[Content warning: graphic descriptions of detention and force-feeding.]
Surprising exactly nobody, Florida governor Ron DeSantis has just announced his run for president. He has a tough road ahead of him: in order to reach the Oval Office, he’ll need to pull off a massive upset against Donald Trump in the GOP primary, followed by a November title bout with whatever’s left of Joe Biden. Still, DeSantis is undaunted. He has the backing of powerful donors who have already raised at least $110 million for him through various PACs. He has been highly successful at attracting media attention, touching off one culture-war firestorm after another to keep his name in the news. What’s more, he’s one of the few Republicans to have emerged stronger after the 2022 midterms, where he crushed Charlie Crist by almost 20 points to secure a second term as governor. Now, he has a message for America: that Florida, and his way of running it, provides a model of excellence for the rest of the nation to follow. We should all be Florida Men like him, and he’ll show us how.
DeSantis’s hardcore supporters have latched onto this idea, trading in their MAGA hats and flags for ones that just say “Make America Florida.” The slogan is echoed in the title of the governor’s recent memoir, The Courage to Be Free: Florida’s Blueprint for America’s Revival. In its opening pages, we get glimpses of what his campaign platform will actually be. Florida is “a beachhead of sanity,” we’re told, and “a citadel of freedom in a world gone mad” from pernicious left-wing ideologies. DeSantis, meanwhile, is “fighting partisan media and entrenched bureaucrats” at all times to protect ordinary citizens. As a result, he says, people from around the U.S. have come to see Florida as a “promised land,” and have been “fleeing states dominated by leftist governments” to join him in the sun. They constantly shake his hand and thank him for “protecting jobs,” “defending state and local law enforcement,” “keeping Florida open during the coronavirus pandemic,” “standing against powerful interests to safeguard the state’s natural resources,” and even “battling Disney to protect young children in Florida.” Moving forward, he wants to “vindicate the right of parents to play a fundamental role in the education of their children,” forbid “toxic racial ideologies” in academia, restrict immigration to “vindicate U.S. sovereignty,” and crack down on “pro-criminal policies that have decimated the quality of life in American cities.” Thus, he should be president—or so the sales pitch goes.
The thing about pre-campaign books, though, is that they’re inherently works of propaganda. They tell airbrushed versions of the prospective candidate’s life story, showcasing the strongest moments of their political careers and glossing over, or even outright omitting, anything that doesn’t serve their chosen narrative. (This is true regardless of party: Joe Biden’s Promises to Keep and Pete Buttigieg’s Shortest Way Home are just as slippery and PR-driven as similar books by DeSantis or Mike Pence.) To get a more realistic picture of a politician, you have to read between the lines, cross-referencing their self-created image to the facts on the ground. When we do this with DeSantis, he comes into focus as a deceitful, vindictive, and authoritarian figure, motivated by petty bigotry and naked self-interest. From his elite education in the Ivy League, to his shadowy history of human rights abuses at Guantánamo Bay, to his ongoing war on LGBTQ+ rights and the environment itself, he has left a trail of shame and degradation everywhere he goes, and he’s the last person who should be trusted with power on a national scale.
We Don’t Need No Education
When it comes to his early life, DeSantis has a difficult needle to thread. In the first place, he can’t seem to decide which state he wants to be from. In one breath he’s the quintessential Florida Man, but in another he claims a stronger influence from the Rust Belt:
I was geographically raised in Tampa Bay, but culturally my upbringing reflected the working-class communities in western Pennsylvania and northeast Ohio—from weekly church attendance to the expectation that one would earn his keep. This made me God-fearing, hard-working, and America-loving.
Notice, it’s not that he actually lived in Pennsylvania or Ohio, just that his parents once did. (His mother was from Youngstown, Ohio and his father from Aliquippa, on the outskirts of Pittsburgh.) But this is enough to claim a connection to two important battleground states. DeSantis isn’t alone in playing fast-and-loose with the map like this, of course; Joe Biden can be a homegrown son of either Scranton or Wilmington, depending on which crowd he’s talking to. Still, it comes across as a cynical posture, and if you’re reading this passage in Florida, you have to wonder—is your state not considered “God-fearing, hard-working, and America-loving” enough? (Meanwhile, as a Pennsylvanian, I’d like to make this clear: we don’t claim him.)
This is nothing compared to the issue of DeSantis’s education, though. He’s acutely aware that his attempts to create an “everyman” image clash with the fact that he graduated from two Ivy League universities: first Yale, then Harvard Law School. To deal with the contradiction, he has a few different strategies. First, he emphasizes the fact that, unlike many of his classmates, he worked a series of odd jobs during his college years, paying much of his own tuition by “recycling trash, parking cars at events, moving furniture, and coaching baseball clinics.” This occasionally slips into cliché (“nobody handed me anything; I simply had to earn it”), but it’s a life situation many people can relate to, and DeSantis tells it well.
What’s less relatable are the claims, peppered throughout the second chapter of The Courage to Be Free, that both Yale and Harvard were hotbeds of radicalism, and that DeSantis was practically forced into his current beliefs by his disgust at the far-left culture that prevailed there. To hear him tell it, you’d think he went to Berkeley or The New School:
While the late 1990s was one of the most prosperous times in human history, at Yale we were led to believe that communism was superior, though it was impossible to point to even one example of this superiority since “real” communism had never been tried. I wondered if some of my professors and classmates rooted for Ivan Drago to defeat Rocky Balboa in Rocky IV? Around campus, there was nothing wrong with flying Soviet flags, wearing Che Guevara shirts, and paying homage to Mao Zedong. This “revolutionary chic” was even commonplace in some quarters.
It was not just a matter of Republican versus Democrat or liberal versus conservative. Instead, the strident leftism represented a wholesale rejection of the basic principles that constituted the foundation of the American experiment: the Judeo-Christian tradition, the existence of Creator-endowed rights, the notion of American exceptionalism. […] Experiencing unbridled leftism on campus pushed me to the right.
This narrative isn’t new. As early as 1951, William F. Buckley was whining about campus radicalism in God and Man at Yale, using much the same language (although his personal bugbear was “secularism.”) But there’s a big difference between “some Yale students are leftists” and “Yale is a leftist institution,” and while it’s certainly believable that DeSantis saw a few Che and Mao shirts during his college years, the idea that anyone in a position of power told him “communism was superior” strains belief. By their very nature, Ivy League universities are exclusive, elitist institutions, secluded from the outside world and dedicated to producing the next generation of the ruling class. They’re the ornate stone playgrounds where the children of the immensely rich go to meet, network, and conspire, and it isn’t communism they’re learning. Instead, Yale in particular has produced some of the most notorious conservative figures in recent memory, including Brett Kavanaugh, Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, George W. Bush, George H.W. Bush, Steven Mnuchin, Ben Carson, John Bolton, Wilbur Ross, and Alex Azar.
That’s two presidents, three current Supreme Court justices (two of them credibly accused of sexual misconduct), and no less than five members of the Trump cabinet. That’s the sort of person elite universities are designed to cultivate. As DeSantis himself notes, he was soon ushered into this atmosphere of power and privilege: his baseball team got a special meet-and-greet with H.W. Bush during Yale’s tercentennial, and George the Second was his commencement speaker only six weeks later. (He doesn’t mention that both Bushes were his elder fraternity brothers from the even-more-exclusive Delta Kappa Epsilon, as is Kavanaugh. One wonders if the governor has any unusual scars.) By becoming a Republican politician himself, DeSantis wasn’t bravely defying some socialist orthodoxy; the whole idea is absurd. He was joining the club of American elites.
What’s really telling, though, is DeSantis’s tone when he talks about these years. In the account he gives, he never attempts to exchange ideas with his left-leaning peers, or understand why they believe the things they do. He never humanizes them, giving them actual names or faces. Instead, he dismisses anything that doesn’t match his already-set views, writing that “I had no use for those who denigrated our country or mocked people of faith.” For him, certain ideas—“American exceptionalism,” “the Judeo-Christian tradition,” and “the existence of Creator-endowed rights” (and therefore a Creator, presumably also Judeo-Christian)—are nonnegotiable, and leftists’ “rejection of the basic principles” is a personal offense, even if they aren’t doing anything in particular about it. There’s a palpable resentment and rigidness of mind in the choice of words. What he can’t stand is that “there was nothing wrong with” expressing certain political stances, that they weren’t censured in some way. In DeSantis’s ideal school, the left would be neither seen nor heard; there simply wouldn’t be one. And this, more than twenty years later, is exactly the result he’s been trying to achieve with his educational policy in Florida.
Ever since he was elected governor in 2019, DeSantis has been trying to purge ideas he disapproves of from Florida’s schools. More than any of his Republican peers, he has declared an ideological war on “wokeness,” proudly announcing that Florida is “where woke goes to die.” As blues musician Samuel James noted in a recent Current Affairs interview, DeSantis’s “war” is worrying, because the first recorded uses of the phrase “stay woke” were warnings, passed between African Americans in the Jim Crow era, to keep wide awake so you don’t get lynched. For his part, DeSantis’s General Counsel Ryan Newman has defined “wokeness” as “the belief there are systemic injustices in American society and the need to address them,” and the governor himself sees it as an existential threat, saying in 2021 that “What you see now with the rise of this woke ideology is an attempt to really delegitimize our history and to delegitimize our institutions and I view the wokeness as a form of cultural Marxism.” In other words, the official position of DeSantis’s government is that there are no “systemic injustices” in America. Any person or text that says otherwise is simply trying to undermine the fabric of the nation, and must be quiet or face the threat of removal. It’s a deeply authoritarian attitude to take toward dissent—and the use of the term “Cultural Marxism,” which is linked to antisemitic conspiracy theories and frequently used in the manifesto of far-right terrorist Anders Breivik, doesn’t help.
In 2022, DeSantis signed two key pieces of legislation that turned his hatred of “wokeness” into actual policy. These are probably the most (in)famous part of his administration to date, so many readers will be familiar with their contents, but a brief recap may be helpful. HB 1557, more commonly known as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, prohibits “classroom discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity in certain grade levels,” initially pre-K through third grade but more recently expanded upward through eighth grade. Meanwhile HB 7, nicknamed the “Stop WOKE Act,” prohibits teaching that anyone’s “status as either privileged or oppressed is necessarily determined by his or her race, color, sex, or national origin.” These are exact quotes from the text of the bills, which is important, because DeSantis gets very defensive when anyone criticizes him:
What critics call the “Don’t Say Gay” bill is on the Senate floor…
Does it say that in the bill? Does it say that in the bill?
I’m asking you to tell me what’s in the bill because you are pushing false narratives. It doesn’t matter what critics say!
DeSantis quotes this exchange in the twelfth chapter of The Courage to Be Free, apparently thinking it makes him look good. (Although he edits it slightly, putting “Does it say that in the bill?” only once, and rendering “I’m asking…” as “unintelligible chatter.”) Again, he’s pulling from the right-wing Greatest Hits collection: first Buckley’s grievances with academia, and now Ben Shapiro’s debating style. He’s talking fast, badgering his questioner, and relying on them to get flustered so he can dodge the substance of the question. He’s technically correct, insofar as the exact words “Don’t Say Gay” don’t appear in the bill, but he’s also being fundamentally dishonest about what the bill does.
In practice, a Hernando County teacher has already been investigated by the Florida Department of Education for showing her science class an animated movie—rated PG, mind you—that happened to feature a gay character. Multiple school districts have ordered teachers to remove their in-classroom libraries so every book can be “reviewed” for content forbidden by DeSantis’s new laws, and some have threatened third-degree felony prosecution for anyone who doesn’t immediately comply. In a particularly blatant case, the senior class president of Pine View School for the Gifted was explicitly told that his mic would be cut if he mentioned being gay in his graduation speech, so he used “having curly hair” as a code word. (And in doing so, he showed more wit and courage than the entire Florida legislature put together.) At every turn, the message has been that the lives of gay people are not acceptable topics to talk about—that, in fact, “gay” is the thing you may not say, and the state will impose harsh consequences if you do. So when DeSantis said, over and over, that his policies wouldn’t have that effect, it was a flat-out lie.
All of this has to be understood in the context of DeSantis’s ties to the so-called “school choice” movement, which is really a movement for the destruction of public education as we know it. In The Courage to Be Free, he brags that “Our school choice programs—both private scholarships and public charter schools—have served more than 500,000 students on an annual basis and have helped spark more choice options within school districts, such that more than 1.3 million students in Florida do not attend the public school for which they are ‘zoned.’” This is a strange thing to be proud of, since as a governor, presumably your job is to make the public schools so good that few people want to seek other options. It all makes sense, though, when you recall that American conservatives have an almost religious devotion to the concept of markets, and dislike universally-available public services on principle. They would prefer that schools were run exclusively as for-profit businesses, and will take any opportunity to nudge the country in that direction.
In March 2023, DeSantis signed a dramatic expansion of “school choice” into law, making every Florida student eligible for taxpayer-funded vouchers for private school tuition. The move represents a massive wealth transfer, diverting billions from the state’s education budget to the operators of private schools, who are far less accountable to the public. (Keep in mind that, until recently, Kanye West ran a private school where he promised to “actually turn your kids into, like, geniuses” and only served sushi at mealtimes. The bar is not high.) DeSantis’s war on “wokeness” dovetails neatly with the privatization agenda, as Florida Representative Anna Eskamani sums up:
“The school-choice movement is, like, a hundred per cent invested in this kind of stuff, because they benefit from public education being attacked as extreme or inappropriate, because that leads parents to take their children away.”
There’s a vicious cycle being set in motion here. DeSantis and his allies spark a culture war over race and gender issues in the classroom, with the aim of disrupting public schools and causing students (and therefore tax dollars) to be taken out, while promoting private alternatives. If they’re successful, the loss of revenue then makes the quality of public education decline, which causes more withdrawals, and more private enrollment. The cycle repeats. And there are signs the strategy could be working: in 2022, private school enrollment rose by 14.2 percent in Florida, reaching a record 400,000 students across the state, compared to just a 1.5 percent increase in public attendance. While data about the precise reasons for leaving public schools are more elusive, there is some evidence that conflicts over perceived “wokeness” play a part; in Palm Beach County, more than 10 percent of students were abruptly unenrolled from Jupiter Farms Elementary in 2021, with some parents citing anger over an “equity statement” about “white advantage” as their reason. Over a long enough timeline, this trend threatens to produce a two-tiered system, with ever-richer private operators and ever-poorer public districts, and make quality education a class privilege for those who can pay, rather than a human right. And Florida could only be the beginning.
“We were tied to the feeding chair. And he was watching.”
During his second year at Harvard Law School, DeSantis joined the U.S. Navy, recalling in The Courage to Be Free that “after the Twin Towers fell, I felt an obligation to serve during what was shaping up to be a challenging time for our country.” Because of his legal training, he was directed to the Judge Advocate General’s Corps, more commonly known as JAG. From 2005 to 2007, he served as a prosecutor for routine court-martial cases, involving charges like “desertion, violating a lawful order, and conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman,” at Florida’s Naval Station Mayport. He also met his future wife Casey Black, a local TV reporter, on a golf course at the University of North Florida. All of this, though, was just a backdrop to one of the defining moments of DeSantis’s career, which came in 2006. That was the year he went to Guantánamo Bay.
Of all the subjects in DeSantis’s memoir, this is the one he’s most reluctant to talk about. We get extensive ruminations on his time in the House of Representatives, his family life, his thoughts on the Disney corporation, and his efforts to procure therapy dogs for veterans with PTSD (one of the few straightforwardly good things he has done). But Guantánamo is practically a blank space. He writes only that he “even got sent on temporary-duty-travel stints to the Guantánamo terrorist detention camp in Cuba,” and leaves it at that. For a man who can be so long-winded in other areas, this sudden reticence is suspicious. It’s strange that DeSantis touts himself as a “veteran” in his campaign materials, and even films elaborate ads where he poses as a Top Gun-style fighter pilot, but refuses to get into details about his service. Odder still, when the Florida Phoenix tried to track down DeSantis’s military records during his 2018 gubernatorial run, the documents they received were heavily redacted, and accompanied by a letter from the Navy stating that “release of such information would be a clearly unwarranted invasion of the personal privacy of Ronald D. DeSantis and other identified individuals.” The public, it seems, has no right to know basic facts about the guy who wants to govern them.
But recent reporting has revealed that DeSantis may have very good reasons for keeping his mouth shut about his time in Cuba. In fact, there are credible reports that he was personally involved in war crimes there. This is a serious allegation, so I want to be very careful about the chain of evidence. The DeSantis-at-Guantánamo story was first broken by Mike Prysner of the Eyes Left podcast, a “socialist, anti-war military podcast hosted by veterans,” in November 2022. Prysner interviewed Mansoor Adayfi, a former detainee and author of the memoir Don’t Forget Us Here: Lost and Found at Guantánamo. Harper’s Magazine published an excerpt from the interview, and The Baffler published a piece about it. The Washington Post and the Independent also did their own investigations into DeSantis’s time at Guantánamo. Of note, DeSantis has not responded to any of these publications’ requests for comments on the story.
It turns out that Adayfi remembered DeSantis from his time in the prison camp. Not only does he remember the governor’s face, but he says DeSantis spoke to him:
I saw a fucking handsome person come in and he said, “I’m here to ensure that you are treated humanely.”
It was Ron DeSantis?
Yes. And, “If you have any problems, if you have any concerns, just talk to me.” We were drowning in that place. So I was like, “Oh, this is cool. This person will raise the concerns.” But it was a piece of the game.
Rather than “raise the concerns,” DeSantis appears to have weaponized the prisoners’ trust against them, making sure that any discomfort or humiliation they confided to him was magnified:
One of the things that hurt us was, you know, when someone comes and tells you, “I’m here to help you, I’m here to ensure that you are treated humanely,” and when he turned against us—not turned against us, showed his true face—it was a shock to us all. He had his notebook. He would ask the prisoners, “Do you have any problems? How can I help you? How have the guards treated you?” I was like, “Wow, thanks!” But everything we told him was turned against us.
So he basically was gathering intelligence to tell the interrogators what it was that was impacting you most so they could do it more.
I remember when we were talking about the noise in the night. We were talking about the vacuums, the generators, the fans, and everything. And they brought more stuff.
You told DeSantis this and then they increased the noise?
They increased the noise. And also the food, for example. We told him we don’t eat meat. What the guards did after that is they mixed all the food with meat.
At this time, many Guantánamo inmates were either actively on a hunger strike, or had recently been on one. In response, the camp administration began violent force-feedings of prisoners, and according to Adayfi, DeSantis was present:
When they came to break our hunger strike, a team came to us. The head of the team, he was a general. He said, “I have a job. I was sent here to break your fucking hunger strike. I don’t care why you are here. I don’t care who you are. My job is to make you eat. Today we are talking. Tomorrow there will be no talking.” The second day, they brought piles of Ensure and they started force-feeding us over and over again.
For those who don’t know, Ensure is a thick milky nutritional shake mainly marketed on daytime television to elderly people. It is very hard to drink.
Yes, and Ron DeSantis was there watching us. We were crying, screaming. We were tied to the feeding chair. And he was watching. He was laughing. Our stomachs could not hold this amount of Ensure. They poured one can after another. So when he approached me, I said, “This is the way we are treated!” He said, “You should eat.” […] They also used to beat us. And if we screamed or were bleeding out of our nose and mouth, they were like, “Eat.” The only word they told you was “eat.”
This testimony paints a disturbing picture, to say the least. But things get worse. By DeSantis’s own admission in a 2018 interview with CBS journalist Jim DeFede, he not only witnessed force-feedings, he recommended them as a tactic against prisoner resistance:
They would do hunger strikes, and you actually had three detainees that committed suicide with hunger strikes. So everything at that time was legal in nature, one way or another. So the commander wants to know, “Well, how do I combat this?”, so one of the jobs of the legal advisor is like, “Hey, you actually can force-feed. Here’s what you can do, here’s kind of the rules of that.”
Under Article 3 of the 1949 Geneva Conventions, certain actions are prohibited against “those placed hors de combat by sickness, wounds, detention, or any other cause.” (Note: detention.) These include “cruel treatment and torture” (subclause A) and “outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment” (subclause C). By any reasonable definition, force-feeding of the kind Adayfi describes fits both bills. It causes excessive pain and suffering (“cruel treatment,”) and is “humiliating and degrading.” But don’t take my word for it. In a 2015 case about Israel’s treatment of Palestinian prisoners, a United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture, Juan E. Méndez, reaffirmed that “feeding induced by threats, coercion, force or use of physical restraints of individuals, who have opted for the extreme recourse of a hunger strike to protest against their detention, are, even if intended for their benefit, tantamount to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.” The Declaration of Malta of the World Medical Association states, in no uncertain terms, that “Applying, instructing or assisting forced feeding contrary to an informed and voluntary refusal is unjustifiable.” And as recently reported in an investigation by The Nation about force-feedings in U.S. federal prisons, “force-feeding is considered banned by the United Nations Convention Against Torture.” Add to this the fact that it’s perfectly possible to die of complications from force-feeding, as the Irish prisoner Thomas Ashe did in 1917 when a feeding tube pierced his lung, and the issue is compounded. Ron DeSantis is a Harvard-trained lawyer, so he knows all this—or at any rate, he has no excuse not to know it. And yet he recommended the procedure anyway. He had ample time to think about the situation, and he chose to violate the most basic principles of medical ethics and international law, and become complicit in torture.
When pressed about these allegations, DeSantis’s reaction has been equal parts evasive and petulant. Given a softball question by Piers Morgan, he responded with the following:
One of the things they said was that you authorized the use of force-feeding at some of the…
Yeah, that’s not true.
Just to finish, force-feeding the detainees that were on hunger strike. Was that true?
So, I was a junior officer. I didn’t have the authority to authorize anything. There may have been a commander that would have done feeding if someone was going to die, but that was not something that I would have even had the authority to do.
Patterns are becoming visible. Like with the “Don’t Say Gay” question, DeSantis’s answer is technically correct. He did not actually “authorize” the practices in question. He simply recommended them as legally acceptable to his superior officers, who then authorized them. It’s a distinction without a meaningful difference, invoked to weasel out of responsibility. With other reporters, his responses get worse:
Governor, during your time at Guantánamo… [inaudible]
No. No, all that’s BS. No, totally BS.
They’re saying you were present at force-feedings.
Who said that?
DESANTIS [becoming agitated]:
How would they know me? Okay, think about that. Do you honestly believe that’s credible? So this is 2006, I’m a junior officer. Do you honestly think they would have remembered me from Adam? Of course not!
Personally, if I were taken to a secretive prison camp and subjected to the forms of torture many Guantánamo detainees suffered on a daily basis, I would remember every line on the faces of my captors. In nightmares, if nothing else. But to DeSantis, the testimony of those who survived his tender mercies is just one more inconvenient fact.
At this point, it may sadly be necessary to emphasize why all this is bad. For many voters, it might actually be a selling point that DeSantis supervised the brutalization of prisoners at Guantánamo—a demonstration of his personal toughness and willingness to make hard decisions in a hypothetical ticking-bomb scenario. Nobody likes terrorists or terrorism, after all, and Americans are fed a constant diet of TV shows like 24, NCIS, and Homeland, where the “heroic interrogator” is a stock character. But there is a crucial difference between “detainee” and “terrorist,” and of the roughly 780 people who have been held in the Guantánamo prison camp, only a fraction have ever been proved to be involved with terrorism. Instead, many have been held for over a decade without so much as a charge being leveled against them. Wholly innocent people were tortured and confined for years upon years.
Mansoor Adayfi was one of these. Captured at the age of 18 by local warlords in Afghanistan and sold to the U.S. as a suspicious person at a time when the Bush administration was paying high bounties for such, Adayfi has never had a shred of concrete evidence brought against him. In 2016 he was released, still without charge, and now lives peacefully in Belgrade, Serbia, where he writes for Al Jazeera. But even if he had been guilty, it would not justify beating him, strapping him to a chair, ramming a pointed tube down his throat, and pumping his stomach full of nutrition shakes until he bleeds and vomits. If both sides in a war are willing to commit acts like those, there is little reason to care who wins.
More relevant in the context of an election, the practice of torture says something powerful about the character of the torturers. It reveals both cruelty and cowardice. DeSantis talks proudly about wanting to serve his country in the wake of 9/11, but when the moment arrived, he made sure to get commissioned for a safe consulting role, rather than active warfare. He was only willing to face so-called “enemy combatants” when they were already helpless. Then, by all accounts, he never raised the slightest objection to any practice his superiors wanted to carry out, or uttered anything that could be mistaken for a principle. Someone who can stand idly by and watch a force-feeding of the kind Adayfi describes, without wanting to throw up themselves, has shed a portion of their humanity. They are capable of viewing another thinking, feeling human being as nothing more than a slab of meat to be manipulated, and there is no moral floor to the actions they will condone in the name of “national security.” When the late Christopher Hitchens had himself waterboarded for a Vanity Fair article on torture in 2008, he came to the same conclusion:
It opens a door that cannot be closed. Once you have posed the notorious “ticking bomb” question, and once you assume that you are in the right, what will you not do? Waterboarding not getting results fast enough? The terrorist’s clock still ticking? Well, then, bring on the thumbscrews and the pincers and the electrodes and the rack.
This capacity to justify cruelty is especially disturbing when you consider that the President of the United States, a role DeSantis soon hopes to inhabit, commands weapons that can vaporize entire cities in the blink of an eye—to say nothing of the vast and unaccountable powers of the CIA and other intelligence services.
It also explains a lot about his cruelty to his fellow Floridians.
If you happen to be both a bully and a coward, one of the easiest political moves you can make is to attack transgender people. Representing just 0.5 percent of the adult U.S. population (according to data from the UCLA School of Law), the trans community is among America’s most minor minorities, at least numerically. Their ability to fight back against repressive policies at the ballot box, or to counter lies being spread about them in the media, is limited. (Which is, incidentally, why it’s so important for those of us who are cisgender to stand up and be counted when trans rights are under attack.) Trans and nonbinary identity can be dishonestly portrayed as a new phenomenon, since the history of transgender people and the persecution they’ve faced has—thanks to the educational policy of people like Ron DeSantis—been systematically erased. In reality, there have been trans and nonbinary people in almost every recorded civilization, going back to ancient Iran, where archaeologists have found burial offerings for at least three distinct genders. Yet Americans in particular are ignorant of this fact. Lists of American heroes never seem to include Alan L. Hart, the groundbreaking radiologist who saved thousands of lives with his use of chest X-rays to detect tuberculosis in the 1930s—and was assigned female at birth. (If anyone needs a subject for a biopic, Hart practically leaps off the page.) Likewise, few Americans know that Adolf Hitler called Magnus Hirschfeld, the gifted doctor who pioneered gender reassignment surgery, “the most dangerous Jew in Germany,” and that burning the Hirschfeld Institute’s extensive collection of books on sexology was one of the Hitler Youth’s first acts after their leader came to power. If they did, uncomfortable parallels to recent events might become obvious.
For a political hack like Ron DeSantis, this climate of ignorance is ideal. It allows him to target only the most vulnerable people in his community. There’s no need for him to go up against healthcare conglomerates who rob his constituents blind, or billionaires who shower his state in exploding rocket parts; after all, challenging the powerful is hard, and tends to cost you valuable campaign donations. Instead, he can just spout a bunch of anti-trans rhetoric, and whip up a scared, angry mob who’ll follow wherever he leads. Maybe even to the White House.
David Neiwert, the author of Alt-America: The Rise of the Radical Right in the Age of Trump, has a useful taxonomy of different kinds of bigotry. One of his central points is to make a distinction between “assimilationists” and “eliminationists.” An assimilationist is someone who dislikes a particular minority group—it can be a race, a religion, a sexual orientation, really anything—but will tolerate members of that group, as long as they conform to the dominant culture. We’ve all met assimilationists; they’re the people who insist they’re not racist, they just wish Black people would straighten their hair and stop playing rap music. By contrast, eliminationists are more uncompromising. They want the group in question to disappear entirely.
In the last decade or so, the American conservative movement has become increasingly eliminationist when it comes to the trans community. Figures like documentarian Matt Walsh, who has called transgender people (and anyone who doesn’t actively persecute them) an “insane ideological cult,” have made entire careers off their hostility. More recently, Daily Wire host Michael Knowles went on a vicious anti-trans rant at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC):
There can be no middle way in dealing with transgenderism. It is all or nothing. If transgenderism is true, if men really can become women, then it’s true for everybody of all ages. If transgenderism is false, as it is – if men really can’t become women, as they cannot – then it’s false for everybody too. And if it’s false, then we should not indulge it, especially since that indulgence requires taking away the rights and customs of so many people. If it is false, then for the good of society – and especially for the good of the poor people who’ve fallen prey to this confusion – transgenderism must be eradicated from public life entirely.…
This pretty much sums up the attitude of the GOP’s right flank, of which DeSantis and Trump are the most prominent members (and which is still ascendant, with self-described “moderates” a rump minority cowering behind Mike Pence.)
DeSantis is smarter than Knowles. He steered clear of CPAC in 2023, and he knows not to lay all his cards on the table like that. But when you’ve watched enough footage of his speeches (a fate I don’t wish on anyone), you notice that he rarely uses the term “transgender people.” It’s almost always “transgenderism,” and it’s usually in the context of a tirade against “far-left ideology,” “cultural Marxism,” or “the woke mind virus” (a term popularized by Elon Musk.) In a typical quote, defending the “Don’t Say Gay” law, he singled out “a focus on transgenderism, telling kids they may be able to pick genders and all of that” as one of the things he wants to ban from Florida’s education system. Just by itself, this phrasing is worrying, since it implies there are no actual transgender people—only a belief system that has made people think they can change their gender, when they actually can’t, and which they should be disabused of by those (DeSantis and his allies) who know better. It’s a pathologizing term, reducing the existence of a group of people to an “ism,” and he can only get away with it because it’s trans people he’s talking about. If he got behind a podium and declared a crusade against “homosexualism” or “Judaism” everyone would know exactly what he meant, and be horrified.
Instead, he’s been able to enact his agenda pretty much unimpeded. In May 2023, just a few days ago at the time of writing, DeSantis signed yet another slate of anti-LGBTQ bills into Florida law, this one more extreme than ever. HB 1069, along with expanding the “Don’t Say Gay” restrictions upward to eighth grade, requires that:
It shall be the policy of every public K-12 educational institution that is provided or authorized by the Constitution and laws of Florida that a person’s sex is an immutable biological trait and that it is false to ascribe to a person a pronoun that does not correspond to such person’s sex.
An employee or contractor of a public K-12 educational institution may not provide to a student his or her preferred personal title or pronouns if such preferred personal title or pronouns do not correspond to his or her sex.
In other words, any worker in a public school—teacher, principal, coach, librarian, or janitor—must misgender the trans students in their care, even in cases where doing so will cause deep emotional distress, and even if the student’s parents are fully supportive of their trans identity. It doesn’t matter what anyone involved wants; they must bow to DeSantis’s will, and conform to his beliefs. This, apparently, is “freedom.”
Believe it or not, this may be the mildest of the new bills. There’s also HB 1521, designated as the “Safety in Private Spaces Act,” which criminalizes anyone using a public restroom not consistent with their gender assigned at birth. (For some reason, conservatives are obsessed with the idea that trans people stalk the earth harassing innocent urinators in toilet cubicles, despite the statistical fact that they’re more likely to get harassed by transphobes there.) There’s SB 1580, which allows medical providers to deny care if they have “an objection based on a sincerely held religious, moral, or ethical belief” of any kind. Worst of all, there’s SB 254, which prohibits Medicaid from providing gender-affirming healthcare for anyone, including adults, and allows the state to take custody of children from their parents if they’re “likely” to receive such care. The requirements for “likelihood” are not specified, so the law could be interpreted to remove children from their families simply because one parent is transgender, or even because they support something the state deems “transgenderism.” This, from the party of small government and Parents’ Rights.
Take a second to imagine what it’s like to live, just for a day, as a trans person in DeSantis’s Florida. (Maybe you don’t have to imagine, and if so, I’m truly sorry.) When you leave the house, you must know the location of the nearest safe (i.e., single-occupant) restroom, because if you try to use any other kind, you might get arrested, subjected to “genitalia exams, DNA testing, and other invasive procedures,” and branded as a sex offender. If you’re still in school, you know that every adult you meet will refer to you by a name you can’t bear to hear, and that nobody who shares your life experience will ever be mentioned in any of the lessons. If you’re a parent, you live in fear that the government could take your children from you at any time. You are told, in a hundred different ways, that you are unworthy of the most basic human dignity, that your existence is an unwelcome aberration from The Way Things Should Be. In short, you’ve experienced what scholars of slavery and genocide call “social death”—the tacit understanding that you are not fully a human being at all. Today, the rate of depression, self-harm, and suicide for transgender and nonbinary people is already high. Under a President DeSantis, the situation would be unfathomably worse.
A Snake in the Everglades
It’s not enough for DeSantis to ruin the lives of his constituents, though. He seems determined to also ruin the state of Florida itself. This is not the impression you get from The Courage to Be Free, where he lists “Ushering in a new era of conservation for Florida’s waterways and everglades” as his fourth-highest priority after becoming governor. (Being “fiscally responsible” was #1, followed by education and election security.) He even invokes former presidents, saying that he wants to “reclaim the GOP’s historic attentiveness to matters of conservation going back to Theodore Roosevelt” and “usher in a new era of environmental stewardship.” Compared to Donald Trump, who once tweeted that “the concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese,” this might sound downright progressive. But again, there’s a glaring difference between Ron DeSantis as a media creation, and the man who actually lives, breathes, and makes decisions.
In the first place, it’s significant that DeSantis picks the elder Roosevelt as his model of “environmental stewardship.” Part of this is simple name-recognition; people have heard of Teddy, if only from the Night at the Museum movies, and he’s identifiable as a Republican, which is useful. But there was a darker side to Roosevelt’s dealings with nature, which is worth taking into account. In 1910, just out of the Oval Office, the ex-president proudly published a list of 512 animals he and his son Kermit had shot in Africa, 296 of which he’d brought down himself. His personal tally included 9 lions, 15 zebras, 8 elephants, and—perhaps most disturbing to modern eyes—eight black rhinoceroses (then known as “hook-lipped”), a species that’s been driven to the edge of extinction by human hunters. Bears aside, his concept of conservation didn’t include any objection to simply killing his fellow creatures for the fun of it. (Nor can he be excused as a product of his time: for reference, compare George Orwell’s anguish after shooting an elephant in the 1920s to Roosevelt’s complete lack of remorse after murdering eight of them, just a decade earlier.) As Lily Sánchez has written for Current Affairs, the African safari is deeply rooted in colonial violence and racism—and the same themes recurred, closer to home, during the creation of the U.S. National Park system. This process, which Roosevelt championed both in and out of office, saw thousands of Indigenous people forcibly driven out of lands they’d occupied for millennia, and in an influential 1901 book, Our National Parks, Roosevelt’s friend and associate John Muir reassured readers that “As to Indians, most of them are dead or civilized into useless innocence.” So when Ron DeSantis talks about “going back to Theodore Roosevelt,” we should be asking if it’s this attitude toward America’s natural landscape—centered around violent domination, possession, and control, and tinged with a sour whiff of machismo—that he means.
But let’s be fair, and acknowledge what DeSantis actually has done right. In his memoir, he writes engagingly about wrangling “red tape” at the Army Corps of Engineers to stop them discharging algae-filled water from Lake Okeechobee into nearby estuaries—a practice that can cause harmful “bloom” events where the algae grow out of control and kill other wildlife, especially fish. (His predecessor, Governor Rick Scott, was notorious for doing nothing about these, earning him the nickname “Red Tide Rick.”) DeSantis has taken concrete steps to prevent water pollution in the Everglades, setting aside $3.5 billion for the purpose, and he has approved more than 17,000 acres of land acquisitions for nature preservation. His stance on climate change is murkier—he clearly realizes it exists, having devoted $270 million to mitigate coastal flooding in Florida, but is reluctant to actually use the term “global warming,” which he associates with “left-wing stuff.” But at least he doesn’t seem to think the entire issue is a Chinese hoax. For a Republican, in a state that’s had unbroken Republican rule since 1999, this isn’t entirely terrible.
For every good call, though, there are two or three disastrous ones. In 2020, for example, DeSantis signed SB 172, commonly known as the “sunscreen law,” to prevent any local government in Florida from banning the sale of sunblock products that harm coral reefs. (Along with being beautiful, coral is an important buffer against harmful tidal waves and storms, so this was both stupid and self-destructive.) In 2019, he dramatically rolled back protections for trees, ruling that city governments cannot prevent landowners and developers from cutting them down if they’re deemed a “danger”—which, predictably, has led to the wanton destruction of ancient oaks, many of them older than the United States itself. He has enacted SB 1128/HB 919 (or “Preemption Over Restriction of Utility Services,”) which ensures that local governments can’t entirely prohibit any form of electricity generation, and therefore can’t go all-renewable. As Jeff VanderMeer has detailed in Current Affairs, his administration even tried to ram gigantic toll roads through relatively untouched parts of rural Florida. As a result of all this, the Florida chapter of the Sierra Club gave DeSantis a D-minus ranking at the end of 2022, and the League of Conservation Voters gives him a lifetime score of just 2 percent.
The environmental laws DeSantis is poised to sign next, though, are even more concerning. Somewhere in his office, right now, is a copy of HB 1191, a bill that would allow the use of phosphogypsum in road construction. For the unfamiliar, phosphogypsum is a radioactive by-product of the fertilizer industry, which contains uranium, radium, and thorium among other unstable elements, and emits radon gas when it decays. It’s extremely nasty stuff, and like most substances containing radium, is linked to cancer. Currently the EPA bans its use in any form of construction, so it just piles up in enormous “stacks” across Florida, North Carolina, Tennessee, and several other states where phosphates are mined. The stacks aren’t a particularly good solution, and DeSantis’s administration has already seen one phosphogypsum-related disaster; in 2021, officials pumped more than 200 million gallons of contaminated wastewater from Piney Point, a former phosphate processing plant, into Tampa Bay to prevent a storage reservoir from collapsing. But if HB 1191 becomes law, things could get much worse. Florida’s estimated one billion tons of phosphogypsum could be used in “demonstration projects” immediately—the bill is disturbingly vague about what these would be—and could become as ubiquitous as “crushed stone, gravel, and sand” within a few years. The legislators seem blissfully unaware that public roads are exposed to rainfall, and that any chemical in or around them will end up in the groundwater, which people drink from—or, more likely, they just don’t care. Phosphogypsum was briefly legalized for road-building under the Trump EPA, before being hastily re-banned by Biden’s incoming team in 2021; now, it’s up to DeSantis’s whims whether Florida has to deal with the prospect of radioactive roads again. A remotely sane governor would make it clear that he’d veto any such thing immediately, but Florida doesn’t have one of those.
The Gold-Plated Elephant in the Room
The above are only a few of DeSantis’s most notable misdeeds. A full litany would take far longer, and could fill a book; in a fairly short political career, he’s been incredibly prolific. There’s his 6-week abortion ban, one of the most restrictive in the nation. There’s his proposal to expand Florida’s “stand your ground” laws to include ramming protestors with a car, the exact way Heather Heyer died during the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally. There’s his shady record in Iraq, where he once again served as a legal consultant, this time to a Special Forces team. (In The Courage to be Free, he claims that “the chance that Navy SEALs […] would intentionally flout the laws of war was very low,” so perhaps he has never heard of Eddie Gallagher or the practice of “canoeing.”) There’s his decision to appoint Joseph Lapado, who has insisted that face masks don’t work against COVID-19 and been accused of tampering with scientific data about vaccines, as Florida’s Surgeon General. He even has a budding foreign policy, raging that Cuban diplomats should “go back to Cuba where they belong” when they visit Tampa Bay, but vowing to be “the most pro-Israel governor in America.” Plus or minus a few adjustments, this is the sort of stuff we can expect to see from him on the campaign trail.
All of his ambitions will come to nothing, though, if he can’t somehow beat Donald Trump. This is the unspoken assumption underlying his whole project, but with recent polls showing a 36.1-point gap between them, it’s a tough sell for anyone to think it will become reality. If DeSantis wants to be president, he pretty much had to run this election cycle, since Florida governors are limited to two terms; wait another four years, and he’d just be a private citizen, albeit a loud one. (Technically he could probably return to his old House seat, but that would be a big step down in terms of prestige and media profile.) So Trump is a big, obstinate roadblock in the way, and despite a series of embarrassing flops by his midterm endorsees, he still has a powerful hold over the GOP base. What’s more, he’s also a Florida Man. There can only be one.
In recent weeks, DeSantis has tried to draw a contrast, painting himself as someone who shares all or most of Trump’s values, but is less egotistical and scandal-prone. “Governing is not about entertaining,” he has said. “Governing is not about building a brand or talking on social media and virtue signaling. It’s ultimately about winning and getting results.” He has even taken small jabs at The Donald, remarking that “I don’t know what goes into paying hush money to a porn star” when Trump was in court over the Stormy Daniels affair. But this strategy comes with a high degree of difficulty. If he leans too hard into “competence and dignity” mode, DeSantis will sound indistinguishable from the coterie of Mitt Romney types who were fine with Trump’s actual policies but hated the vulgar way he presented them. He won’t be exciting in the way Trump is, and the base demands a show. On the other hand, if he tacks right and paints himself as “more MAGA than Trump,” he might win the primary, but he’ll turn off undecided voters and lose the general. No matter which path he takes, Trump can gleefully call him “Meatball Ron” and say it’s creepy that DeSantis used to party with high schoolers when he was a history teacher. (It is.)
On the progressive left, that’s exactly the outcome we should hope for: a long, ugly primary where both candidates fling bizarre smears at each other, turn debates into shouting matches, and split the Republican Party like a dry log. It may be the only hope for 2024, since Joe Biden’s polling is abysmal; in April, an AP/NORC poll found that only 47 percent of Democrats wanted him to run again, and 73 percent of the general population said he shouldn’t. And that’s if the 80-year-old Biden’s health holds steady. A Kamala Harris run really doesn’t bear thinking about.
I still think it’s worth studying Ron DeSantis, and taking him seriously as an opponent. Right now, most people think he’s a long shot—but they said the same thing about Trump in 2015, and we all know how that turned out. A lot can happen in the next 16 months, and all it would take is a come-from-behind win in Iowa or New Hampshire to make the primaries really interesting. Then, too, there’s an outside chance that one of Trump’s many criminal investigations could finally catch up to him in a serious enough way to hamper his ability to run. (I don’t say it’s likely, because American law usually doesn’t apply to rich guys, but it’s possible.) Finally, there’s the nightmare scenario: that DeSantis could learn to swallow his pride, kiss the ring, and become Trump’s running mate, ushering in a full 12 years of right-wing rule.
Ron DeSantis’s stated goal is to “Make America Florida,” and we should take him at his word. Under his misrule, the Sunshine State has given lavish tax breaks to corporations and the wealthy, while neglecting its most basic duties to its citizens. Almost half of its families live in or near poverty, and one-fifth of children don’t know where their next meal will come from. DeSantis has actively campaigned against higher wages for workers, and he has refused to expand Medicaid in Florida, directly exposing his poorest constituents to avoidable sickness and death. If he gets into a position of national power, by one route or another, he will try to expand the policies of his home state to the entire country. He will bring those policies to your state, remaking it in his image. He’ll slash every public good in the name of fiscal responsibility, and fill the void with endless culture war. He’ll censor your textbooks, destroy your natural wonders, and torment minorities in your local school, and do it all with the arrogance and sadism of a Guantánamo guard. He may look like a secondary threat next to Trump, but don’t underestimate him for a second. You may be the next target on his list.