Florida governor Ron DeSantis’s new book, The Courage to Be Free, strikes a populist tone. He rails against the “the elites.”
But he’s eager not to be misunderstood. Not everyone “of tremendous aptitude, great wealth, or major achievement” is part of the elites. The real elites are defined by their adherence to the “ideology and outlook of the ruling class” and their shared interest in “virtue signaling.”
Governor DeSantis even provides an example of someone whose exalted position might make us think he’s part of these elites even though he totally isn’t.
That example is… Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas.
DeSantis’s book came out less than two months ago. Yesterday, ProPublica published a story revealing that Justice Thomas has routinely traveled around the world on the superyacht owned by billionaire real estate magnate and Republican megadonor Harlan Crow. Thomas also often flies on Crow’s private jet, even for very short trips, and stays in Crow’s palatial invitation-only resort. The justice never pays a dime for any of this — and he doesn’t disclose it, as is required by both judicial codes of ethics and the letter of the law.
Then again, if Crow isn’t into “virtue signaling,” I suppose he doesn’t meet DeSantis’s definition of a member of “the elites” either.
A painting hanging at Crow’s resort shows Crow and Thomas smoking cigars by the woods outside the facility while the pair chats with three other men. One, Mark Paoletta, served as the general counsel for the Office of Management and Budget in the Trump administration. Another, Peter Rutledge, brags on his CV that he “filed over thirty briefs, amicus briefs and petitions” in the Supreme Court on behalf of “corporations, industry associations and individuals.” The final member of the group is Leonard Leo, “the Federalist Society leader regarded as an architect of the Supreme Court’s recent turn to the right.”
If not for DeSantis’s helpful clarification, I might have assumed that the five people smoking and gabbing in that picture were part of the elites. I might have even thought that they shared “the ideology and outlook of the ruling class.”
But then I remember what Governor DeSantis wrote:
These “elites” do not include some individuals who reach the commanding heights of society. A major figure in our government like US Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, a graduate of Yale Law School, is not part of this group because he rejects the group’s ideology, tastes, and attitudes.
Now, if I were a cynical person, I might think that if we were really talking about “the ruling class” in a way that was connected to real-world power — and not just “people, whether elite or not, whose tastes and cultural attitudes Ron DeSantis happens to dislike” — the ideology of that class might have something to do with cutting taxes, gutting regulations, and attacking organized labor. I might even wonder if that congenial conversation over cigars outside Crow’s private resort touched on any of those subjects.
But I’m sure that would be unfair. They were probably just gabbing about all the cool amenities at the resort — which include “more than 25 fireplaces, three boathouses, clay tennis court and batting cage, along with more eccentric features: a lifesize replica of the Harry Potter character Hagrid’s hut, bronze statues of gnomes and a 1950s-style soda fountain where Crow’s staff fixes milkshakes.” If the cases that come to the Supreme Court ever happen to touch on the business interests of any of the people who stand around that soda fountain sipping frosty milkshakes with Thomas, there’s no need for him to recuse himself. He probably doesn’t even know what any of Crow’s friends do for a living.
It’s important to remember that Thomas is a regular guy at heart. In a recent documentary about his life — which “Crow helped finance” according to ProPublica — Thomas said that he doesn’t mind visiting Europe, but he really prefers the United States, and “the regular parts” of the United States at that. “I prefer the RV parks. I prefer the Walmart parking lots to the beaches and things like that.”
All of this is to be expected from a warrior against “the elites.”
There is one detail I find confusing, though.
I know from DeSantis’s book that Thomas — and presumably his good buddy Crow and the rest of the gang they hang out with at the resort and on the superyacht — rejects “the ideology and outlook of the ruling class.” So when I saw that an interviewer recently asked Crow what “scares” him the most, I naturally expected that Crow would say something like, “Well, my greatest fear is that the ruling class will have too much wealth and power.”
Instead, his answer was one word long: “Marxism.”