who offer certain types of gender-affirming care. There’s his effort to punish Disney for opposing his anti-L.G.B.T.Q. laws by removing its self-governing status. Here’s his suspension of Andrew Warren, the state attorney for Hillsborough County, because Warren declined to enforce laws criminalizing abortion. There’s the bill to increase criminal penalties against rioters during Black Lives Matter protests.
Then there’s what DeSantis wants to do, but hasn’t yet done. He thinks the federal government has become too “woke” and too liberal, and Congress should “withhold funding to the offending executive branch departments until the abuses are corrected.” He is frustrated that President Donald Trump didn’t do more with an authority known as Schedule F that can reclassify around 50,000 federal employees to make them more like political appointees, enabling the president “to terminate federal employees who frustrate his policies.” He tried to make it easier to sue media outlets for defamation, though that plan got bogged down in the Florida Legislature. Outside the book, he has called for a national “reckoning” on Covid and promised to hold people like Dr. Anthony Fauci “accountable” for the damage he believes they’ve caused.
“For years, the default conservative position has been to limit government and then get out of the way,” DeSantis writes. Such reticence about using the power of government to fight back against the arrayed forces of the left — including Facebook, Disney, the government, the schools, the media and much else — means “essentially greenlighting these institutions to continue their unimpeded march through society.”
My colleague Carlos Lozada traced many of the critiques of Trump that are threaded through DeSantis’s book, but to his list I’d add one more: DeSantis is saying that Trump, for all his complaints about the “deep state,” shied away from fully using the power of his office to destroy the threatening forces of the left. And DeSantis is trying to show, in vignette after vignette, that he has both the will and the discipline to do what Trump did not. (That Trump is now under federal indictment for, among other things, keeping boxes with classified documents piled in an ornate bathroom and scattered across a storage room floor at Mar-a-Lago, helps DeSantis’s case.)
Trump often appears in DeSantis’s book as a faintly comic figure. When DeSantis requests federal aid after Hurricane Michael devastated the Panhandle, Trump says, according to DeSantis’s recounting, “They love me in the Panhandle. I must have won 90 percent of the vote out there. Huge crowds. What do they need?” It is left to Trump’s chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, to beg DeSantis to delay announcing the aid because Trump “doesn’t even know what he agreed to.”
The Trump that emerges in DeSantis’s anecdotes is overmatched by the details and minutiae of government. That is clearest in DeSantis’s extensive account of his Covid governance, in which he marinates in the details of his response and his decisions while battering away at Dr. Fauci as the personification of biomedical Leviathan. As Lozada observes, this is DeSantis criticizing Trump by proxy — Dr. Fauci served under Trump, and DeSantis is making clear he would have never let that stand. The critique of Trump is not so much that he agreed with Dr. Fauci as that he didn’t care enough to figure out where he disagreed with him and how to bend the state to his will.
And so DeSantis delights in describing the methodical, relentless effort he put in to bending the state of Florida to his will. He describes winning Florida’s governorship and ordering his transition team to “amass an exhaustive list of all the constitutional, statutory, and customary powers of the governor.” Much of the rest of the book is an exhaustive, and at times exhausting, account of how he used them.
DeSantis is portraying himself as the figure liberals have long feared: a Donald Trump who plans, a Donald Trump who follows through. One question is whether that’s what Republicans really want. In an interview with Ben Shapiro, DeSantis tried out a counterattack on Trump. “He’s been attacking me by moving left,” DeSantis said. “So this is a different guy than 2015, 2016.”
Is it? Part of Trump’s appeal in 2015 and 2016 was his willingness to defy conservative orthodoxy. He promised to raise taxes on rich guys like himself, leave Medicare and Social Security alone, and make sure everyone had great health care. Polls showed he was viewed as a more centrist candidate than Hillary Clinton.
DeSantis is leaving himself no such room. His voting record from his time in Congress includes plenty of efforts to slash Medicare and Social Security. As governor, he signed a six-week abortion ban into law. If you see Trump’s ideological deviations as a problem for Republican voters, DeSantis’s attacks make sense. If you see them as part of what endeared Trump to Republican voters, then it’s a vulnerability for DeSantis.
DeSantis’s other problem, both in writing and on the stump, is that he can’t bring himself to extend even a modicum of compassion to his opponents. When he describes the George Floyd protests he doesn’t spare even a word condemning or grieving Floyd’s murder. His anti-L.G.B.T.Q. agenda is unleavened by even the barest sympathy for L.G.B.T.Q. kids.
He opened a recent speech in New Hampshire with a riff on Joe Biden tripping and falling over a sandbag. “I don’t know if he sustained injuries,” DeSantis said, “but I just want to say that we hope and wish Joe Biden a swift recovery from any injuries he may have sustained, but we also wish the United States of America a swift recovery from the injuries it has sustained because of Joe Biden.” It’s a classless riff, leaden with insinuation, delivered humorlessly.
Still, DeSantis has a real case to make to Republicans. I thought DeSantis was overvalued in the immediate aftermath of the 2022 election, where his victory was no more impressive than those of Mike DeWine in Ohio or Jared Polis in Colorado. But I think he’s being underestimated now.
I’ve been listening to DeSantis’s speeches and interviews, and while he’s not a generational talent, and he does have that tic of gratuitous cruelty, he’s not as stilted on the stump as many liberals seem to think. The technical glitches of his launch on Twitter Spaces don’t mean anything for his campaign. He has a proven ability to win tough races. And polling in the mid-20s against a popular former president in that president’s own party isn’t that weak of a starting point.
A lot can happen from here, and DeSantis has proved himself nothing if not a capable opportunist.
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