Ron DeSantis’ anti-woke, Trump-triggering traveling show is coming to town

Detractors call him authoritarian. But could the Florida governor’s brook-no-argument leadership style be what the GOP needs to win the White House?

SPARTANBURG, S.C. — Ron DeSantis is telling the story about the baptismal water from the Sea of Galilee. The crowd in the auditorium at First Baptist North Spartanburg, many of whom have been standing for two hours, is rapt.

The story is this: When DeSantis was a small-fish congressman from the 6th District of Florida, he and his wife, Casey, traveled to Israel. They visited the Sea of Galilee — which flows into the Jordan River, where Jesus was baptized. Casey filled a plastic bottle with the water in order to use it at the baptism of their future children. 

Their second child was baptized at the Florida governor’s mansion right after DeSantis was inaugurated in 2018. And that vaunted water bottle was accidentally left out and disposed of by the cleaning staff. When word got out a week or so later, someone in Israel collected more seawater and sent it to the governor, who kept it in a jar on his desk.

In recounting the anecdote in DeSantis’ new book, “The Courage to be Free: Florida’s Blueprint for America’s Revival,” he adds one more revelatory footnote.

“It was a nice story, but also showed how, with my new platform, what I was doing in Florida could have reverberations halfway across the globe. We were in the big leagues now,” DeSantis wrote.

In the baseball parlance that DeSantis often uses, the story touches all the bases, conveying that the popular Florida governor and probable presidential candidate is both a man of faith and tradition, and also a man who holds and unabashedly wields significant and calculated power. 

Often derided by critics as authoritarian —“fascist,” even — for his brook-no-argument governing style, DeSantis, 44, can also be described as confident and decisive, a leader willing to use the full range of tools at his disposal in his famously contentious war on “woke.” He has said that in his first month as governor, he directed his team to compile a list of “all the constitutional, statutory and customary powers” of the office in order to employ them.

Former Reps. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, right, and Ron DeSantis, R-Fla., confer on Capitol Hill in Washington, on Tuesday, Sept. 30, 2014, during a congressional hearing. | J. Scott Applewhite, Associated Press

“I wanted to be sure that I was using every lever available to advance our priorities,” he wrote in “The Courage to be Free.”

For the two dozen or so protesters holding signs outside the church when DeSantis spoke Wednesday evening, the DeSantis playbook is a dark and sinister approach to governance, one that would be dangerous for America should DeSantis become president.

But for a sizable cohort of conservatives, beleaguered and disturbed by the growing influence of progressive ideology in the country, the governor’s approach is refreshing and even urgently necessary. Unafraid of controversy and unruffled by setbacks, DeSantis is, by his own admission, “willing to counterpunch.” This has been evident in his ongoing battle with Disney, which has lately devolved into something resembling a “West Side Story” street brawl.

But despite DeSantis’ reputation as an unrepentant fighter, a better educated and more refined version of Donald Trump, the secret to his appeal may be much more benign.

In standing athwart progressive extremism, he is taking the arrows for millions of Americans who are uncomfortable with biological males competing in all-women sporting events or suspicious of what’s being pushed on their kids through ideological grade school curriculums, but are simply too cowed to say it.

In doing so, he tells conservatives that, contrary to what some of the loudest voices on the internet say, it’s OK to have traditional values and sensibilities, to be led by principles and religious faith. As one millennial who likes DeSantis told me recently, “He makes me feel normal.” For conservatives, that can be a feeling hard to come by these days.

DeSantis will speak Saturday in Utah — a red state seemingly best disposed to move away from Trump and toward DeSantis. A Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll fielded in mid-March found 21% of Utah voters would support DeSantis and 16% favor former President Donald Trump, while an informal poll the same month of county chairs found most prefer DeSantis over Trump. After the midterms in November, 86 elected officials in Utah signed an open letter encouraging DeSantis to run.

But whether he will have the opportunity to take his brash governance to the Oval Office is still far from clear.

Gov. Ron DeSantis, R-Fla., speaks to a crowd at First Baptist North on Wednesday, April 19, 2023, in Spartanburg, S.C. | Meg Kinnard, Associated Press

In recent days, there has been an uptick of doomsday news about DeSantis and the presidential campaign he has yet to formally launch. Numerous news outlets are reporting on suddenly hesitant donors and new promises of fealty to Trump, who has been buoyed by his indictment by a grand jury in New York.

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There is talk of DeSantis having peaked in November, when he was reelected by a wide margin, even winning historically blue Miami-Dade County. “DeSantis is in a rut,” read a headline in Politico this week. Another article suggested that DeSantis is the new Scott Walker, the Wisconsin governor who quickly disappeared from the national stage after a wan presidential bid in 2016. 

While there are real reasons for DeSantis supporters to be concerned about his national viability — Florida’s new ban on abortion after six weeks, for example, may impact his popularity with independents — there’s also speculation that the sudden gloom and doom is being driven by the Trump campaign, or even the media itself.

But DeSantis has been written off before and gone on to win, as in his 2012 congressional race, when he had little name recognition in a seven-person primary but won with nearly 40% of the vote. In his first governor’s race, he won by 32,000 votes — less than 1% of the vote. Then, in November, he won nearly 60%.

Famously disdainful of what he calls “corporate media,” DeSantis rarely grants interviews and can be combative with reporters in press conferences. To him, the media leans so far left of his values, and those of his supporters, that he counsels his staff to view negative coverage as “positive feedback.” (His staff did not reply to multiple requests for this article.)

The governor’s office distributes his schedule daily — it usually arrives in my inbox between 5 and 6 p.m., after the events have taken place.

He is laser-focused on his agenda. Some people get into political office and turn into potted plants, he told the appreciative crowd in Spartanburg. He could have done that if he followed the advice he got when he was elected governor in 2018. Advisers told him that because Florida was so politically divided, had such a “delicate political balance,” that he shouldn’t try to do anything too ambitious.

“(They said) keep your head down, don’t rock the boat ... just kind of lay low for a while and let things settle down in the aftermath of the election. And honestly, it was not crazy advice. But it was advice that I rejected,” DeSantis said.

“My view was that I may have earned 50% of the vote, but winning the election entitled me to wield 100% of the executive power, and I intended to use the authority granted to me to advance a conservative agenda. And the way you do that, is to lead by conviction, not put your finger in the wind and try to figure out which way the wind’s blowing.”

Gov. Ron DeSantis, R-Fla., speaks to a crowd at First Baptist North on Wednesday, April 19, 2023, in Spartanburg, S.C. | Meg Kinnard, Associated Press

DeSantis’ philosophy of leadership appears to have been shaped not by Yale University, where he played baseball and studied history, or by Harvard Law School, where he took out “tens of thousands” in student loans, but by the military. During law school, he enlisted in the Navy and after graduating, he worked as a military prosecutor, battlefield adviser and legal adviser to SEAL Team 1, spending time in Iraq and at the notorious U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay.

He has said little publicly about his military service, and how it shaped him. But later, he would say that he was “stunned” by George W. Bush’s assertion in his second inaugural address that “The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands.” DeSantis wrote that he saw this idea, that America is obligated to promote democracy throughout the world, as a dangerous “messianic impulse” that runs counter to the country’s best interests.

His reaction foreshadowed his future nationalist bent, described in a recent New York Times analysis as much less hawkish than some conservatives might want.

After leaving Iraq, DeSantis returned to Florida, determined to marry the Jacksonville television reporter he’d met at a golf driving range before deploying. Casey Brown was the celebrity in the family then; their wedding at a chapel at Disney made the local news. They both wore white — Casey, a sleeveless wedding dress; her groom, the Navy officers’ uniform. 

Marrying Casey in 2009, DeSantis said, was an inflection point in his life, and she has been active in his political life from the beginning. When he ran for Congress, they would go door to door to ask for votes, and while DeSantis might not have been known to everyone who answered the door, Casey was.

“It’s not every day that a news anchor shows up at your front door,” he wrote. She’s been called her husband’s “not-so-secret political weapon,” and accompanies him on many trips. In Spartanburg, she joined him on the stage after his initial remarks, and the two sat in armchairs, bantering about politics and family life like a traveling “Regis and Kathie Lee” show. The crowd loved it.

From the beginning of his political career, DeSantis saw his Ivy League degrees as something of a political liability; in a GOP primary, he said, they are “political scarlet letters.” But he reassures supporters, “I am one of the very few people who went through both Yale and Harvard Law School and came out more conservative than I went in.”

That was, in part, because he was disturbed by the attitudes he encountered in the Ivy League, the dismissive way that people spoke about religious faith and heartland America.

By talking about his blue-collar and “Rust Belt” values and working-class upbringing, DeSantis seeks to overcome any suggestion that he is part of the establishment that he decries, and to connect with the disenfranchised middle class that Trump won over, the so-called “forgotten Americans.”

His father came from a town near Pittsburgh; his mother, from outside Youngstown, Ohio, and both sets of great-grandparents emigrated from southern Italy, a fact that is gleefully passed around Twitter when DeSantis makes news on immigration, such as sending a plane full of migrants to Martha’s Vineyard last fall.

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Gov. Ron DeSantis, R-Fla., left, stands with his wife, Casey DeSantis, as he speaks on April 19, 2023, in Spartanburg, S.C.
Gov. Ron DeSantis, R-Fla., left, stands with his wife, Casey DeSantis, as he speaks on April 19, 2023, in Spartanburg, S.C. | Meg Kinnard, Associated Press

DeSantis’ father (also named Ronald) worked for Nielsen, the TV ratings company, installing the devices that were then used to track viewership. His mother, Karen, was a nurse. They also had a daughter named Christina (who died of a pulmonary embolism at age 30 in 2015). Theirs was a lifestyle centered around “school, baseball, friends and church,” rarely leaving the five-mile radius around their home. 

A baseball scholarship opened doors at Yale, but DeSantis said it wasn’t a full ride and he worked as an electrician’s assistant full time after graduating from high school to help pay his college expenses. He would also work odd jobs, like parking cars and moving furniture, throughout school. “I would do just about any task, no matter how menial, if I could fit it into my schedule,” he wrote. When he left Harvard, DeSantis said he had $101.24 in his bank account.

But with Harvard and Yale on his resume, and the connections made during six years in Congress, DeSantis now walks a thin tightrope between “working class” and “elite.” He has a network from those years that extends into rarified circles. The man with blue-collar values counts U.S. senators and deep-pocketed GOP donors among his friends and he has a wife who was a competitive equestrian at the College of Charleston. There are enough contradictions about him, and so much ground uncovered, that it makes even supporters sometimes wonder who he really is, and what motivates him.

It is widely expected that DeSantis will announce a presidential run in May, after the Florida Legislature adjourns. His travels across the country right now are officially a book tour, but The Washington Post reported last month that he has told allies he is definitely running.

Trump has been campaigning against him for months, denouncing the man he once called “a brilliant young leader” as “DeSanctimonious” and comparing him — disparagingly — to Mitt Romney. Trump’s gregarious and flippant nature stands in stark contrast to DeSantis, who is said to disdain small talk and has recently been criticized for not spending enough time with supporters after events. (In Spartanburg, he spent about 15 minutes signing books and taking selfies with supporters before being whisked away, surrounded by security, in an SUV.)

For his part, DeSantis has been careful not to engage Trump; in public remarks, his most frequent target is Dr. Anthony Fauci, who he believes did lasting harm to the country during the pandemic. (“We refused to let our state descend into some type of Faucian dystopia,” he said in Spartanburg.) In his book, he compliments Trump for “stellar” judicial appointments; like Trump, he believes it’s important to build a southern wall.

Strangely, the biggest point of contention between Trump and DeSantis right now is Disney and Bud Light.

Trump believes the governor is bungling his yearlong fight with Disney that began when the company was critical of Florida’s The Parental Rights in Education Act — the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill — the controversial legislation that banned discussion of gender identity and sexual orientation in kindergarten through third grade. (The ban was recently extended to cover all grades.) Meanwhile, Trump’s son Donald Trump Jr. is calling for conservatives to stop boycotting Anheuser-Busch for putting the image of transgender influencer Dylan Mulvaney on Bud Light cans.

DeSantis has called the boycott “righteous.”

“I think we have power as consumers to make our voice heard,” he told conservative podcaster and writer Benny Johnson. He added: “It’s part of a larger thing where corporate America is trying to change our country, trying to change policy, trying to change culture ... I’d rather be governed by we the people than by woke companies. I think pushback is in order across the board, including with Bud Light.”

In the latest polling on the GOP presidential candidates, The Wall Street Journal reports that DeSantis, who was 14 points ahead of Trump in December, now has a 13-point deficit. Among 12 potential contenders, Trump leads with 48%. But while DeSantis has half that, he is still comfortably ahead of other announced or likely candidates, including Nikki Haley with 5% and South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, with 3%.

“All other candidates had 2% support or less,” the Journal reported.

DeSantis’ political fortunes will likely be determined by the bet he has made: that enough Americans find his policies and stances to be common sense, not radical, that heartland values still prevail. He is also wagering that his imperial approach to governance — which he generally describes as come with me, or get out of the way — won’t repel ideological allies.

“The word that keeps coming to my mind (about DeSantis) is bull-headed,” said Ryan Carmody, of Hudson, Massachusetts, who heard DeSantis speak in New Hampshire recently. Carmody said he agrees with the “vast majority” of his policies, but is concerned that a President DeSantis would further drive polarization and animosity in the country, and entrench the “us-versus-them mentality.”

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“I just wish there was a more middle-ground candidate with DeSantis’ policies,” Carmody said.

Those middle-ground candidates, who DeSantis might describe as potted plants, may find it difficult to compete with Trump, the greatest showman on the political stage, who is currently leading all announced and potential primary rivals in national polls.

But don’t look for DeSantis to change his style or his policies as the campaign goes on. As one Tallahassee man who personally knows the governor told me, “Whether you like the guy or don’t like the guy, he’s one of the most consistent people out there.”

As I left the church Wednesday, a family of four was headed to their car ahead of me. “You may have just seen the next president of the United States,” the father was telling his kids, as I bent down to pick up a piece of trash in the parking lot. It was a flattened plastic Mickey Mouse head.

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