Once upon a time, “the shot heard around the world” referred to the beginning of the American Revolution or the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand that sparked World War I. Now, in the postmodern fantasies of Ron DeSantis, “the Florida equivalent of the shot heard round the world” refers to his equally great war against Mickey Mouse.
This kind of bombastic kitsch pervades the Florida governor’s 100-percent-not-part-of-a-presidential-campaign opus The Courage to Be Free. Assessed against other read ’em and dump ’em conservative books like James Lindsay’s Race Marxism or Charlie Kirk’s The College Scam, DeSantis’s screed isn’t the most self-defeating of the bunch (that honor still goes to Mark Levin’s American Marxism). But it is undoubtedly the most smugly self-congratulating — Trumpese with a bigger thesaurus and half the charm.
It is the kind of book where lines like “it fell to me to protect the people of Florida from the destructive biomedical security state” or “nobody handed me anything; I simply had to earn it” or “while it was common for rising freshmen to spend their summer enjoying themselves on the beach and sleeping in until noon, I was up at the crack of dawn to start work” are tantrically repeated to convince the reader that DeSantis doesn’t just set up playdates to dress up as Tom Cruise characters — he is one.
A Man of Class
Late in his book, when defending policies that make it harder for private businesses to mandate diversity and equity training for their employees, DeSantis claims that the “freedom to speak does not include the right to indoctrinate.” If DeSantis took his own words at all seriously, then The Courage to Be Free would implode in a puff of (rare) consistent reasoning.
At least DeSantis doesn’t waste that much time getting to his bad arguments. At the start of the book, after plopping in the requisite Churchill quote, DeSantis casts himself as a man of the people arrayed against dangerous ruling-class elites. Depending on whether he needs them to be frightening or weak, DeSantis variously defines elites as controlling “the federal bureaucracy, lobby shops on K street, big business, corporate media, Big Tech companies, and universities” or “ensconced in a distant capital,” lacking “real world experience,” and architects of “failed social engineering.”
That the elite cannot both be a well-oiled cadre ruthlessly opposed to “underdogs” like DeSantis and a bunch of lazy wimps who don’t even know the lyrics to “Danger Zone” doesn’t bother DeSantis. He’s too busy concocting hilariously contorted definitions. He writes:
The word “elite” does not signify someone of tremendous aptitude, great wealth or major achievement. It signifies someone who shares the ideology and outlook of the ruling class, which one can demonstrate by “virtue signaling” (i.e, speaking the “in” language) and by seeing Americans as subjects to be ruled over, not as citizens to be represented. These “elites” do not include some individuals who reach the commanding heights of society.
DeSantis then provides an example:
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. Some who acquire great wealth, be it an oilman from Texas or an automobile dealer from Florida, are also part of the “outs” because they do not subscribe to the prevailing outlook and philosophical preferences of the ruling class.
One supposes that for a millionaire governor who attended several Ivy League schools, such definitional loop-de-loops are necessary to salvage his political self-image. But one would also think that such a well-educated man would know that a tautological definition of an elite as “someone who shares the ideology and outlook of elites” is patently absurd.
By this logic, a union public school teacher in West Virginia earning $32,000 who supports teaching black history is part of the elite ruling class. But oil barons like the Koch family, manor-born real estate moguls like Trump, and Thomas, who takes $500,000 vacations with his billionaire Republican friend (who surely would never think to influence the good justice’s judicial decisions), are not.
For a man so addicted to the idea of “common sense,” here it appears to have deserted him.
Being Comfortable With Your Own Contradictions
These convenient ideological pretzels pop up throughout The Courage to Be Free. Another fatuous one appears midway through DeSantis’s explanation of the “textualist” jurisprudence that he favors. Appealing to Alexander Hamilton’s insistence that the courts should have “neither force nor will but merely judgement,” DeSantis rails against liberal “judicial activism” in which courts abandon the “original public meaning” of the law and “legislate from the bench.”
But in case any conservatives worry that DeSantis wants to appoint judges who “accept flawed precedents and shy away from faithfully applying the constitution,” he clarifies that a non-activist judge does not mean a “shrinking violet.” It is someone like Thomas, who has “the courage of their convictions” and “relish[es] defying” liberal elites. In other words, the answer to liberal judicial activism is conservative judicial activism.
For all his outsider pretensions, these pronouncements put DeSantis squarely in the mainstream of conservative legal instrumentalism. For decades, conservatives saw themselves as marginal players fighting an uphill battle against Warren Court liberalism. In this contest, originalism was useful since it allowed the Right to galvanize hostility to judicial activism in the name of “ordinary people.”
But now that conservatives control much of the judiciary, how can they continue to preen as apostles of restraint? How, in short, can they advance a right-wing jurisprudence without opening themselves to charges of hypocrisy? Most, like DeSantis, try to have it both ways by characterizing decisions they don’t like as activist and praising those they do as “constitutionalist,” no matter how transformative.
Nowhere do DeSantis’s ideological to-and-fros become more farcical than in his treatment of corporations and “woke” capitalism. In some truly amusing paragraphs, DeSantis seemingly discovers that “concentrations of private power” can be as domineering as “concentrations of power . . . in government”:
From Big Tech to traditional corporations, these private institutions wield an enormous amount of power over society — and sometimes even collude with the government to do so. Thus, elected officials need to wield authority in a way that protects individuals from these powerful institutions. For years, the default conservative posture has been to limit government and then get out of the way. This is, no doubt, much to recommend to this posture — when the institutions in society are healthy. But we have seen institution after institution become thoroughly politicized. . . . In a free society, individuals are not overwhelmed by concentrations of power in government or in civil society.
A lightning strike of a revelation. Apparently, it took DeSantis years to grasp what Adam Smith warned about in The Wealth of Nations fully two centuries ago: “people of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public.” I suppose that given another two centuries the DeSantises of the world will arrive at the utopian socialism of Saint-Simon before continuing to work their way forward.
What’s especially galling about DeSantis’s position is that, much as with his definition of ruling-class elites, it cribs the language of anti-corporatism while gutting the substance. For DeSantis, the problem with “concentrations of private power” isn’t low wages, bad working conditions, or union busting. The problem isn’t even with “concentrations of private power” or the forms of domination they generally entail.
Instead, the problem is when corporations try to force an “ideological agenda on society” that DeSantis opposes. After all, imposing an ideological agenda on the population is his job and takes real “leadership.” In these highly circumscribed situations, “leadership” involves piercing the sacral veil of private property with the heavy hand of the state to end terrible injustices like gay Disney characters. But changing minimum-wage laws to guarantee workers a staggering fifteen dollars an hour? Then DeSantis becomes a religious man again, preaching all the familiar capitalist pieties.
From Working-Class Kid to Reactionary Elite
DeSantis started life as a blue-collar kid and takes considerable pride in his origins. The early parts of the book consist of some genuinely moving descriptions of his early life in Florida, where DeSantis’s family worked hard to live modestly. You can’t help but remember these anecdotes later, not only when DeSantis is attacking progressive “elites” but when he’s condemning large parts of the GOP for falling into the “DC swamp.”
Passages where DeSantis castigates the “GOP party brass” for being “out of step with our voter base” and describes himself as falling asleep in his office by midnight before waking up at six to “start my day with a workout” read like populist self-aggrandizement. And they are. But they also offer insight into DeSantis’s priorities and outlook. Simultaneously resenting the reigning elites for their ineptitude and yearning for their power and status, DeSantis ends up defending privilege because he thinks he deserves it.
In this respect DeSantis is a familiar archetype on the political right, one dating back to Edmund Burke. Call them the self-mythologizing strivers: they rise from humble origins, clawing their way up the social hierarchy, but rather than experiencing their ascent as an indictment of the stratified social order, they take it as an affirmation of their superiority, even over their fellow conservatives (particularly those reared with a silver spoon).
Such figures are adept at disguising substantive elitism with the biting panache of populism because they share many of the same animosities toward elites, without in fact wishing to end elite rule. What is needed, in their minds, is a new elite composed of zealous, hard-charging figures like themselves — “men of action” who have climbed to the top by dint of hard work and vision. The imagined contrast with a pampered political class and sclerotic bureaucracy full of mediocrities defending “wokeness” could not be more transparent.
Like many self-mythologies propagated on the Right, DeSantis’s is full of sublimations that elevate his banal daily routines into testaments to personal discipline and drive. This maps onto a political universe that defines as “common sense” its own unexamined values, which are cherished less because they are true — or even need to be defended as true — than because they are the values of a person of “accumulated wisdom” who sees further and knows more than the sophists and small-spirited people around them. Fussing over logical contradictions misses the point — they are part of the vision, even demonstrations of its profundity.
The effect is to convey a kind of grandiosity, but without any substance or depth to speak of. In the end, one Mary Wollstonecraft had DeSantis’s number long ago. In her scintillating critique of Burke, Wollstonecraft wrote:
I glow with indignation when I attempt, methodically, to unravel your slavish paradoxes, in which I can find no fixed first principle to refute; I shall not, therefore, condescend to shew where you affirm in one page what you deny in another; and how frequently you draw conclusions without any previous premises: — it would be something like cowardice to fight with a man who had never exercised the weapons with which his opponent chose to combat, and irksome to refute sentence after sentence in which the latent spirit of tyranny appeared.
I perceive . . . that you have a mortal antipathy to reason; but, if there is any thing like argument, or first principles, in your wild declamation, behold the result:—that we are to reverence the rust of antiquity, and term the unnatural customs, which ignorance and mistaken self-interest have consolidated, the sage fruit of experience: nay, that, if we do discover some errors, our feelings should lead us to excuse, with blind love, or unprincipled filial affection, the venerable vestiges of ancient days.