A well-worn element of the flirtation season is “the book,” complete with anodyne patriotic, inspirational or leadership-oriented titles. Already in this season, the Republican Mikes (Pence, the former vice president; Pompeo, the former secretary of state), neither of whom have formally gotten into the race, have added their contributions to a bookshelf groaning under the weight of speculation.
But for all the heft of their authors’ résumé, Pence’s “So Help Me God” and Pompeo’s “Never Give an Inch” had the feel of warm-up acts while everyone waited for the headliner, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who pundits and polls have pegged as the most formidable challenger to former president Donald Trump in the 2024 Republican primary.
Now DeSantis has published “The Courage to Be Free: Florida’s Blueprint for America’s Revival,” a sometimes substantive, consistently scorn-filled work thick with contempt for “elites,” a Democratic Party that he calls a “woke dumpster fire,” “the legacy media,” “Big Tech” and much, much more. The tone foreshadows what would surely be an irascible campaign if the answer to the question about whether DeSantis is running is yes.
The book gives those who game out political strategy much to consider about how DeSantis would deal with Trump, who has already been test-running nicknames such as “Ron DeSanctimonious” and “Meatball Ron.” But DeSantis seems uninterested in taking the schoolyard name-calling bait.
In “The Courage to Be Free,” he barely mentions Trump, and when he does it’s mostly in positive terms. He gives Trump props for moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, for “stellar” judicial appointments and for funneling big money to Florida for Hurricane Michael relief. He finds common cause with Trump in labeling the media “the enemy of the people.” He also mutedly — very mutedly — acknowledges the importance of Trump’s 2017 endorsement in DeSantis’s long-shot, and eventually successful, run for Florida governor.
All this makes one wonder: Why so soft on the meanie ex-president? Surely DeSantis doesn’t want to alienate Trump’s fervent, though possibly shrinking, fan base. But maybe there’s something else at play. Maybe DeSantis is reading, and believing, the polls that say he’d beat Trump in a romp (though others come to the opposite conclusion) and figures there’s no need to attack a scandal-plagued has-been.
After all, there are so many others to attack, foremost among them America’s “elites,” in all their various forms — “progressive elites,” “woke elites,” “public health elites,” the “scientific-technological elite,” “bureaucratic elites” and “power-hungry elites.” The word “elite” gets used more than 20 times in the book’s introduction, which is 12 pages long.
Expressing this disdain requires a bit of gymnastics for DeSantis, who is himself the product of two of the nation’s most elite institutions, Yale University and Harvard Law School. But he looks to separate himself from his privileged classmates, noting that he worked year-round as a student to make ends meet while they spent spring vacations in the Bahamas and the south of France, and took ski trips to Aspen, Colo., over Christmas breaks. Years later, when DeSantis embarked on the first of three successful campaigns to represent Florida in Congress, he says he considered his fancy degrees to be “political scarlet letters.”
DeSantis rose to political fame from modest means in central Florida. His parents had roots in “gritty, working-class, God-fearing” towns in Ohio and Pennsylvania. His father was an itinerant employee of the Nielsen TV ratings company. His mom was a nurse.
At Yale and Harvard, he encountered professors who “reigned as potentates, sure in the smugness of their positions, but utterly unaware of the lives of most Americans, including those that they professed to care about that.” He excelled, graduating magna cum laude, becoming captain of the baseball team and, as his coach later pointed out at a campaign event, managing a .336 batting average, more than 100 points higher than another Yale baseball captain, President George H.W. Bush. Expect to hear a lot more about DeSantis’s athleticism, vigor and youth — he’ll be 45 during the Republican primaries and 46 when ballots are cast in the 2024 general election — if he faces off against Trump, who will be 78 during the primaries, or President Biden, who will be a few days short of his 82nd birthday on Election Day in November 2024.
After Harvard, DeSantis skipped joining a big law firm and earned a commission in the U.S. Navy, working stateside and then briefly at the Guantánamo Bay detention center as a military-court prosecutor. Later, he volunteered for a deployment to Iraq, where he advised commanders on the rules of battlefield engagement during a surge of U.S. forces fighting against al-Qaeda.
He came away from that experience filled with skepticism, and what comes through as something of an isolationist mind-set. Public approval of the Iraq War, he writes, would have been higher if there’d been a draft, rather an all-volunteer force. But he also criticizes “the folly of using the military to socially engineer a foreign society.” President George W. Bush’s attempt to impose a democratic framework on Iraq was a “fool’s errand,” he writes.
DeSantis married Casey Black, a popular television news reporter, at a location that anyone who has been keeping up with the news from Florida will find surprising: Disney World. (Casey’s family were huge Disney fans, and DeSantis writes that he grudgingly agreed on the condition that no Disney characters attend the ceremony.) As governor, DeSantis has engaged in a ferocious battle with Disney, which he calls “the magic kingdom of woke corporatism,” over its public statements opposing a law he signed prohibiting classroom instruction about sexual orientation or gender identity in kindergarten through third grade. On Monday, DeSantis, saying there’s “a new sheriff in town,” signed a bill that ends the company’s decades-old self-governing special district.
Grappling with Disney has made DeSantis a hero to the right-wing media, which had already lionized him for his resistance to coronavirus lockdowns and mask mandates, as well as for his insistence on returning to in-person school instruction sooner than most and on keeping Florida’s beaches open early in the pandemic — a decision that was much mocked but has looked better with time, as the country learned more about the low risk of contracting the virus outdoors. DeSantis beams about stretching the definition of “essential” businesses that could remain open during the first weeks of the pandemic to include WWE wrestling.
DeSantis sees his state as “a citadel of freedom in a world gone mad,” and his policies as playing a role in the large numbers of people moving to Florida since the pandemic. Someone started printing T-shirts that read “Make America Florida,” which DeSantis is clearly signaling that he wants to do. All he hasn’t written in this book are those words everyone expects him to say soon: “I declare my candidacy for the Republican nomination for president.”
Manuel Roig-Franzia is a Washington Post staff writer and formerly served as the paper’s Miami bureau chief.
Florida’s Blueprint for America’s Survival
Broadside Books. 256 pp. $35
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