It's not enough to own the libs. Credit: GIORGIO VIERA/AFP via Getty Images

February 28, 2023   6 mins

Ron DeSantis is inching closer to announcing his 2024 presidential bid, and is partaking in a hallowed American political tradition: the release of the campaign book. This subgenre is less about presenting an agenda than about giving voters a general feel for who a candidate is and where they want to take the country. And a truly good campaign book will help to impart the candidate’s sense of history, which is no small thing, since, as Theodore White wrote in The Making of the President: “A President can trust no one and no theology except his own sense of history; all the instruments of government must be subordinate to this… and when this supreme guidance is lacking, the instruments themselves are useless.”

With The Courage to Be Free: Florida’s Blueprint for America’s Survival, DeSantis very clearly frames his prospective candidacy in light of our historical moment: he is the tribune of the red states and antidote to the ills of progressivism. He is keen to highlight his achievements as governor: resisting lockdowns, fighting wokeism in schools, and standing up to big corporations like Disney, one of the state’s major employers. His record won him a landslide re-election in November with 59% of the vote, flipping Miami-Dade (with its concentration of Latino voters) and Palm Beach counties from the Democrats. But will his success be enough to snatch the nomination from Trump and the presidency from Joe Biden?

Though the book is generous with praise for Donald Trump, the unstated premise of DeSantis’s run is that he can do what the former president once did but without the outsize flaws. If DeSantis truly wishes to displace Trump as the party’s leader, he must prove that he is a superior vessel for the populist impulses that now predominate in the GOP (“Trumpism without Trump”). The problem with the 45th president, as I have argued before, is that he was not able to follow through on the authentically populist and nationalist instincts that won him the White House in 2016. Under the influence of institutional Republicans, his administration largely stuck to the standard party line, or else failed to deliver in the few instances when the president’s advisers did try to break free of Reaganite dogmas. (In a strange twist, Trump disowned his administration’s most impressive executive achievement — the vaccine roll-out — in order to win culture war points.)

Trump also failed to grow his coalition by winning the support of moderates and independents, who are less likely to care about his partisan vendettas. Per Theodore White, a president with a sharper historical sense would have been more alert to the transformative potential of the present moment which, like the New Deal or the end of the Cold War, marks the epochal movement from one paradigm to another. Such a leader would also not have been so easy to derail or distract.

So, does Ron DeSantis fit this bill? By all accounts, he is a far more cerebral politician than Trump ever was, and, being more conscious of the shifting ideological tides in the GOP, he is in theory less likely to be co-opted by the professional conservatives in Washington. DeSantis’s intellectual streak can be seen in his CV: he is an Ivy League graduate, had a stint as a history teacher, and authored a now forgotten 2011 book, Dreams From Our Founding Fathers: First Principles in the Age of Obama, in which he derived his vision of conservatism from the framers of the Constitution. DeSantis is able to engage with groups like the National Conservatism Conference (“NatCon”), a gathering of heterodox thinkers, in ways that more pedestrian elected officials can’t. Looking at his pronouncements in these intellectual settings can help piece together DeSantis’s own distinct “sense of history”.

In September, DeSantis gave the headline speech to the NatCon gathering on his home turf in Miami. He seemed aware of what made this era different from Reagan’s: “when Reagan came on the scene, for example, it was really big government that was to blame… You now have a woke mind virus that has infected all these other institutions.” DeSantis was saying what many populist Republicans have been thinking, which is that the private sector needs to be reined in just as much as the state — a sea change in conservative philosophy. And if “culture war is class warfare”, as J.D. Vance (another rising star of the Right) said, then one can expect cultural and economic grievances to be bundled together as the Right takes stands against firms like Disney, fighting against cultural wokeism while also fighting for the material interest of the working class.

But taking a closer look at DeSantis’ war on Disney shows that this is not actually how it works. DeSantis was ruthless in stripping the various privileges that the state had long granted to Disney in response to their opposition to Florida’s so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill. As one impressed conservative columnist put it, here was clear evidence that the governor was ready “to take on Big Business on behalf of the little guy”, which was “Reagan-era Republican heresy”. However, conspicuously absent in DeSantis’s case against “The Happiest Place On Earth” is any mention of its exploitative working conditions or its refusal to pay decent wages to its workers. DeSantis appears to be indifferent to the properly economic dimensions of populism and is only concerned about calling out corporations in so far as a cultural dispute over wokeism is involved. Man cannot live on culture war alone, and it was left to Bernie Sanders to speak up about these bread-and-butter concerns. It doesn’t help DeSantis’s populist bona fides either that even after their feud, Disney lobbyists remained co-chairs for his inauguration.

DeSantis is equally constrained in his conception of populism when it comes to immigration. The governor has been perfectly willing to make an “own the libs” show of bussing migrants to Martha’s Vineyard, but has been terribly reluctant to enact universal mandatory E-Verify in his state as a means of screening out undocumented migrant workers from the labour market. Why? Because it would be burdensome on business. After four years in power, it was only a few days ago (and now that he is about to run for president) that DeSantis came out in favour of universalising E-Verify — though this was also his promise when he ran for governor in 2018. But even if he succeeds in getting a law passed, much will depend on the sincerity and effectiveness of enforcement. As Bloomberg reported, “E-Verify Laws Across Southern Red States Are Barely Enforced… Even the most anti-immigration states don’t like cracking down on business.” It seems as if DeSantis (like Trump) wants to come across as an immigration hawk for culture-war purposes but without offending the business-donor class.

What about the anti-woke crusade in education? Surely, as DeSantis must be telling himself, the great mass of voters can get behind that. However, Florida’s war on woke schools is emblematic of what happens when the Right takes culture war as the be-all-and-end-all of politics. Yes, parents have no patience for woke excesses, but neither do they endorse the other extreme, which results in the same pathologies (book bans, political uniformity) but in a conservative direction. Republicans often interpret public opposition to wokeness as license to indulge in their own peculiar moral and cultural tastes, which can be no less alienating. Polling shows that banging on about Critical Race Theory has failed to resonate with all but a small slice of parents across the country. At the end of the day, most voters have little time for the ideological fixations that animate partisans of the Left and Right, and simply want an America that can deliver stability and opportunity for all.

In his 2011 book, DeSantis identified with the founders who supported proposals for a strong national government, or what would eventually become the Constitution. Chief among these were the authors of the Federalist Papers, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison. DeSantis even declared that Hamilton was “one of the greatest American statesmen never to serve as president”. Opposing them were the Anti-Federalists, who argued against the idea of an American nation-state and wanted to retain a minimal confederation. These tendencies have remained in tension ever since. The Anti-Federalists tended to be reactive, defined more by what they were against. And despite his professed Hamiltonian affinities, DeSantis has governed more from this negative position, building his political brand in opposition to things, be it wokeism or “Fauci-ism”. (Re-litigating the pandemic in 2024, when most Americans wish to move on, is also not likely to be a vote-getter.) The GOP itself seems to be moving toward an open embrace of Anti-Federalism: witness Marjorie Taylor Greene’s “national divorce” idea.

However, what is needed now is a revival of the Federalist tradition, defined more by what government is for, and infused with a greater level of institutional creativity and ambition. To build a new post-Reaganite order, it is not enough to wage a culture war without also working to change the material and institutional frameworks that shape American life. Like the Federalists themselves, who renovated the republic and used the power of the federal state for economic modernisation, the next generation of statesmen must present a national vision that is more positive than oppositional. One wonders if Ron DeSantis has enough of a “sense of history” to do just that.

Michael Cuenco is a writer on policy and politics. He is Associate Editor at American Affairs.