DeSantis’s attempts at soaring rhetoric are mostly too leaden to get off the ground. “During times of turmoil,” he intones, “people want leaders who are willing to speak the truth, stand for what is right and demonstrate the courage necessary to lead.” Of his childhood baseball team making the Little League World Series, he says: “What I came to understand about the experience was less about baseball than it was about life. It was proof that hard work can pay off, and that achieving big goals was possible.” You have to imagine that DeSantis, a double-barreled Ivy Leaguer (Yale and Harvard Law School), put a bit more verve into his admissions essays. At around 250 pages, this isn’t a particularly long book, but it’s padded with such banalities.
Much of it is given over to laying out what he calls “Florida’s blueprint for America’s revival,” or, as he puts it in his generic summary: “Be willing to lead, have the courage of your convictions, deliver for your constituents and reap the political rewards.” What this has meant in practice looks an awful lot like thought policing: outlawing classroom discussion of sexual orientation through the third grade; rejecting math textbooks that run afoul of Florida’s opaque review process; forbidding teachers and companies to discuss race and gender in a way that might make anyone feel “discomfort, guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological distress.” Florida also has a ban on abortion after 15 weeks — which DeSantis has indicated he would be willing to tighten to six weeks — with no exceptions for rape and incest.
In this regard, all the bland platitudes do serve a purpose. DeSantis’s blunt-force wielding of executive power might sound like a good time for hard-core social conservatives, but if part of the point of this book is to float a trial balloon for a presidential run, you can see the gears turning as he tries to make his message palatable for the national stage. Take out the gauzy abstraction, the heartwarming clichés, and much of what DeSantis is describing in “The Courage to Be Free” is chilling — unfree and scary.
Much of what DeSantis is describing in “The Courage to Be Free” is chilling — unfree and scary.
Of course, DeSantis insists that he’s simply doing his bit to fight “political factionalism” and “indoctrination.” He removed Tampa’s democratically elected prosecutor from office in large part for pledging not to prosecute abortion providers — explaining in the book that he, DeSantis, was just using the powers vested in him by Florida’s state constitution to suspend a “Soros-backed attorney” for “a clear case of incompetence and neglect of duty.” (Last month, a federal judge ruled that DeSantis was in violation of state law.) DeSantis boasts about big-footing companies and local municipalities when he prohibited vaccine mandates and lifted lockdowns. In April 2020, when the president of the Ultimate Fighting Championship expressed annoyance at the possibility of dealing with some “jackass mayor,” DeSantis told him not to worry: “I will overrule any mayor that gives you guys a hard time.”
It’s unclear what happened to the DeSantis of a decade ago, a boilerplate libertarian and founding member of the House Freedom Caucus who was mainly preoccupied with fiscal austerity and privatizing Medicare and Social Security. His 2011 book contained numerous tributes to “limited government.” Now, he says, in his typically windy way, anything he does that looks suspiciously intrusive is in fact a cleansing measure, purging public life of excess politicization: “For years, the default conservative posture has been to limit government and then get out of the way. There is, no doubt, much to recommend to this posture — when the institutions in society are healthy. But we have seen institution after institution become thoroughly politicized.”