Ron DeSantis Is a Corporate America–Approved Fake Populist

Attempting to reanimate his unappealing presidential campaign, Florida governor Ron DeSantis last week presented a new faux-populist economic agenda, which frames corporate-friendly policies as a means to improve workers’ economic conditions.

Ron DeSantis speaks in Tampa, Florida, on November 8, 2022.(Giogio Viera / AFP via Getty Images)

In an effort to revive his well-funded but unappealing presidential campaign, Florida governor Ron DeSantis (R) last week presented a faux-populist economic agenda he said would declare “our economic independence from the failed elites and policies that have harmed this nation’s middle class” — even though few of the items in his agenda and corresponding speech would threaten the sweeping economic power that the ultra-wealthy and corporations have over Americans’ lives.

“No more socialism for the wealthy and rugged individualism for small businesses, and for individuals, and for working class people,” said DeSantis, channeling the civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.

DeSantis is currently polling a distant second to Donald Trump, who was indicted on criminal charges last week for attempting to overturn the 2020 election.

DeSantis released his resentment-heavy, corporate-friendly economic agenda last week in Rochester, New Hampshire, on the same day that his super PAC released records of its finances — clarifying precisely how dependent his candidacy is on big donor cash being routed through an outside group that can accept donations of any size.

While most of the $130 million raised by the super PAC came from DeSantis’s political committee in Florida, the group raised $34 million, or 70 percent of its new cash, from donors who contributed more than $1 million. Of that haul, $20 million came from one source, budget hotel magnate Robert Bigelow, while $5.5 million came from a dark money nonprofit that is not required to disclose its donors.

The DeSantis campaign has only raised $3 million, or 15 percent of its cash, from small donors giving less than $200 — compared to 50 percent of the donations to Trump’s campaign.

Look closely and it becomes clear that while DeSantis is pretending to be a populist, he is running a campaign of, by, and for big donors — a campaign only made possible by the machinations of a super PAC.

At the DeSantis event, his campaign’s reliance on the super PAC, called Never Back Down, was striking. The supposedly independent group’s staffers stood outside the entrance passing out hats, bumper stickers, and signs blaring “DeSantis 2024” in big, bold letters — above a much smaller Never Back Down logo.

After the event, super PAC staffers encouraged attendees to sign endorsement forms declaring that they are “on Team DeSantis” and “endorse Governor Ron DeSantis for President of the United States in 2024.”

The DeSantis agenda is ultimately designed to appeal to the super PAC’s ultra-wealthy donors. That’s why the handful of cogent populist points DeSantis made at the New Hampshire event were surrounded by mountains of misdirection — and why his proposed solutions alternated between targeted attacks, cruel distractions, and thinly veiled efforts to boost corporate profits at the expense of everyone else.

“When elites get bailed out from their bad decisions, that really distorts how the economy is supposed to work,” he said. “Of course, the people that are not politically connected get left holding the bag.”

That comment came immediately after DeSantis said he would “let Americans invest in things like Bitcoin and cryptocurrency” — something people certainly can do now, if they want to invest their money in digital currencies with no real use value.

Making the Economy Meaner and Dumber

In his Rochester speech, DeSantis’s sleight of hand was as apparent as ever in his continued attacks on environmental, social, and governance (ESG) investing — a name for when firms consider the environmental and social impacts of their investments as well as the governance structure of companies.

“We’re going to end the politicization of the economy by kneecapping things like ESG,” said DeSantis. “The reality is this is just a cover for people in large companies to depart from their obligations to their shareholders, and to use that financial power to advance an ideological or political agenda.”

He added: “As president, [I’m] going to ensure that these businesses are actually meeting their fiduciary obligations to maximize value for shareholders or for beneficiaries.”

There is no proof ESG has had much effect on corporate behavior. But egged on by billionaire-funded advocacy groups and think tanks, DeSantis and conservatives have led a crusade to ensure that companies seek to fully prioritize the short-term financial interests of their wealthy shareholders in an era of intensifying climate change and massive inequality.

In fact, while DeSantis has crusaded against so-called “woke” investments, he has plowed public employees’ retirement savings into high-risk, high-fee investment firms that have delivered weak returns, as the Lever previously reported.

No matter how it’s framed, the anti-ESG push is an anti-populist pitch: a demand that companies focus all their attention squarely on profits at the expense of their workers and everyone else.

Relatedly, DeSantis wants to expand domestic oil and gas production.

“The United States has the best oil and gas resources in the world, we have an incredible opportunity to leverage this competitive advantage for the good of our economy, for the good of the average citizen, because this will help drive down inflation and make things more affordable” he said last week.

This is objectively terrible policy: scientists warn that governments must work to rapidly decarbonize the planet in order to limit global temperature increases and stave off the worst effects of climate change. This summer has been the hottest on record — and the waters around South Florida have been the warmest ever, too.

It is also not clear that expanding domestic oil production would do much to lower prices, given that oil prices are set on a global marketplace. At its core, DeSantis’s energy plan is designed to appeal to Republican donors in the oil and gas industry.

In its first campaign finance report last week, DeSantis’s super PAC disclosed receiving $700,000 in donations from First Coast Energy and its CEO. The company distributes Shell gasoline to gas stations and operates gas station convenience stores.

DeSantis was reportedly scheduled to host a fundraiser in Oklahoma on Monday with fossil fuel executives, including billionaire oil and gas magnate Harold Hamm.

Let Them Eat Hate

In his speech and his agenda, DeSantis offered heaping helpings of resentment politics, framing cruel and otherwise pointless policies as ways to improve workers’ economic conditions.

“We need a strong and fair labor market: we have to secure our border, we have to stop illegal immigration, we need to end things like chain migration and the diversity visa lottery,” he said, blaming immigration into the United States — which precipitously declined under Trump and during the COVID-19 pandemic — for the plight of workers.

“We should not have massive amounts of unskilled migration coming into this country,” he said. “What we want is immigration that benefits the average American. We don’t want to be bringing people in on programs to undercut wages of American citizens.”

While increased immigration can suppress wages, cracking down on migrants and refugees simply forces vulnerable, exploitable workers to accept hazardous jobs for low pay — a situation that ultimately undermines all workers.

DeSantis also said he would “restore merit in the individual as the central criteria for economic advancement.” In his agenda, he promised he would direct the Justice Department to “root out discrimination under the false guises of diversity, equity, and inclusion.”

He further argued that the recent Supreme Court decision nixing affirmative action at colleges and universities “should apply across the board through our economy.”

It is already illegal for companies to make employment decisions based on race or identity. Proposing a ban on corporate diversity, equity, and inclusion programs is actually just pandering to wealthy conservative donors and would do nothing at all to improve anyone else’s economic situation.

Limited Departures From Conservative Orthodoxy

DeSantis’s agenda and speech last week differed in some ways from what you’d expect to hear from Republican politicians. For one, he borrowed the critique from King about how America “has socialism for the rich, rugged individualism for the poor.” Progressive Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) — an ideological opposite to DeSantis — notably used that line on the 2020 campaign trail.

DeSantis criticized the Federal Reserve, the nation’s central bank, for repeatedly raising interest rates and driving up the costs of housing, saying that “now affording a home your mortgage payment is like twice as much as what it would have been four or five years ago for basically the same home.”

He also attacked past government trade policies as leading to “a mass relocation of American manufacturing to China,” adding: “The elite sold us a bill of goods when it came to China.” On that front, his agenda vaguely pledges to “reshore, diversify, and expand our economy.”

DeSantis separately spoke of investing in vocational programs and allowing Americans to discharge their student loans through bankruptcy — the latter of which has long been a priority of progressive Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA).

On the whole, though, DeSantis’s agenda leans toward corporate giveaways — including one that greatly benefits some of his biggest enemies in the Big Tech and entertainment industries.

For instance, his agenda says he would “make permanent full immediate expensing” — one of the biggest corporate giveaways in the tax code, which allows corporations to deduct the costs of their investments immediately rather than over time. The policy is supposed to incentivize business investment, but in practice has little impact on investment and instead has been shown to pad executive salaries and allow corporations to pay single-digit tax rates.

The provision was included in the Republicans’ 2017 tax bill, and has saved just twenty-five major corporations — including Walt Disney, Google, Facebook, and Amazon — nearly $67 billion dollars over the past five years, according to the Institute for Taxation and Economic Policy. It is currently being phased out, but Republicans on the House Ways and Means Committee recently advanced a bill to extend the policy until 2033, a move that would cost the federal government an estimated $325 billion in revenue.

What He Didn’t Say

DeSantis proposed nothing about health care — one of Americans’ top concerns — in his speech last week or in his economic agenda. The only mention of health care arose when DeSantis was asked whether he would support adding work requirements for Medicaid, the federal health insurance program for the poor, and responded that “there should be work requirements for all welfare programs.”

Donna Marie Everett, a nurse from Dover who attended DeSantis’s event last week, said after his speech that while she hasn’t decided on a candidate to support, she was “impressed” by the DeSantis economic agenda. However, she also volunteered her concerns about the state of American health care and what she would like to hear from candidates about it.

She noted that her job involves coordinating hospital patients’ care, and she said that current insurance offerings — from private insurers, Medicare, Medicaid, and Veterans Affairs benefits — are “not effective.” Everett said she would like to see candidates talk more about “simplified plans.”

Speaking about the privatized Medicare Advantage plans for seniors offered by private health insurers, she said, “They’re not effective at all.”

“The insurance companies, I feel, are making a lot of money on this,” she said, “and it’s not being distributed to the patients who need the care.”