Macy'S

     
A fervent opponent of mask mandates and “woke” ideology, the Florida governor channels the same rage as the former President, but with greater discipline.

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DeSantis, an ascendant leader in conservative politics, is often spoken of as a plausible candidate for the Presidency in 2024. At CPAC earlier this year, he told the crowd, “We have only begun to fight.”Photograph by Mark Peterson / Redux for The New Yorker

One Sunday afternoon in September, 2020, Jay Bhattacharya, an epidemiologist at Stanford University, was at home in Los Altos when he got an unexpected call. It was Ron DeSantis, the governor of Florida, and he wanted to lớn talk about the coronavirus. In the early months of the pandemic, Bhattacharya had established himself as an outlier among public-health experts. He is one of three scientists who drafted the Great Barrington Declaration, which argued that many governments were doing more harm than good by shutting down economies & schools. The only practical approach, they said, would be lớn protect the most vulnerable—mainly by isolating the elderly—and allow everyone else khổng lồ go about their lives until vaccines & herd immunity neutralized the disease. With COVID-19 killing hundreds of Americans every day, the signers of the declaration became pariahs in their profession. “I’ve lost friends,” Bhattacharya told me. “I’m lucky to have tenure.”

DeSantis, young & aggressively confident, was similarly convinced that he could find a better way lớn handle the virus. Talking with him, Bhattacharya was surprised by his command of the research. “He’d read all the medical literature—all of it, not just the abstracts,” he told me. The science, though, remained unclear—Did the virut linger on surfaces? Did it travel in droplets or in a fog?—and many politicians found that the most appealing solutions were the ones that fit their ideology. For DeSantis, who espouses a libertarian vision of small government và personal freedom, the ideas in the Great Barrington Declaration resonated. In his view, the government, apart from protecting the elderly & making treatments available, should bởi vì almost nothing.


More on Ron DeSantis

Dexter Filkins discusses the Florida governor on The New Yorker Radio Hour.


Initially, as the vi khuẩn began spreading in Florida, DeSantis had ordered a statewide lockdown, in accordance with Dr. Anthony Fauci’s recommendations. Three weeks later, he changed his mind. “We will never bởi vì any of these lockdowns again,” he said. After talking to Bhattacharya, he lifted nearly all remaining restrictions—on schools, government buildings, stores, restaurants, & other private businesses—and halted the enforcement of mask mandates.


As the death toll mounted, he was mocked by critics as “DeathSantis” & denounced by the mainstream press. “Any public distrust of this administration has been well-earned,” the Miami Herald editorial board wrote. “We can’t trust the governor with our lives.” A former political adviser with knowledge of the COVID response told me that DeSantis was unfazed: “We were getting crucified, but lớn him it was just noise.” DeSantis revels in defying what he sees as a corrupt and self-satisfied liberal establishment. Those who work closely with him say that he is unique among elected officials in his disregard for public opinion and the press. “Ron’s strength as a politician is that he doesn’t give a fuck,” a Republican consultant who knows him told me. “Ron’s weakness as a politician is that he doesn’t give a fuck. Big donors? He doesn’t give a shit. Cancels on them all the time.”

DeSantis’s approach khổng lồ the pandemic gave rise lớn an entire governing strategy, in which he regularly denounced some outrage, invariably perpetrated by the left, and proclaimed that he was the only one brave enough to lớn stop it. He laced his speeches & press conferences with anger; when he walked, he thrust out his chest lượt thích a soldier on parade. He became a regular on Fox News, second only khổng lồ Donald Trump as a figure of admiration. His aggressive defense of minimal state action, & his denunciations of anyone who disagreed with him, made him a conservative folk hero.

DeSantis faces reëlection later this year, but his ascent has been so dramatic that in a few polls he comes out ahead of Trump in the race for the Republican Presidential nomination; without Trump, he commands a big lead. Both men claim to lớn channel the rage of an electorate that feels sneered at & dismissed by liberal institutions. But while Trump, with his lazy, Barnumesque persona, projects a fundamental lack of seriousness, DeSantis has an intense work ethic, a formidable intelligence, and a granular understanding of policy. Articulate và fast on his feet, he has been described as Trump with a brain.

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In February, DeSantis appeared at the Conservative Political action Conference, held at the Rosen Shingle Creek Hotel, a sprawling resort near Orlando. The convention halls were filled with the Party’s new vanguard, which was, on the whole, poorer & angrier than the bankers và golfers who led the G.O.P. A generation ago. The panels ranged from outraged lớn vengeful. A health-care panel was called “Obamacare Still Kills.” A discussion of COVID-19 policy was titled “Lock Downs và Mandates: Now vì chưng You Understand Why We Have a Second Amendment.”

From the main stage, DeSantis flashed a smile and tossed baseball caps into the crowd. In a twenty-minute speech, he described an America under assault by left-wing élites, who “want lớn delegitimize our founding institutions.” His job as governor, he said, was to lớn fight the horsemen of the left: critical race theory, “Faucian dystopia,” uncontrolled immigration, Big Tech, “left-wing oligarchs,” “Soros-funded prosecutors,” transgender athletes, & the “corporate media.” In Florida, he said, he had created a “citadel of freedom” that had become a beacon for people “chafing under authoritarian rule”; he cited disgruntled citizens of Australia, Canada, và Europe. (He didn’t mention the Russian invasion of Ukraine.) “We’re not letting Florida cities burn down,” DeSantis told the crowd. “In Florida, you’re not going khổng lồ get a slap on the wrist. You are getting the inside of a jail cell.” He offered no new policies, though he did mention that he was requiring high-school seniors to pass a civics exam.

DeSantis is not a charismatic speaker, but he is dogged & precise, và the crowd was inflamed. Trump, the ostensible star of CPAC, was scheduled khổng lồ speak later, but DeSantis didn’t mention him. (“Their relationship is complicated,” a lawyer close to DeSantis told me.) And, while DeSantis used Florida as a touchstone, he sounded as if he had all of America on his mind. “In times like these, there is no substitute for courage,” he said. “We need people all over the country lớn be willing lớn put on that full armor of God.” As the crowd burst into cheers, he vowed, “We have only begun lớn fight.”

From a remove—onstage at a conference, or pressing an argument on Fox News—DeSantis seems constructed for political success. He grew up in a working-class neighborhood, went lớn Yale and played on the baseball team, graduated from Harvard Law School, served in the military in Iraq. His family is ready made for a chiến dịch brochure. “He’s good-looking,” John Morgan, a lawyer in Orlando who has worked with DeSantis, told me. “His wife is really good-looking. His family is beautiful. They look like they’re from central casting.”


In person, he often comes across differently. “Ron is at his best on paper,” a Florida political leader who knows DeSantis told me. “Then you meet him & you say, ‘Oh, my gosh.’ ” People who work closely with him describe a man so aloof that he sometimes finds it difficult to carry on a conversation. “He’s not comfortable engaging other people,” a political leader who sees him often told me. “He walks into the meeting & doesn’t acknowledge the rest of us. There’s no eye tương tác and little or no interaction. The moment I start to lớn ask him a question, his head twitches. You can tell he doesn’t want lớn be there.” (DeSantis’s office declined requests for comment.)


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Nearly everyone I talked to lớn who knew DeSantis commented on his affect: his lack of curiosity about others, his indifferent table manners, his aversion to the political rituals of dispensing handshakes and questions about the kids. One former associate told me that his demeanor stems from a conviction that others have advantages that were denied khổng lồ him. “The anger comes more easily to lớn him because he has a cpu on his shoulder,” she said. “He is a serious guy. Driven.”

In February, I drove khổng lồ Dunedin, Florida, a đô thị of thirty-six thousand near Tampa, where DeSantis spent most of his youth. His old neighborhood is typical of those built before the boom years began, in the nineteen-seventies; the houses are modest & close together, và the city, once dotted with xuất hiện lots, is overrun by traffic. DeSantis’s street is quiet, though; many of the houses have screen doors & jalousie windows & sprinklers attached to lớn garden hoses. American flags & Trump signs mark the lawns, including the one at the house where DeSantis’s parents still live.


When I knocked, the Governor’s father, also named Ron, came lớn the door. He was dressed in a Florida State University T-shirt & shorts, & there was a day’s stubble on his face. “I’d rather not talk lớn you,” he said. “You might be a good guy, but, if I tell you something, somebody—maybe not you—will twist it around.” Then he stepped outside and started to lớn talk. The F.S.U. T-shirt, he said, came from his daughter, Christina, who earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees there. “When my daughter graduated from F.S.U., I thought it was the last time I’d ever have to lớn make the drive to Tallahassee—two hundred & thirty-one miles,” he said. In fact, his wife, Karen, who is a retired nurse, was in Tallahassee that day to lớn visit their son at the governor’s mansion; Ron, Sr., had stayed trang chủ alone.

DeSantis told me that he’d brought his family to lớn Dunedin from Jacksonville, where Ron was born, in 1978. He had a job with Nielsen, the television-ratings company. For years, he traversed neighborhoods, asking people if they would agree to lớn have a Nielsen box attached lớn their television. “It’s incredible how many people would just let me into their houses, even though they didn’t know me,” he said. “I’d be there until eight o’clock installing the thing.”


I asked what Ron was lượt thích growing up. “He was stubborn,” DeSantis said. “If he mix his mind khổng lồ something, you couldn’t shake him.” DeSantis pointed into the street, where he và his son used khổng lồ play catch; there were ball fields nearby, where he had coached Ron’s Little League teams. “I tried not lớn favor him, và Ron didn’t lượt thích that,” he said. Early on, his son had read “The Science of Hitting,” by Ted Williams, the baseball great, who advised young hitters to take care in choosing pitches lớn swing at. “I must have thrown a half million pitches to lớn Ron, and I think he swung at about five hundred of them,” he said. “I wish he would have never read it.” In 1991, when DeSantis was twelve, his team made it khổng lồ the Little League World Series.

The young DeSantis attended Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic School và then Dunedin High, where he was a star outfielder. He was focussed và motivated, his father said, adding, “He didn’t get that from me.” DeSantis scored in the ninety-ninth percentile on his SAT & was accepted khổng lồ Yale, his father said: “It’s still the thing I’m most proud of.” But he didn’t lượt thích to make too much of it. “Everybody wants lớn brag about their kids, & people ask me about Ron. I try lớn be modest.”

At Yale, DeSantis majored in history and played on the baseball team, in the outfield. In the Yale tradition, the team never had a winning season while DeSantis was there. (“Pretty sure we were the worst team in Division One,” one of his teammates told me.) In his senior year, he was among the best hitters, batting .336, và was elected captain. His former teammates’ recollections are sharply divided, but nearly everyone I spoke with remembered him as singularly focussed, with little time for parties or goofing off; he worked several jobs to help pay his tuition. “Ron was a bit of a loner, not a social butterfly,” Dave Fortenbaugh, a former teammate, told me. “He spent a lot of hours in the library.”

Some recalled that DeSantis was so intensely focussed that he wasn’t much of a teammate. “Ron is the most selfish person I have ever interacted with,” another teammate told me. “He has always loved embarrassing và humiliating people. I’m speaking for others—he was the biggest dick we knew.” But the same teammate praised DeSantis’s intellect. “This is the frustrating part. He’s so fucking smart và so creative,” he said. “You couldn’t even plagiarize off his work. He’d take some angle, & everyone knew there was only one person who could have done that.”

After graduating, with honors, DeSantis taught history for a year at the Darlington School, a private institution in Rome, Georgia, before enrolling at Harvard Law School; a friend told me that he’d been inspired by the movie “A Few Good Men.” In the film, Tom Cruise plays a judge advocate general—a Navy attorney—who defends marines accused of a deadly assault at the Guantánamo bay Naval Base. With the war in Iraq still raging, DeSantis, too, became a judge advocate general. He was posted khổng lồ Naval Station Mayport, near Jacksonville, and also khổng lồ Guantánamo, where he dealt with detainees. A colleague who served with DeSantis remembered, “Ron was a voracious worker, & he worked at phenomenal speed. He was a superb writer, especially for his age.” Even then, his ambition seemed consuming. “Ron’s a user,” the former colleague told me. “If you had utility khổng lồ him, he would be nice khổng lồ you. If you didn’t, he wouldn’t give you the time of day.”

In 2007, DeSantis deployed to Iraq as a lawyer for SEAL Team One, which was conducting operations in Ramadi. The SEALs have a reputation for being secretive and insular, but DeSantis enjoyed their company, his father told me: “He worked out with them.” DeSantis briefed the SEALs on rules of engagement—when they could shoot, how they should treat prisoners. “Of course we were worried about him,” his father said. “Ron told us he was just in one place, in Ramadi, but afterwards we found out that he’d been moving all around the area, from thành phố to city, with the SEALs. It really upset my wife.”

Back in Florida, DeSantis started dating Casey Black, a television news reporter for WJXT, in Jacksonville; in 2010, they were married. Not long afterward, a seat opened up in the Sixth Congressional District, south of Jacksonville Beach. In 2012, DeSantis entered the race.

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DeSantis campaigned on smaller government và lower taxes, arguing lớn overturn Obamacare and eliminate entire federal agencies. “My mission was largely khổng lồ stop Barack Obama,” he told a crowd later. As the campaign got under way, DeSantis published a book titled “Dreams from Our Founding Fathers”—a swipe at the President’s memoir. For a chiến dịch book, it’s unusually wide-ranging, with carefully argued sections on the Federalist Papers, the Progressive Era, and the leftist theoretician Saul Alinsky. The basic contention, though, would have been familiar to followers of Barry Goldwater: “The conceit that underlies many of Obama’s policies & his allies is that virtually any issue, from the waistline of children lớn the temperature of the earth, is ripe for intervention of expert (and progressive) central planners.” DeSantis’s book was largely ignored—he once told a crowd that it was “read by about a dozen people”—but his message resonated in the Sixth District, one of the most conservative in the state. He won the election, và was reëlected twice by wide margins.

In Congress, an institution where seniority matters, DeSantis had little time khổng lồ make a substantive impact. Theatrically, though, he created an impression. He helped found the Freedom Caucus, an invitation-only club of hard-right conservatives, & he was among the Republicans who took the government to the brink of default by refusing to raise the national-debt ceiling. Many people worried that the move would harm the government’s credit rating and the country’s economy. Even John Boehner, the House Speaker, opposed it. In response, DeSantis joined a group of Republican congressmen who threatened khổng lồ remove Boehner from his post. “There were governing conservatives & shutdown conservatives,” David Jolly, a congressman from Florida who served with DeSantis, told me. “Ron was a shutdown conservative.”