May 9, 2023 by David Silverberg
Any day now, Florida Gov. Ronald DeSantis (R) is going to declare his candidacy for President of the United States.
The legislative session is over. An exception has been made to the state’s resign-to-run law enabling him to run. Trips to key primary states have been made and an international tour has attempted to establish his international credentials (with very mixed success). Consultants have been hired, funds raised and an organization built. All the gears are grinding toward a presidential campaign.
Among his many preparations, a book has been published under DeSantis’ name called The Courage to Be Free: Florida’s Blueprint for America’s Revival.
It’s easy to dismiss candidate campaign books and political autobiographies. They’re written and published with clear ends in mind: to prepare the way for future runs and/or to justify past actions. An effective campaign book does both.
Yet for all their self-serving ends, all the staff-written ghost writing, all the vetting and editing and weighing of words, often by committees, they can still be revealing. They’re especially valuable for explaining political goals and ends. No matter how little the actual author did the writing, they still unveil a personality and an individual’s thinking.
One of history’s most complete and revealing campaign books was Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf. Perhaps if more people had actually read it and realized what he was saying when it was first published he would have been stopped and there wouldn’t have been a Second World War.
The Courage to Be Free is not Mein Kampf. But it is a DeSantis manifesto and worth careful reading, review and analysis.
A simple style for simple readers
Stylistically, this is a very plain and easily read book. It’s very straightforward and accessible in its narrative.
DeSantis has a distinctive “voice” but it’s not present throughout the book. His introduction, “A Florida Blueprint” lays out his ideology and doctrinal principles. This is the one chapter that doesn’t “sound” like him. It’s stilted, almost as though copied verbatim from some conservative political cribsheet, or perhaps it represented his first writing effort, or his final summary. Whatever the reason, if there’s any chapter that reads as though it were written by a different author, this is it.
It also appears that DeSantis and any co-author or editors decided that this was the chapter most likely to be hastily skimmed by casual readers, voters or journalists and they wanted to get their doctrinal material up front.
It is in this introduction that DeSantis lays out his main themes: that the United States is run by illegitimate “elites,” that he is a bold and brave governor, that his governorship led to freedom and success and that Florida under his administration represents the future.
“Florida has consistently defended its people against large institutions looking to cause them harm—from public health bureaucrats looking to keep kids out of school to large corporations trying to undermine the rights of parents and to federal agencies trying to push people out of work due to COVID shots,” he writes.
Much of the rest of the book is more personal. It’s a memoir of his upbringing, life in politics and rise through the ranks. It recounts his time as a representative in Congress and his run for governor. It then goes over the issues he tackled in office and why he tackled them the way he did.
Like his prose, the person that emerges from this book is relatively straightforward and simple. DeSantis is not a deep thinker, although he’s careful to cite credible sources, especially the Federalist Papers, for his arguments. However, there isn’t any introspection, or contemplation or even nuanced consideration of larger issues. While there’s some acknowledgement of wider causes and effects, there’s little attempt to derive insight from them. Unlike, for example, a Henry Kissinger memoir, there’s no effort to peer deeply into a topic and reflect on the history behind it or draw lessons from it. Once DeSantis has made his assumptions and has his set conceptions the rest follows, largely without reflection.
DeSantis was a baseball athlete in school and one cannot help but consider that this is the kind of account that any jock might produce for a sports memoir.
Trump vs. Trump-lite
DeSantis’ main political rival at this point in time is former president, former mentor and fellow Floridian, Donald J. Trump. Trump is certainly a topic in DeSantis’ book but a gingerly treated one.
It’s interesting to contrast DeSantis’ memoir with Trump’s own 2016 campaign book, Crippled America: How to Make America Great Again.
Reading Crippled America was a fascinating, if exhausting, experience. No matter what the topic being addressed at the top of any page, by the bottom of the page the prose had turned to an extravagant, adulatory paean to Donald Trump. Every. Single. Page.
As the world discovered during his presidency and afterwards, Donald Trump loves Donald Trump. But not just “loves.” The English language does not quite have the words that fully convey his self-regard. “Selfish,” “egomaniacal,” “narcissistic” all apply but not at the cosmic depth and intensity that burned from the pages of Crippled America. In this book Trump was revealed as a universe unto himself, a universe with a single inhabitant at whose core was not a soul but a throbbing black hole of me-ness that sucked in all energy, light and life.
Mercifully, even if the DeSantis personality that emerges from Courage is simple and often simplistic, at least it has some grip on reality.
It’s very interesting to contrast the DeSantis and Trump accounts of Trump’s endorsement of DeSantis for governor when he first ran. Then, DeSantis was an obscure congressman running against Florida Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam, an overwhelmingly favored rival for the Republican gubernatorial nomination.
As DeSantis tells it: “In late 2017, I asked the president if he would be willing to send out a tweet touting me as a good candidate for Florida governor. He seemed amenable, but at the same time, I was not holding my breath; the president has a lot on his plate, and this was not likely to rank on his list of things to do. About a week later, a Trump tweet appeared:
“Congressman Ron DeSantis is a brilliant young leader, Yale and then Harvard Law, who would make a GREAT Governor of Florida. He loves our Country and is a true FIGHTER!”
That’s it. He then goes on to recount the campaign and how he won.
As Trump told the story in a lengthy, rambling, digressive interview with Sean Hannity, DeSantis requested a meeting with him and, “with tears in his eyes” begged for an endorsement. Although Trump thought DeSantis had little chance, saying: “Ron, you’re so far behind I can’t imagine that if you got George Washington’s endorsement, combined with the late, great Abraham Lincoln, if you had their endorsements, that you would win,” Trump decided to take a chance because, unlike Putnam, DeSantis had defended Trump against impeachment charges. Trump describes the endorsement as variously having the impact of a nuclear bomb or a rocket launch.
That the endorsement made the difference in the race is undeniable, although Trump gets next to no credit in DeSantis’ book.
Despite the bad blood that has bubbled between the two men, DeSantis continues to defend Trump against charges of Russian collusion. He does this, however, in the context of attacking what he always calls the “legacy media.”
“The Mount Everest of anonymous source-fueled political narratives was the Trump-Russia collusion conspiracy theory, which was a media-driven hoax designed to cast doubt on the results of the 2016 presidential election and strangle the Trump presidency in the crib,” he writes. “The theory—that Donald Trump’s campaign colluded with the Russian government to steal the 2016 presidential election—represented perhaps the most serious charge ever leveled against an American president.”
(Russia’s involvement in the 2016 presidential campaign was extensively documented in the Report On The Investigation Into Russian Interference In The 2016 Presidential Election by Robert Mueller. The role that Florida played is covered in the 2019 article, “Trump, Florida, Russia: Tracking the Sunshine State in the Mueller Report.”)
It is noteworthy that nowhere in the book does DeSantis mention Trump’s incitement of the January 6th insurrection and its mob violence, even as he condemns disorder. “Since mob violence constitutes a mortal threat to social order, swift and strong accountability is the only logical response,” he writes, touting his own anti-protest legislation. He condemns rioters in Portland, Oregon in the wake of George Floyd’s death but not those who attacked the United States Capitol, tried to destroy Congress and overturn the election.
Of course, in the Trump universe DeSantis has gone from “a brilliant young leader” to “Ron Desanctimonious” and “Meatball Ron.” However, if there’s any resentment on DeSantis’ part, it never made it into the book.
Instead, DeSantis’ resentment is reserved for other targets, those that will resonate with Donald Trump’s Make America Great Again (MAGA) base and presumably win DeSantis the nomination.
Chief among DeSantis’ targets are “elites.”
“Whom, exactly, are these elites?” DeSantis asks in his introduction. He relies on a definition provided by author and academic Angelo Codevilla, defining them as an “ideological, incompetent, and self-interested ‘ruling class’ that has consolidated power over American society in the past fifty years.”
He continues: “These elites are ‘progressives’ who believe our country should be managed by an exclusive cadre of ‘experts’ who wield authority though an unaccountable and massive administrative state. They tend to view average Americans with contempt, believe in the need for wholesale social engineering of American society, and consider themselves entitled to wield power over others.”
Of course, unmentioned is the fact that these “elites,” ever more open to talent, intelligence and education rather than heredity or class or race, led the United States through a Great Depression, a world war, a Cold War, a terrorist war, and made the country the richest and mightiest in history with the widest distribution of prosperity. They shaped the world according to rational rules that spread democracy and secured a rough peace for nearly a century.
But no matter, throughout the rest of the book, DeSantis wages rhetorical war on these elites and experts whenever possible.
He does not overlook his own elite Ivy League education at Yale University, where he graduated magna cum laude, and Harvard Law. But DeSantis maintains that he was untainted by elitism.
“Experiencing unbridled leftism on campus pushed me to the right,” he writes. “I had no use for those who denigrated our country or mocked people of faith.” Although he thought that the leftist ideas he found on campus would whither in the light of reality, he writes that he was mistaken. On the contrary, “the ideology that dominates so many major institutions in American life, including our largest corporations, is a clear reflection of the campus dogma that has infected a generation of students at elite American universities.”
It is when it comes to this ideological combat that DeSantis’s book proves most valuable because it puts his actions as governor into an overall context. Like many other conservatives, DeSantis sees all of American society dominated by an elite-guided “woke” ideology. “These elites control the federal bureaucracy, lobby shops on K Street, big business, corporate media, Big Tech companies, and universities,” he writes.
DeSantis is at war with all these institutions and the book documents his battles. His attacks on the Florida university system and its professors are just one part of his ideological crusade. His war with the Disney Company is a front in his struggle against a “woke” corporate culture. His attacks on “Big Tech” are an essential element of his battle with elites.
DeSantis devotes an entire chapter to the COVID-19 pandemic and his response to it.
“Florida bucked the ‘experts’ and charted a course that sought to maintain the functioning of society and the overall health of its citizenry,” he writes of the pandemic. “Power-hungry elites tried to use the coronavirus to impose an oppressive biomedical security state on America but Florida stood as an impenetrable roadblock to such designs.
“We also recognized the intellectual bankruptcy and brazen partisanship of the public health elites, such as Dr. Anthony Fauci. The performance of these so-called experts—they were wrong on the need for lockdowns, the efficacy of cloth masks, school closures, the existence of natural immunity and the accuracy of epidemiological ‘models’—was so dreadful that no sane person should ever ‘trust the experts’ ever again.”
DeSantis goes into great detail describing how he and his surgeon general, Joseph Ladapo, disproved the data coming out of Washington and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and reached their own conclusions about defying the guidance and administering vaccines—or not.
“I was not going to allow our state to descend into a Faucian dystopia in which people’s freedoms were curtailed and their livelihoods destroyed,” DeSantis writes. “Florida protected individual freedom, economic opportunity and access to education—and our state is much better for it.”
While DeSantis acknowledges that there was some “mortality” in Florida from COVID, the 86,850 Floridians who died from COVID or the 7.5 million who were stricken get short shrift. Nor does he have a word of praise or appreciation for the healthcare workers who struggled to care for and cure them. These people, living and dead, apparently did not merit mention.
He also doesn’t address a two-week period in December 2021 when he disappeared from public view and rumors swirled that he had a bout of COVID. (In an almost-covert act, DeSantis received a vaccination in April 2021.)
In addition to the “biomedical security state,” throughout the book DeSantis constantly attacks what he variously calls the “legacy media,” or “corporate media,” and, of course, what Trump characterized as the “fake news.”
On this issue, DeSantis does have a solid example of shoddy reporting to bolster his claims: the 2021 report by the television show “60 Minutes.” That broadcast, “A Fair Shot,” irresponsibly and inaccurately drew a connection between DeSantis and the award of a contract to provide COVID vaccines through the Publix supermarket chain. (To read in-depth coverage of the incident and Publix politics, see “Publix: Where politics bring no pleasure.”) “60 Minutes” was condemned by just about all parties for implying wrongdoing where none was proven and using smear tactics to further its preferred story.
However, despite this legitimate complaint about this particular report, DeSantis’ hatred of the media is painted with a far broader brush. He agrees with Trump’s infamous tweet that the media “is the enemy of the American people.” (This came one month into Trump’s presidency when the world refused to buy his obviously false insistence that he’d had the largest inaugural crowd in history).
For DeSantis, “The national legacy press is the praetorian guard of the nation’s failed ruling class, running interference for elites who share their vision and smearing those who dare to oppose it. All too often, the legacy press operates in bad faith, elevates their preferred narratives over facts, and indulges in knee-jerk partisanship.”
He writes: “Legacy media outlets have evolved into something akin to state-run media. They do not seek to hold the powerful accountable. Instead, they protect the nation’s left-leaning ruling class, including the permanent bureaucracy in Washington and Democratic elected officials.”
DeSantis also fully explains his feud with the Disney Corporation in a chapter titled “The magic kingdom of woke corporatism.”
DeSantis sees private companies as purely political entities, writing, “corporate America has become a major protagonist in battles over American politics and culture. The battle lines almost invariably find large, publicly-traded corporations lining up behind leftist causes. It is unthinkable that these large companies would side with conservative Americans on issues such as the Second Amendment, the right to life, election integrity and religious liberty.”
Guns and mass shootings get only passing mention, as in DeSantis’ Second Amendment reference above. The 2018 Parkland shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School resulted in new gun reforms in Florida, which DeSantis stated he would have vetoed had he been governor at the time. Otherwise, he writes, “Rather than a firearms issue, I viewed the Parkland massacre as a catastrophic failure of leadership that cried out for accountability.” He blames the Broward County sheriff for the shooting and points to spending $750 million on school safety measures during his tenure.
This is particularly interesting because on June 14, 2017, after a baseball practice, DeSantis and another congressman were approached by a man who asked if baseball players on a playing field in Alexandria, Va., were Republicans or Democrats. DeSantis’ companion said they were Republicans and then the two went to a car and left. It was only later in the morning when he was in the congressional gym that he learned the man had shot at the players, wounding Rep. Steven Scalise (R-1-La.) before being killed himself.
In other hands, this incident would be an excellent opportunity to reflect on the problem of gun violence in America, or the need for more widespread mental health care, or even the fragility of life. DeSantis only relates that he was relieved he left practice early.
Other than a similarly passing reference to “the right to life,” DeSantis doesn’t examine the abortion issue in Florida in the book. As governor he signed into law a ban on abortions after six weeks, although he didn’t address—or discourage—calls to ban abortions completely.
Another subject that gets short shrift is foreign policy. As a congressman, DeSantis supported moving the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. He also opposes Chinese Communist Party activities in the United States. Other than that, the world outside Florida doesn’t interest him much, at least as far as his book is concerned.
Analysis: Florida and the future
Political autobiographies usually set out to do two things: get the author elected and provide a blueprint for what he or she would do if elected.
In terms of getting DeSantis elected, the book certainly spells out what he believes and how he perceives the world. Theoretically, it should confirm the biases and orientations of the Trumpist, MAGA base, whose votes DeSantis is seeking.
However, whatever his thoughts and feelings, as long as Trump is in the race DeSantis can only run as “Trump-lite” and the master himself will provide the pure, unadulterated hatred, prejudice and rage that MAGA addicts crave.
This brings up another factor evident in the book—and one that is actually commendable.
Nowhere in the book does DeSantis advocate violence or extralegal measures. Trump, by contrast, encouraged violence among his followers and even took physically violent action himself. On Jan. 6, thwarted by his electoral failure, he incited a full-scale riot and insurrection, encouraged the attempted lynching of his vice president and grabbed the throat of a Secret Service agent who wouldn’t drive him to the Capitol. He has never apologized or expressed regret or remorse (or been held to account) for any of this and he’s touted incarcerated rioters as political prisoners. He’s never condemned violence in principle.
DeSantis presents himself as a law and order governor and so there are no insinuations or incitements to political violence in his book (or during his appearances). This is not to be overlooked or minimized or, for that matter, taken for granted. Political violence is a hallmark of true fascism and Trump encouraged it as part of national political life.
However, it would be especially commendable if, as part of his condemnation of mob violence, DeSantis would also take a firm, principled stand condemning the insurrection of Jan. 6 and those who participated in it. In the absence of that, he does what he accuses the left of doing; applying the law and condemnation selectively, depending on the cause and the participants in the disorder.
That said, in its first goal of getting him the nomination, the DeSantis book might win over a few wavering Trumpers but it’s unlikely to convert anyone outside the MAGA orbit to DeSantism. Its narrative is not so compelling or its arguments so powerful that it will sweep voters into his corner.
Looking to its larger purpose of providing a blueprint for governing, the book will likely prove repugnant to thinking Americans who don’t want Trump or a Trump-like president.
The key reason for this is that for all their differences, Trump and DeSantis share a most important characteristic: both are absolutists.
Trump classifies people by their personal loyalty to him. For DeSantis, the dividing line is whether they agree with his agenda, the one spelled out in this book. Ultimately, though, both men want absolute obedience—and that is not the American way.
DeSantis’ demands are perhaps somewhat more complex and more subtly expressed than Trump’s but their intents are the same. DeSantis is at war with “woke” as he defines it and whether it’s individual citizens or schools or universities or businesses or corporations or scientists or public servants or the media, he doesn’t want them thinking the way he opposes. He doesn’t want to convince them to his thinking, he wants to crush their heresy through legislation, legal action or all the tools of the state.
As Floridians are finding out, no one is safe from DeSantist demands, whether those demands are made by the governor himself or by a servile legislature competing to implement this absolutist agenda.
As so many would-be tyrants have proven through history, absolute agendas of this sort may be called “freedom” by their advocates but in practice they’re anything but free. DeSantis may claim that he’s showing courage by pursuing absolute power despite criticism and opposition. Maybe, though, his opponents and detractors see something different and more oppressive to which he himself is blind.
So in many ways, it’s a good thing that Ron DeSantis has laid out his blueprint for America’s “revival” in The Courage to Be Free. By reading it and being aware of his agenda, freedom-loving Americans will gain their own wisdom and have their own courage to ensure that America stays free from his absolutism—which threatens them so absolutely.
Liberty lives in light
© 2023 by David Silverberg