Ron DeSantis' plan to make America Florida (and beat Donald Trump)
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis is taking his new memoir/manifesto, “The Courage to Be Free,” on the road this week, as he moves closer to a potential White House bid. It’s the story of a fast ascent, from his Little League baseball career to last year’s landslide re-election, and an argument for elected officials to “wield authority in a way that protects individuals” from the political left.
One subtle theme?
DeSantis makes the right decision, quickly, every time. Donald Trump doesn’t.
Much of the book will be familiar to the Republicans who’ve watched DeSantis dismantle “the woke mob,” from progressive county prosecutors to The Walt Disney Company. Some of it, like the meet-cute story of his marriage and the tale of a cleaning crew accidentally trashing bottled baptism water from the Sea of Galilee, sounds destined to warm up a crowd of primary voters.
But it’s the portrayal of Trump, often flattering and occasionally frustrated, that tells the most about how DeSantis would differentiate himself in that primary.
In a recap of the COVID-19 pandemic’s early days, DeSantis describes a White House task force “rattled” by an Imperial College of London report that projected 2.2 million American deaths if the spread of the virus was not controlled.
“By the time President Trump had to decide whether the shutdown guidance should be extended beyond the original 15 days, there was reason to question the main model used by the task force to justify a shutdown,” DeSantis writes. The governor was doing his own research, and clashing with Dr. Anthony Fauci and the task force, long before Trump did. He goes on to brag about picking his own surgeon general who bucked the expert consensus on public health, including by questioning the efficacy of vaccines. DeSantis officials, he writes, knew to treat “media smears as a form of positive feedback.”
DeSantis, who endorsed Trump for president only after his opponents quit the 2016 primary, calls himself “one of the earliest opponents in Congress of the Russia collusion investigation,” and credits the ex-president with “filling the void that GOP leaders had left by ignoring” their base on issues like immigration.
But in his version of their interactions, Trump sometimes needed a nudge in the right direction. In March 2017, DeSantis traveled to Israel to scout sites for an American embassy in Jerusalem, telling reporters that Trump, “a man of his word,” would move the embassy from Tel Aviv. But DeSantis notes that Trump signed a May 2017 waiver to delay the move, and implies he may have been spooked by “Beltway experts” who predicted “geopolitical disaster” if it went through. In the end, however, “the site I thought was the best ended up being the site that was selected by the Trump administration” and Israel went on to deepen its ties with Arab states anyway.
The governor also describes winning Trump to his side in a meeting about disaster relief for Florida’s panhandle, telling the president that “Trump country” needs his help, and getting his commitment even after FEMA explained that damage from Hurricane Michael hadn’t reached the threshold for a full federal reimbursement.
“He doesn’t even know what he agreed to in terms of a price tag,” he quotes then-White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney saying. Asked to wait 24 hours before announcing anything, DeSantis makes the still-unfinalized agreement public as soon as time expires, and tells his own chief of staff that “I know the president will be pleased.”
DeSantis’s book is about fights he won, not lessons learned from defeat — because he doesn’t lose. The pattern of his time in office, he writes, is the “legacy media” predicting “dire consequences” when he does “something reasonable,” then getting it wrong, then never covering it again.
That media paid far less attention to DeSantis during his six years in the House and he doesn't do much to fill in the picture for those catching up now. He focuses on the grassroots door-knocking that went into his first campaign, but doesn’t mention an endorsement from the Club for Growth, which is now nudging him to run for president. His votes for piecemeal immigration measures as a freshman are recast as ways to “slow down the momentum” of a comprehensive immigration reform bill that Republicans never put on the floor.
If he runs for president, Democrats and anti-DeSantis Republicans are ready to attack the governor for supporting conservative House budget resolutions that would have curtailed entitlement spending. None of that makes it into the book. Social Security is never mentioned, and Medicare is only mentioned when the governor types out the full name of an agency that tried to impose an employee vaccine mandate. He barely mentions abortion at all.
DeSantis is more interested in the big picture, a struggle between the “ruling class” and the real America that wants low taxes and cops locking up criminals. “Republicans have no choice but to presume that corporate journalists are acting in bad faith,” he writes. It’s a lesson he keeps returning to, from coverage of the 2017 Congressional baseball shooting that he narrowly avoided, to his answers to a “60 Minutes” reporter that were cut from a widely-panned report on Florida’s vaccine rollout.
That’s told most dramatically in a section about the fight with Disney, when DeSantis describes a phone call from then-CEO Bob Chapek about the Parental Rights in Education Act. Activists, who’d succeeded in getting most media to refer to the legislation as a “don’t say gay” bill, were pressuring Chapek to do something, and DeSantis recalls the pep talk he gave him.
“When I sign it, you will get another 48 hours of outrage, mostly online,” DeSantis says. “Then there will be some new outrage that the woke mob will focus on, and people will forget about this.”
Chapek didn’t take the governor’s advice, and he lost everything — his job, and the company’s special tax status in central Florida. What’s stopping other states from humbling corporations by passing laws to steer them away from progressive activism?
Room for Disagreement
Other early readers of the book took a different view of how DeSantis described the front-runner for the 2024 GOP nomination. “He barely mentions Trump, and when he does it’s mostly in positive terms,” Manuel Roig-Franzia wrote in his review.