“Make America Florida” is the last chapter of Ron DeSantis’ second memoir, The Courage to Be Free. It echoes the book’s subtitle – Florida’s Blueprint for America’s Revival – and presents a pretty accurate picture of what Governor DeSantis will do for his fellow Americans if they elect him president. It has a nice ring and significantly evokes another recent political slogan: Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again.” If he decides to run for the Republican Party nomination, DeSantis will compete with Trump in what promises to be the fiercest right-wing match-up heading into 2024. Soft alignment with Trump could serve him well since DeSantis’ best weapon so far has been to present himself as a newer, better version of the former president. He has a stronger résumé and can carry the conservative torch without all the drama and temper tantrums. A “Trump with brains,” if you will.
So what does “Floridizing” America look like? Released on February 28 with much buzz and negative literary reviews, the new DeSantis book “reads like a politician’s memoir churned out by ChatGPT,” writes Jennifer Szalai in her review for The New York Times. DeSantis claims in his book that Florida excelled during his tenure as governor because he was not afraid to take bold stands against leftist media and bureaucrats to defend the state’s freedom during the pandemic. He touts his battle against Disney to protect the little people and how he challenged powerful interests to safeguard natural resources. His dry and somewhat rancorous account of his governorship argues that the “Free State of Florida” benefited from his political courage and a firm commitment to “education over indoctrination,” from his unapologetic stance on immigration and his rejection of leftist policies that DeSantis says are “soft on crime.”
According to DeSantis, this is the Florida blueprint for America’s revival. It enabled the state’s net population increase, a demographic shift that DeSantis calls “the great American exodus” – an exodus of the right kind of people. “Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, each and every one of the forty-nine other states has had more Republicans move to Florida than Democrats,” he writes. Perhaps that was the reason for his recent reelection by a margin of 1.5 million votes and overwhelming support from Latinos. In 2018, he only won by a slim 33,000 votes.
How will the DeSantis formula resonate in California, Michigan and Vermont? He has put off his widely expected candidacy announcement to make frequent forays outside his home state. In late February, he swung through New York, Illinois and Pennsylvania on a road trip with all the feel of a campaign. On March 1, he launched his national book tour in Leesburg, Florida, to promote the new memoir that debuted at the top of Amazon’s bestseller list.
Sources in the DeSantis camp think he will announce his decision in May or June after the state legislature adjourns. Republicans have a comfortable majority in both houses and use the advantage to push through the governor’s agenda. DeSantis recently approved or launched a flurry of initiatives to curtail big technology companies, restrict teaching about racism in America in public schools and universities, and establish tougher immigration laws. At the end of February, he punished Disney for the company’s opposition to a law prohibiting public school teachers from discussing sexual orientation and gender identity with children younger than nine – the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” law.
DeSantis is seemingly obsessed with fighting “woke ideology,” whether by banning books or “protecting women’s sports” from “gender ideology.” Culture wars are recurring themes in The Courage to Be Free, a book that repeatedly singles out his biggest enemy. Hint – it’s not Trump, who is mentioned 118 times in generally favorable terms. DeSantis is perhaps aware that he needs the support of Trump’s dwindling base, despite attacks by the former president who christened him (with his supernatural talent for cruelty) “Ron DeSanctimonius.” In his book, DeSantis thanks Trump for his support in the 2018 election but doesn’t overestimate the former president’s reach. No, the governor’s biggest enemy is the elites who “control the federal bureaucracy, the K Street lobbyists [in Washington, DC], big business, mainstream media, big tech and the universities.”
“These elites are ‘progressives’ who believe our country should be managed by an exclusive cadre of “experts” who wield authority through 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,” DeSantis writes. Not everyone in that exclusive club is guilty in the governor’s eyes. Take, for instance, conservative Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, “the Texas oilman or the Florida car dealer.” No matter how much money they have, they are still outsiders. DeSantis himself is a graduate of two elite universities – Yale and Harvard – as he somewhat contradictorily reminds readers many times.
DeSantis rails against the instinctively unpatriotic elites who ignore the importance of national sovereignty and espouse open borders and a global economy. He tells how he arrived at Yale wearing a T-shirt, cut-off jeans and flip-flops. “My usual attire back home in Florida did not go over well in this new crowd, with students largely drawn from wealthy communities on the Eastern seaboard and the West Coast. Here I was, a blue-collar kid from Tampa Bay who had spent his summer working for an electrical contractor for minimum wage, at a university in which a large percentage of students were from families who were millionaires.” The anecdote exemplifies the genuinely American genre of books that combine political ideology with stories of personal triumph – a requisite presentation of credentials by a presidential candidate.
The first DeSantis memoir, Dreams from Our Founding Fathers (2011), was more devoted to justifying his originalist beliefs that the constitutional text ought to be given the original public meaning it had when it became law. The personal anecdotes in the second memoir cement the edifice of his conservative credo. He recounts how his “hostility toward the Chinese Communist Party” and his “support for Taiwan” were born when he was just a kid with baseball talent. “The respect I had for Taiwanese baseball no doubt made my pro-Taipei stance more natural. After all, I remembered playing Ping-Pong against these guys, and they were normal kids just having fun, not Maoists trying to further a cultural revolution.”
DeSantis plods through the milestones of his life, like his time as a US Navy lawyer with assignments in Guantanamo and Iraq during the war on terror. DeSantis laments “the shadow cast by the scandal of [torture by US troops at Iraq’s] Abu Ghraib prison” because it meant that detainees knew they could claim abuse and throw a wrench into the gears of the legal machinery. That’s when he forged some of his foreign policy ideas, writing, “The messianic impulse that the United States had both the right and the obligation to impose democracy around the world by force, if necessary, was based on Wilsonian moralism, not on a clear vision of American interests. A policy based on such an impulse is as undesirable as it is unsustainable.” On the Chinese Communist Party, he writes, “It represents the most significant threat, economically, culturally, and militarily, that the United States has faced since the collapse of the Soviet Union.” But unlike with the Soviet Union, DeSantis says the US is helping to create a threat by giving China most-favored-nation trade status.
DeSantis sums up his years as a representative from Florida in the US Congress as a struggle to serve in Washington without becoming a Washingtonian. He would sleep in his office to start work at 6am and rush back to Florida every Thursday to be with his wife, Casey. Some of the most intimate parts of the book are about Casey’s successful battle against breast cancer, their family and three children: Madison, Mason and Mamie.
Other chapters are devoted to specific topics, such as his management of the pandemic, and the chapter on his quarrels with Disney titled: “The Magic Kingdom of Woke Corporatism.”
He blasts the news media for protecting the progressive class instead of seeking to hold power accountable. In “The Best Defense is a Good Offense,” DeSantis describes how he fought the “mad policies” of the left with the laws he pushed through as governor. The chapter on Disney accuses the company of turning into a multinational that uses its enormous power to inject leftist sexual policies into children. Nevertheless, he reveals that he got married in his white Navy uniform at the Orlando theme park at his fiancée’s insistence. “My only condition”, he recalls, “was that no Disney characters could be part of our wedding. I wanted our special day to look and feel like a traditional wedding. I didn’t want Mickey Mouse or Donald Duck in our wedding photos.”
His years as governor take up roughly two-thirds of the book’s 256 pages and are the most revealing account of how conservative politicians see the recent convulsive years of American history. DeSantis portrays himself as a Republican who responded to the “Marxist-inspired” Black Lives Matter movement by turning Florida into a “law and order state” and who prevented “Critical Race Theory from being smuggled into the classrooms.” Yet he glosses over the Trump-instigated election fraud hoaxes and forgets to mention a minor incident – the January 6 assault on the Capitol.
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