For someone who loudly announces his principled devotion to the American civic and constitutional order, Ron DeSantis spends a lot of time feeling besieged by it. In his new campaign memoir, The Courage to Be Free, the Florida Republican governor offers a rolling litany of cultural and ideological persecution, which he seems to experience anew with each passing breath. The grim saga starts with his young adulthood as a Yale undergraduate and carries right on through to his authoritarian tour in the governor’s mansion. There, his eager prosecution of culture-war inquisitions has drawn virtually every Sunshine State institution—from the courts and the K-12 and university system to the Covid-besotted “biomedical security state” to the Disney Corporation—into its book-banning, tenure-decimating, vote-suppressing, and tax-assessing sights.
Like any right-wing confessional, DeSantis’s is a relentless study in scapegoating. At virtually every “inflection point” in his public career, the same underlying refrain emerges: I was driven to adopt harsh and draconian measures because the left made me do it. In DeSantis’s telling, this is a never-ending mandate, since the complex of rigid left thought-policing has burrowed its way into all the major centers of American power. “The United States has been increasingly captive to an arrogant, stale, and failed ruling class,” he barks in the book’s introduction. The notion that a class exerts maximum influence on all our lead institutions while simultaneously being stale and failed is a fine point of analysis that doesn’t detain this ardent field marshal of the culture wars. Instead, he proceeds to explain that what grants these entrenched elites their insidious culture-bending power isn’t their actual class position so much as their attitudes and beliefs. “The elites, not instinctively patriotic, instead consider themselves ‘citizens of the world.’… They enthusiastically embrace concepts like the Great Reset championed by the elite World Economic Forum, which forecasts a future in which you’ll ‘own nothing and be happy,’ the US will not be the leading superpower, people will eat far less meat to ‘save’ the environment, and energy prices will be significantly higher.”
This fireworks display of faux-populist resentment comes before the reader even makes it to the main body of The Courage to Be Free. It’s an entirely fitting introduction, though, since DeSantis’s narrative of his life and times serves mostly to supply a pasteboard Real American backdrop for the ideological preferences he now cleaves to. For instance, his baseball-obsessed youth in his hometown of Dunedin, Fla.—the spring-training home for the Toronto Blue Jays—yields this agitprop epiphany as he recalls the Taiwanese players he fraternized with in the run-up to the Little League World Series: “It may have informed some of my later political judgments; for example, while my hostility toward the Chinese Communist Party and my support for Taiwan reflected my general political outlook, the respect I had for Taiwanese baseball no doubt made my pro-Taipei stance more natural.” Just a totally normal childhood sports infatuation, in other words.
In a book overrun with ungainly ironies, this is one of the most implacable ones: The campaign memoir chiefly exists to make an otherwise stiff and hidebound leader steeped in ideological boilerplate more relatable to the average voter. But here DeSantis leans on his life story again and again to churn out more ideological boilerplate. When he relates his taking on a part-time job as an electric contractor to help pay his way through Yale, for example, he makes perfunctory note of the virtue of “a paycheck for a good day’s work,” before drawing out the real moral of experience: a mandate to buy OSHA-approved footwear meant that “this job was also my first encounter with the federal government’s regulatory Leviathan.”
The Courage to Be Free is less a political coming-of-age memoir than the American right’s version of social-realist fiction—only instead of following the hoary boy-meets-tractor narrative conventions of that genre, this is an aspirational samizdat version: Ron-meets-Leviathan, as our true-believing protagonist marshals his humble but high-achieving leadership résumé to defeat the shape-shifting gothic enemy of snobbish-to-totalitarian left-wing know-it-all-ism at every turn.
At the same time, of course, DeSantis is caroming around the elite preserves of the American meritocracy, moving from Yale to Harvard Law School to a Navy JAG commission during the Iraq War. But this, too, represents a kind of heroic self-sacrifice consecrated to the higher cultural mission of the conservative movement. The Ivied scenes of DeSantis’s education were, after all, sickening and anti-American elite conclaves “where entitled and tenured professors 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.” To underline his harrowing pilgrimage through this hostile territory, DeSantis produces yet another tortured snapshot of his authentic culture warrior bona fides, via his grandparents’ heartland roots in territory at least somewhat adjacent to J.D. Vance country: “I was geographically raised in Tampa Bay, but culturally my upbringing reflected the working-class communities in western Pennsylvania and northeast Ohio—from weekly church attendance to the expectation that one would earn his keep. This made me God-fearing, hard-working and America-loving.”
If this exercise in MAGA genealogy feels more than a little gnat-straining, there’s a reason for that. The conceit of DeSantis as horny-handed son of toil surrounded on all sides by faithless and scheming elites buckles under the memoir’s own narrative weight. He meets his future wife, for example, during a junket to conquer a forbidding golf course in Bethpage, Long Island (such trips being just more blue-collar, salt-of-the-earth sports infatuation). She also turns out to be a local news anchor in Florida, which both compounds the general atmosphere of assortative mating among the type-A set and rather complicates the book’s many didactic outbursts about the “broken” corporate media and its knee-jerk fealty to the ruling agenda of the country’s left-wing oligarchy.
DeSantis also presents his Navy commission as yet another I’ll-show-them flourish aimed at the decadent mores of the East Coast intelligentsia that incubated him: “With a Harvard Law degree, I could have earned hundreds of thousands in law or finance,” he writes in high cultural self-admiration. “But I decided to pass on that money because I wanted to serve.”
As with all of DeSantis’s moralizing fables and set pieces, the truth is a lot more complicated—and unsightly. Detailed to monitor the treatment of prisoners in the notorious US detention center in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, DeSantis mostly furnished real-time justification of existing abuses, as Jasper Craven notes in a bracing account of DeSantis’s career and mindset. The young JAG officer was there to provide “a mirage of accountability,” Craven writes, and recounts one especially grim encounter with Mansoor Adayfi, a prisoner taking part in a hunger strike to protest the facility’s flagrant and brutal abuses; like other hunger strikers, Adayfi was force-fed repeatedly against his will in a practice human rights groups characterized as torture. Here is how Adayfi recounted DeSantis’s conduct to Craven:
“We were crying, screaming. We were tied to the feeding chair. And [DeSantis] was watching that, he was laughing,” Adayfi recalled. During one session, Adayfi said, DeSantis approached the chair and told him, “You should start to eat.” He responded by puking on the young JAG’s pretty face.
This episode, needless to say, doesn’t rate a mention in The Courage to Be Free; DeSantis instead likens his Navy commission to the role Kevin Bacon played as a Navy prosecutor in Aaron Sorkin’s A Few Good Men. But he does note that during his 2006 deployment to Iraq’s Al-Anbar province, he saw his role in interpreting the US military’s rules of engagement with the civilian population as that of “a facilitator, not an inhibitor” for US operations. Ron is again, in his hectic imagining, facing down the great federal Leviathan: “It is unacceptable to send someone wearing our nation’s uniform to a combat zone with one hand tied behind his back. War is hell, and it puts the lives of our military personnel at risk if operations get mired in bureaucracy and red tape.”
This is precisely backward; it’s because lethal force is so hard to contain in military occupations that it calls for robust and careful oversight on the ground. War is indeed hell, and Iraqi civilian casualties were somewhere in the neighborhood of 1 million—with around 300,000 fatalities—over the course of the US occupation. Depicting the task of drafting quasi-humane rules of engagement as an irksome exercise in “red tape” is morally grotesque.
Yet this is the same assured and arrogant mien that has characterized DeSantis’s subsequent political career. Elected to Congress as a Tea Party insurgent in 2012, DeSantis worked to help block an immigration reform that would create viable pathways to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. He also urged on the 2014 government shutdown and helped found the Freedom Caucus, the hard-right House faction that recently threatened Kevin McCarthy’s speakership and won a raft of key concessions from the GOP leader in return. Frustrated by the lack of coordinated leadership and progress in the House Republican caucus, DeSantis ran for governor in 2018.
His account of that campaign is stunningly un-self-aware. He recounts his struggles to gain wide public recognition against his chief GOP primary rival, then–Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, and complains of a shadowy torrent of attack ads funded by Putnam’s cronies in the sugar industry. But DeSantis turns his primary campaign around by tapping into the D.C. and media power centers he professes to hate, first with a tweeted endorsement from President Donald Trump, and then with a Fox News debate among the GOP primary field as part of the network’s “Sunshine Summit” devoted to Florida politics. This latter event proved to be a turning point, since it all but doubled as a DeSantis infomercial:
Although I did not realize it at the time, Fox framed the coverage in a way to highlight the contrast. At one point when each of us spoke, Fox ran “a tale of the tape” to our respective profiles that enumerated key biographical facts about us. For Putnam, they highlighted him getting elected to numerous offices since he was twenty-two years old and his support for the 2016 presidential campaign of Florida governor Jeb Bush. For me, Fox highlighted my military service, my degrees from Yale and Harvard, my role in Congress and my endorsement from President Trump. That is exactly the contrast we were looking to draw!
It’s also what you’d pretty much expect from Fox’s Trump-osculating business strategy—particularly since DeSantis had earlier announced his gubernatorial candidacy during an appearance on Fox and Friends. Amid all the shadow-boxing bouts against DC cronyism and rampant media mendacity DeSantis assiduously stages throughout the longsome pages of The Courage to be Free, here’s the real thing: an ideologically driven news source carrying water for a political figure eagerly exploiting both its viewership and his then-close alliance with Trump, who still occupies the cash-and-nerve center of the 21st-century GOP.
This tight alliance of conservative movement influence and media synergy is the real story of DeSantis’s rise to national prominence. (This book is itself a product of it, since it’s published by the conservative Broadside imprint of Murdoch-owned HarperCollins.) As he’s used his governorship as a staging ground for increasingly intrusive and authoritarian culture war initiatives, DeSantis has harnessed the main tributaries of opinion-making and fundraising on the right, creating nonstop media coverage in sympathetic right venues along the way. Indeed, the signature DeSantis pivot from tedious grievance-mongering to rampant speech suppression has already made headlines for his new book; members of the audience bearing Trump and MAGA regalia at a Virginia book signing were told to leave, apparently at the behest of DeSantis staffers. It seems that a more fitting title would be The Courage to Be Free From the Supporters of My Chief Political Rival.
Less hilariously, DeSantis’s samurai-like devotion to maximal culture war demagogy and sympathetic media exposure has allowed him to position himself as the leader of the mask-and-vax-spurning anti-lockdown movement, which is among the strongest sources of right-wing organizing as we enter the 2024 presidential cycle. It’s also what makes DeSantis such an urgent and disciplined threat to American democracy. His relentless posture as the besieged prophet of anti-wokeness, like other forms of phony populism, has directly enabled a vision of executive power as an all-purpose battering ram to break down the culture war opposition. This is an obvious legacy of Trump’s presidency as well, but in the capable hands of DeSantis, the Harvard-trained former JAG officer, the theory of authoritarian strongman rule acquires a protective coloration of constitutional rhetoric, in line with the disingenuous doctrines advanced by his judicial heroes Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.
At the end of The Courage to Be Free, DeSantis inveighs against the civil service protections of the federal workforce and the sprawling character of federal spending legislation, while hailing the virtues of measures securing greater concentrations of executive power such as the line-item veto. (It’s also telling that, in his enthusiastic exposition of the theory and practice of the unitary culture-war executive, DeSantis principally invokes the authority of the neoliberal world’s pet neo-monarchist founder, Alexander Hamilton.) In what he’s pleased to call “the Florida Blueprint,” DeSantis touts all manner of executive end-runs around the traditional separation of powers, from his eager ideological revamp of the Florida state Supreme Court to the stealth revocation of Disney’s many corporate tax breaks after the company opposed his pet legislation to censor and ban gender-themed and other-than-heterosexual content in the state’s public schools.
One of his favorite talking points in touting the success of his Florida tenure is especially insidious in its antidemocratic implications: DeSantis repeatedly boasts about the recent dramatic surge in Republican voter registrations in the state as though it’s a spontaneous show of support for his policy agenda; in reality, it is in no small part the result of a concerted GOP campaign to suppress non-white and Democratic votes. As the 2024 Republican primary unspools, the chief story line looks to be whether the GOP base is prepared to embrace Ron DeSantis as the great Caesar of the culture wars.