How Did America’s Weirdest, Most Freedom-Obsessed State Fall for an Authoritarian Governor?
A journey through Ron DeSantis’s magic kingdom
Listen to this article
Listen to more stories on curio
In the course of a single month this year, the following news reports emanated from Florida: A gun enthusiast in Tampa built a 55-foot backyard pool shaped like a revolver, with a hot tub in the hammer. A 32-year-old from Cutler Bay was arrested for biting off the head of his girlfriend’s pet python during a domestic dispute. A 40-year-old man cracked open a beer during a police traffic stop in Cape Coral. A father from East Orlando punched a bobcat in the face for attacking his daughter’s dog.
In headlines, all of these exploits were attributed to a single character, one first popularized in 2013 by a Twitter account of the same name: “Florida Man,” also known as “the world’s worst superhero,” a creature of eccentric rule-breaking, rugged defiance, and unhinged minor atrocities. “Florida Man Known as ‘Sedition Panda’ Arrested for Allegedly Storming Capitol,” a recent news story declared, because why merely rebel against the government when you could dress up in a bear suit while doing it?
Internet memes sometimes refer to Florida as “the America of America,” but to a Brit like me, it’s more like the Australia of America: The wildlife is trying to kill you, the weather is trying to kill you, and the people retain a pioneer spirit, even when their roughest expedition is to the 18th hole. Florida’s place in the national mythology is as America’s pulsing id, a vision of life without the necessary restriction of shame. Chroniclers talk about its seasonless strangeness; the public meltdowns of its oddest residents; how retired CIA operatives, Mafia informants, and Jair Bolsonaro can be reborn there. “Whatever you’re doing dishonestly up north, you can do it in a much warmer climate with less regulation down here,” said the novelist Carl Hiaasen, who wrote about the weirder side of Florida for the Miami Herald from 1976 until his retirement in 2021.
But under the memes and jokes, the state is also making an argument to the rest of the world about what freedom looks like, how life should be organized, and how politics should be done. This is clear even from Britain, a place characterized by drizzle and self-deprecation, the anti-Florida.
This article was featured in One Story to Read Today, a newsletter in which our editors recommend a single must-read from The Atlantic, Monday through Friday. Sign up for it here.
What was once the narrowest swing state has come to embody an emotional new strain of conservatism. “The general Republican mindset now is about grievances against condescending elites,” Michael Grunwald, the Miami-based author of The Swamp, told me, “and it fits with the sense that ‘we’re Florida Man; everyone makes fun of us.’ ” But criticism doesn’t faze Florida men; it emboldens them.
It is no coincidence that the two leading contenders for the Republican nomination both have their base in Florida. In one corner, you have Donald Trump, who retired, sulking, from the presidency to his “Winter White House” at Mar-a-Lago, in Palm Beach. (When Trump entered the 2024 presidential race, the formerly supportive New York Post jeered at him with the front-page headline “Florida Man Makes Announcement” before relegating the news story to page 26.)
In the other corner stands the state’s current governor, Ron DeSantis, raised in the Gulf Coast town of Dunedin, a man desperately trying to conceal his attendance at the elite institutions of Harvard and Yale under lashings of bronzer and highly choreographed outrages. In his speeches, the governor likes to boast that “Florida is where ‘woke’ goes to die.” In his 2022 campaign videos, he styled himself as a Top Gun pilot and possibly even Jesus himself. You couldn’t get away with that in Massachusetts.
“The thing about being the ‘punch-line state’ is that it’s all true,” the writer Craig Pittman told me over Zoom, his tropical-print shirt gleaming in the sun. “Do you remember the story about the woman who got in trouble in New Jersey for trying to board a plane with her emotional-support peacock?”
Yes, I do.
“The peacock was from Florida.”
When I first arrived in Orlando, in late October, I rented what to me was a comically large Ford SUV and drove to McDonald’s for hash browns and a cup of breakfast tea (zombie-gray, error). Then I went to a gun range, where I began by firing two pistols. The very serious man behind the desk had clocked my teeth (British), accent (Hermione Granger), and sex (female), and expressed skepticism that I would want to fire an AR‑15 assault rifle too. But I did. In the past decade, semiautomatic rifles like the AR-15 have become the weapon of choice for young killers, and I needed to see what America was willing to put into the hands of teenagers in the name of freedom.
With the pistols, my shots pulled down from the recoil or the weight. But the AR‑15 nestled into my shoulder pad, and the shots skipped out of it and into the center of the target. I felt like I was in Call of Duty, with the same confidence that there would be no consequences for my actions; that if anything went wrong, I could just respawn.
Later, a friend texted to ask how firing the rifle had been. I loved it, I said. No one should be allowed to have one. This is not a sentiment to be expressed openly in DeSantis’s Florida. When the Tampa Bay Rays tweeted in support of gun control after the Uvalde, Texas, massacre last year, the governor vetoed state funding for a new training facility, saying that it was “inappropriate to subsidize political activism of a private corporation.” You might think: How petty. Or maybe: How effective.
Hold on to those thoughts. DeSantis is a politician who preaches freedom while suspending elected officials who offend him, banning classroom discussions he doesn’t like, carrying out hostile takeovers of state universities, and obstructing the release of public records whenever he can. And somehow Florida, a state that bills itself as the home of the ornery and the resistant, the obstinate and the can’t-be-trodden-on, the libertarian and the government-skeptic, has fallen for the most keenly authoritarian governor in the United States.
This is the point in the story when a foreign reporter would traditionally go to Walt Disney World and have a Big Thought about how the true religion of America is capitalism. She might include a variation on the French theorist Jean Baudrillard’s observation that “Disneyland is presented as imaginary in order to make us believe that the rest [of America] is real.”
Me? I went to Disney World; bought a storm-trooper hat, a 32-ounce Coke, and a hot dog that looked like a postapocalyptic ration; then I had my photo taken high-fiving Baloo. What a great day out. The Magic Kingdom drew nearly 21 million tourists in 2019, the last year before the pandemic, and is central to Florida’s mythology. I had to go. For me, the visceral thrill came from the park’s extraordinary bureaucracy: all the attention to detail of a North Korean military parade, purely for your enjoyment.
Disney flatters its customers the way Florida flatters the rich, by hiding the machinery needed to support decadence. You absolutely never see Cinderella smoking a joint behind her castle, or Mickey Mouse losing it with a group of irritating 9-year-olds. In Florida, no one wants to hear about the costs or the consequences. Why else would people keep rebuilding fragile beachfront homes in a hurricane zone—and expect the government to offer them insurance? Of course everyone wants the Man to butt out of their life, but at the same time, the state-backed insurer of last resort hit 1 million policies in August.
Baudrillard had it precisely wrong: Disney’s success only underlines how the state is one giant theme park. “This is not a place that makes anything, and it’s not really a place that does anything, other than bring in more people,” Grunwald had told me. Having brought in those people, what Florida never tells them is no, nor does the state ask them to play nicely with the other children: “We’re not going to make you wear a mask or take a vaccine or pay your taxes or care about the schools,” Grunwald said.
I did have one Big Thought in Orlando: It’s odd that Ron DeSantis cast Disney as an avatar of the “woke mind virus” after its then-CEO, Bob Chapek, spoke out against the Parental Rights in Education bill—known to critics as the “Don’t Say ‘Gay’ ” law—which restricts the teaching of gender and sexuality in schools. Disney’s cartoons now feature LGBTQ characters, and its older films carry warnings about their outdated attitudes, but the corporation itself is deeply conservative in the discipline it demands from its staff, its deep nostalgia for the 1950s, and its celebration of American exceptionalism. At Epcot’s World Showcase, I observed national pavilions built on the kind of gleeful cultural supremacy last seen in 19th-century anthropologists marveling at the handicrafts of the natives. Britain was represented by a fish-and-chips shop, a pub, and a store where you could buy a “masonic sword” for $350. It could have been worse: Brazil, the fifth-largest country on Earth, had been reduced to a caipirinha stand.
Outside Tallahassee, I fell in love. Having driven four hours north to the Panhandle one bright day, wearing denim shorts that would be unnecessary in Britain for nine more months, I ended up in Wakulla Springs State Park.
This was primordial Florida, the swamp I had been promised, and it was heaven: a swimming spot overseen, on the opposite bank, by a 13-foot alligator named Joe Jr., something the tour guide presented as perfectly normal and not at all alarming. Unwieldy manatees glided through the water as if someone had given my SUV nostrils and flippers. Turkey vultures massed in the trees. I had bubble-gum ice cream and a root-beer float—how American is that?—and felt pure happiness flooding me like sunshine.
Here was the magic that brings so many people to Florida, a glow that returned as I traveled around the state on my two trips there: turning off an unremarkable road and finding myself in the public park outside Vero Beach, where for $3 you could walk through warm white sand on a weekday afternoon; having a beer and watching the pink-orange sunset over the marina in the small town of Stuart; the Day-Glo-graffiti walls of Wynwood, south of Miami’s Little Haiti; the revelation that there’s an entire spare Miami just over the bridge from the original. Bumped off my return flight for three days by Hurricane Nicole, I drove to the Kennedy Space Center—just in time to watch a SpaceX rocket blast off into the clear blue sky. At one point, I took a wrong turn outside of Miami onto Alligator Alley and drove 15 miles into the Everglades before I could turn around at a visitors’ center. I’ve never been somewhere so wild that also had M&M’s in vending machines.
Braided through these experiences was the sensation of Florida as a refuge from reality, something that has encapsulated both its promise and its peril since before it was part of America. In the early 1800s, enslaved people escaped from southern plantations and sheltered in Seminole lands, prompting Andrew Jackson, the seventh president, to launch the first in a series of devastating wars. Florida was soon offloaded by the Spanish, and loosely attached to the U.S. for two decades before becoming a state in 1845. It was roundly ignored for a long time after that. In 1940, it was the least populated southern state.
The reasons for its transformation after World War II are well known: air-conditioning and bug spray; generations of northeastern and midwestern seniors tempted by year-round sunshine; the hundreds of thousands of Cubans who fled Fidel Castro in the 1960s. Then came the rodent infestation: Disney, with all its money and lobbyists and special tax arrangements, and eventually its own town, called Celebration. Now the state draws crypto hustlers, digital nomads, and people who just plain hate paying state income tax. All of these migrants fueled decades of explosive growth and a landscape of construction, condos, and golf courses. In 2014, Florida’s population overtook New York’s, and in 2022, it was the nation’s fastest-growing state.
But those bare facts conceal a more fundamental change. As Florida has become America, America has become more like Florida: older, more racially diverse but not necessarily more liberal, and more at risk from climate change. “The state that looks most like what we’d expect the United States to look like in 2060?” Philip Bump writes in his new book, The Aftermath. “Florida.”
For so many who choose to live here, arriving in Florida feels like a relief: a liberation from cold winters, from COVID mandates, from the paralyzing fear of political correctness, from the warnings of climatologists and guilt trips by Greta Thunberg. “This is an irresponsible place,” Grunwald told me—a counterweight to Plymouth Rock and the puritanism of the Northeast. When I drove across the border into Georgia, a battery of signs greeted me, warning against speeding and littering, as if to say: Look, we’re relaxed here, but not Florida relaxed. In freedom-loving Florida, you presume, every warning and restriction has been reluctantly imposed in response to a highly specific problem. (Exhibit A, the hotel swimming-pool sign: No swimming with diarrhea.)
Before arriving in the state, I had called the political strategist Anthony Pedicini, who has worked for multiple Republican state representatives and members of Congress in Florida since moving there two decades ago from New York. He expressed a general frustration with the fussiness and rule-making of Democratic-controlled areas: “You’ve dealt with these blue-state politics that have raised your taxes, defunded your police, rewarded homelessness, made the schools a mockery—you’re fed up with it.” And so you go to Florida.
Then Pedicini said something unexpected. “You ever read The Iliad and The Odyssey?” I know them reasonably well, I responded, with the caution of someone who is anticipating a quiz.
“So there was one of the chapters where the ship is going by the Sirens, calling the sailors off,” he continued. “Odysseus strapped himself to the mast so he wouldn’t go, but he made all his sailors plug their ears with wax and cotton. I think Ron DeSantis is like a siren call to all of these suburban Republicans living in these blue states.”
Right, but weren’t the sirens luring people … to their death?
Pedicini was unperturbed. “I’ll tell you this, to give you background on me. I lost my mother during the pandemic to COVID. My mother chose not to get a shot, the only one in our family. Do I blame it on the governor? Absolutely not. Do I blame my mother? No, she made a choice for her that she thought was best for her. It resulted in a disastrous consequence. But the government didn’t have the right to make that choice.”
Everyone I met in Florida agreed that DeSantis was ambitious, hardworking, and smart—but, you know, so were Mitt Romney and Jeb Bush. Where were the fizz and the fire and the electric crackle of change that he claimed to be offering?
During a rally held at the American Muscle Car Museum in Melbourne, on the Space Coast, I got to see DeSantis in person, floodlit like a Pink Floyd concert and flanked by sweet vintage rides. Flags fluttered in the parking lot, declaring BLUE LIVES MATTER and LET’S GO BRANDON, but the experience was underwhelming. DeSantis’s speech was a rote recital of approved villains, lacking the chaos and danger that Donald Trump brings to his rallies.
Any serious consideration of DeSantis inevitably runs headlong into his lack of charisma. Can you win the presidency without being able to make small talk? The Republican donor class is very keen to lubricate his path to power, but they worry he can’t schmooze and flatter as well as he bullies and schemes. He has courted partisan YouTubers and talk-radio hosts, but throughout his reelection campaign last year, he did not grant a sit-down interview to any mainstream publication, and declined to cooperate with profiles in The New Yorker, the Financial Times, and The New York Times. His press team specializes in insults that read as though ChatGPT has been trained on Trump speeches—gratuitous, yet somehow bloodless. (Asked to respond to fact-checking queries for this article, DeSantis’s press secretary, Bryan Griffin, replied by email: “You aren’t interested in the truth; this is just yet another worthless Atlantic editorial.”)
The governor’s closest adviser is generally agreed to be his wife, Casey—ironically, a former television reporter—who survived breast cancer in 2022, and made a campaign ad extolling the support DeSantis gave her. In general, he reveals little about his inner life. Until recently, he had not spoken publicly about the unexpected death of his sister, Christine, at age 30 in 2015. In February, when the New York Post followed him to Dunedin, to see the governor in his home environment, the most the reporter got out of him was that he’d parlayed his success as a Little League pitcher—his teammates called him “D”—into a job at an electrical store in town. His mother was a nurse and his father installed Nielsen boxes; his middle name is Dion; vacations were spent visiting his grandparents in Pennsylvania and Ohio. He was smart and worked hard enough to get into Yale.
Ah, the Ivy League. This is where DeSantis’s story really takes off: the small-town Florida boy thrust into a world of inherited privilege, elite tastes, and left-wing opinions. “I showed up my first day in jean shorts and a T-shirt because that’s what we wore on the west coast of Florida,” he told Tucker Carlson in April 2021. “That was not something that was received very warmly. And I never quite fit in there, and it was a total culture shock to me.” For the first time, he told Carlson, he heard someone criticize America—and God, and Christianity. “They hated God,” he said. “They hated the country.” For the first time, in other words, the young Ron met people with different political opinions—and he didn’t like it one bit.
After college, DeSantis spent a year teaching at the private Darlington School, in Georgia, where, according to the Times, one student recalled him as a “total jock” who “was definitely proud that he graduated Ivy and thought he was very special.” DeSantis once dared a student who had been boasting about how much milk he could drink to prove it. The student threw up in front of his classmates.
Unlike Trump, DeSantis could have succeeded by the elite’s rules. Like George H. W. Bush, he was a member of the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity and the captain of the baseball team. He graduated magna cum laude from Yale. His performance got him into Harvard Law School, after which he joined the legal arm of the U.S. Navy.
He spent Christmas 2006 at the military prison in Guantánamo Bay—not as an inmate, he would later joke on the campaign trail. One former Guantánamo prisoner, Mansoor Adayfi, has accused DeSantis of laughing as he was force-fed; Adayfi says he threw up in the young lawyer’s face. “I was screaming,” Adayfi told Eyes Left, which describes itself as a socialist anti-war podcast hosted by veterans. “I looked at him, and he was actually smiling. Like someone who was enjoying it.” Adayfi was released in 2016 after being detained without charge for 14 years, and the United Nations Commission on Human Rights later classified this force-feeding as torture. (In his 2023 book, The Courage to Be Free, DeSantis offers few details about his stint at Guantánamo, saying that although detainees would often “claim ‘abuse’ ” in U.S. facilities, “in Iraqi custody they really would get abused and treated inhumanely.”)
In 2007, DeSantis deployed to Iraq with SEAL Team 1, not as a stone-cold killer himself, but as the stone-cold killers’ lawyer. The year before, he had met his future wife on a golf course (very Florida), and in 2009 he married her at Disney World (even more Florida). In honor of the couple’s Italian heritage, the reception was at Italy Isola in Epcot, a private terrace next to a small faux-Venetian canal. They now have three children: Mamie, Mason, and Madison.
Casey DeSantis’s job as a local TV host meant she couldn’t move out of the state, so her husband decided to leave the military and began contemplating his future while serving as a special assistant U.S. attorney in central Florida. He wanted to run for Congress in Florida’s Sixth District, north of Orlando, but he knew he had a problem. “I viewed having earned degrees from Yale and Harvard Law School to be political scarlet letters as far as the GOP primary went,” he later wrote. He needed a mythology. He needed to embrace his destiny as a Florida Man, a crusader for people who want to open-carry in Publix against the blue-state pencil-necks who worship Rachel Maddow and scoff at birtherism. “If I could withstand seven years of indoctrination in the Ivy League,” he took to telling audiences, “then I will be able to survive D.C. without going native!”
Driving back from Melbourne to Orlando took me past the Reedy Creek Improvement District—a forgettable euphemism for Disney’s private fiefdom, 25,000 acres of land around Lake Buena Vista, where for more than half a century the company was able to control building codes, utilities, and waste collection. Until it crossed Ron DeSantis.
The treatment of Disney—which has more than 70,000 employees in the state—has become the cornerstone of DeSantis’s pitch to voters; he calls it “the Florida equivalent of the shot heard ’round the world.” It reveals both his governing philosophy and the evolution of the Republican attitude toward corporations. In February, on the eve of his book’s publication, DeSantis signed a bill ending Disney’s control of the district and replacing its board of supervisors with his own handpicked choices. These included Bridget Ziegler, an education activist whose husband had been elected earlier that month as chair of the Florida Republican Party. For a guy who had never run anything before becoming governor, DeSantis has shown an incredible aptitude for patronage.
The campaign against one of Florida’s largest private employers is DeSantisism distilled into its purest form, a kind of Mafia bargain reminiscent of Viktor Orbán’s Hungary: Don’t come for me and I won’t come for you. Corporations can be supportive of ruling politicians, or studiously neutral. What they must not do is cause trouble.
What else does DeSantis believe? We know from the media tour for The Courage to Be Free that he is far from a foreign-policy hawk. He has said that it is not in America’s interests to become “further entangled in a territorial dispute between Ukraine and Russia.” His first book, 2011’s Dreams From Our Founding Fathers—published by a Florida vanity press called High-Pitched Hum, and clearly riffing on the title of Barack Obama’s first memoir—paints him as an originalist; he claims that the Founding Fathers considered the Constitution a “fundamental law with a stable meaning” rather than a “living document.” He confidently asserts that the country’s first Black president betrayed the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., who “did not dream of a transformation of America in which the foundational principles of the nation were tossed aside.”
Dreams From Our Founding Fathers was DeSantis’s calling card for his successful 2012 congressional run. He quickly became a co-founder of the House Freedom Caucus. Aware of the Tea Party energy coursing through the party, DeSantis was careful not to appear co-opted by the establishment. He slept in his office instead of renting an apartment in Washington, declined the congressional pension plan, and flew back to Florida—and his growing family—as soon as votes ended each week.
During his third term, DeSantis made his bid for promotion to governor—and that is when he received the blessing of this story’s other Florida Man, Donald Trump. The facts are disputed: Trump recently claimed that DeSantis begged him with “tears coming down from his eyes” for an endorsement; other sources have the president moved by watching the potential candidate praise him on Fox News. Either way, in late 2017 Trump posted a tweet describing DeSantis as “a brilliant young leader, Yale and then Harvard Law, who would make a GREAT Governor of Florida.”
That endorsement allowed DeSantis to become a staple of Fox News, with more than 100 appearances in 2018. “The once little-known congressman spent so much time broadcasting Fox News TV hits from Washington this year that he learned to apply his own powder so he could look as polished as he sounded,” Politico reported.
Buoyed by Trump’s blessing and the support of right-wing media, DeSantis won Florida’s Republican primary for governor in August 2018 by 20 points. Two months later, he went on to win the general election by just 32,463 votes. In The Courage to Be Free, he recalls asking his transition team to draw up an “exhaustive list of all the constitutional, statutory, and customary powers of the governor. I wanted to be sure that I was using every lever available to advance our priorities.” If DeSantis ever sits behind the Resolute Desk, you can bet he’ll do more than order Diet Cokes and compulsively check Twitter.
In January, after DeSantis had been reelected as governor by 1.5 million votes, I returned to Florida, landing in Miami. This time, the car-rental agency offered me an upgrade to a Cadillac Escalade. I got all the way to climbing up the little step to the driver’s seat, where I looked backwards at two more rows of seats and a trunk, before I decided to set out instead in a positively demure GMC Terrain.
I had been told that there were three Floridas: the Panhandle, best viewed as an extension of the Deep South; the state’s central belt, where maps should read “Here Be Seniors”; and the south, where condo towers and bustling Spanish-speaking enclaves merge slowly into the laid-back beaches of the Keys. Visiting Miami, I could barely comprehend how the city—with its bitcoin brunches and graffiti district and cops who look like male strippers—could be in the same country as Tallahassee, never mind the same state.
Maria-Elena Lopez, the vice chair of the Miami-Dade Democrats, volunteered to tell me why the traditionally blue and “rabidly Latin” county had voted for DeSantis by 11 points in November (he lost there by 21 points in 2018). Her answer was simple: Its more recent arrivals were middle-class conservatives in their countries of origin, and “they didn’t come here to fight the fight of the other people.” Also, she said, “Latin Americans love strongmen.”
Lopez, who came to the United States from Cuba at age 4, also underlined the complicated relationship between recent migrants and the idea of government help, explaining that her fellow Cubans were particularly triggered by anything that smacked of socialism. She pointed to Hialeah, “which is probably our most Latin city in Miami-Dade County … and there is the highest enrollment of what is casually called Obamacare. Okay. Yet they’re like, ‘Obama was Communist.’ Oh, but you like his insurance policies? The messaging does not go with what the actual reality is.”
In the November election, DeSantis’s success was not an outlier in Florida; Senator Marco Rubio notched an equally large win, and the party gained four House seats. Yet DeSantis deserves some credit for this: He had pushed an exquisitely gerrymandered redistricting proposal through the state legislature. “His plan wiped away half of the state’s Black-dominated congressional districts, dramatically curtailing Black voting power in America’s largest swing state,” ProPublica reported last year. As one example, the DeSantis map shattered the seat held by the Black Democrat Al Lawson, which stretched along the border with Georgia, dividing it into four pieces, each of which was inserted into a majority-white district. (DeSantis has rejected the criticisms, calling the old district itself “a 200-mile gerrymander that divvies up people based on the color of their skin.”)
DeSantis also established an Office of Election Crimes and Security, whose officers carried out widely publicized arrests for alleged voter fraud. Fentrice Driskell, the state House minority leader, points to the chilling effect of police officers “parading around 20 individuals who thought that they had registered to vote lawfully” in front of the cameras. (Three defendants have so far had their charges dismissed.) “They were just bogus cases,” Driskell told me, “being used to gin up a big lie that there’s election fraud in Florida.”
Sunday morning in Ron DeSantis’s vision of hell, and I was drinking bottomless mimosas. This was R House, a drag bar in Wynwood, an area of Miami that has made the journey from sketchy to bougie in just two decades. Last July, a viral video filmed at R House showed a drag performer, her implausible breasts barely covered with pasties, dollar bills stuffed into her thong, showing a small child how to strut along a catwalk. “Children belong at drag shows!!!!” read the caption. “Children deserve to see fun & expression & freedom.” DeSantis responded by ordering a government investigation of the restaurant.
When I visited R House, I didn’t see any minors, although the menu did offer a $30 kids’ brunch. If anything, the drag show revealed how thoroughly gay culture has been absorbed into the mainstream; judging by all the sashes and tiaras, most of the customers were part of bachelorette parties. At the table next to me, a woman daintily fed a glass of water to a Chihuahua in a jeweled collar. Fans were snapped, dollar bills were waved, and a few performers did some light twerking, but the only serious danger to children here would have been from a flying wig.
I left perplexed. In all honesty, I had found the viral video disturbing; as the DeSantis administration’s complaint argued, the performance had a “sexualized nature” that was clearly inappropriate for kids to watch. But it was no more disturbing to me than giving an 8-year-old a “purity ring,” or letting them fire a pistol, or forcing 10-year-olds to bear their rapists’ babies. Why can’t America just be normal? And why wouldn’t DeSantis, extoller of “parental rights in education,” let moms and dads decide what to show their own children? The paradox of freedom, Florida style, is that it’s really an assertion of control. People like us should be free to do what we want, and free to stop other people from doing what they want when we don’t approve. That’s why it would be deeply unfair to call Ron DeSantis a petty tyrant. If he is a tyrant, he is an expansive one.
Ask Andrew Warren. After the repeal of Roe v. Wade, the twice-elected Democratic state attorney in Hillsborough County signed a pledge that he would not prosecute women who sought abortions, or doctors providing gender surgery or hormones to minors. The DeSantis administration responded by suspending him while he was in the middle of an unrelated grand-jury case. “Five minutes after receiving the email about the suspension, I was escorted out of my office by an armed deputy,” he told me. There wasn’t even enough time to collect his house keys from his desk. In January, a judge ruled that DeSantis had violated Warren’s First Amendment rights and the Florida Constitution, but said he had no authority to reinstate him.
Warren believes his suspension was designed to be a warning to others: “This is what authoritarians do, right? They say that we need to quell dissent, because dissent is so inherently dangerous.”
Similarly stuntlike was DeSantis’s decision to fly 49 migrants to Martha’s Vineyard last year, which became a reliable applause line in the governor’s stump speech. Everything about that story stinks, including the fact that the aviation company involved, Vertol—which had close ties to DeSantis aides—made a handsome profit. That’s part of a pattern. When DeSantis owns the libs, his donors and loyalists tend to benefit. At the start of the year, under the guise of his “war on woke,” he appointed six right-wing activists as trustees of the New College of Florida, a small public liberal-arts college in Sarasota. The board promptly forced the president out and replaced her with Richard Corcoran, a former Republican speaker of Florida’s House of Representatives, on a salary of $699,000 (more than double the previous president’s). One of the new board members was Christopher Rufo, who has achieved fame among the Very Online for turning critical race theory into a household term. So what if Rufo lives in Washington State? He is big on Twitter and a beloved brand among Tucker Carlson viewers.
At 44, DeSantis represents a new generation of Republicans who have learned to speak Rumble—the unmoderated alternative to YouTube—as well as fluent Fox. He knows which of his actions to shout about, and which ones are better smothered in boredom. At a flashy press conference on April 19, 2021, for example, DeSantis surrounded himself with cops to sign the Combating Public Disorder Act, which was presented as taming the excesses of the Black Lives Matter movement but—according to Jason Garcia, a former Orlando Sentinel investigative reporter who now runs a Substack called Seeking Rents—gave police extra power to quell dissent and civil disobedience more generally. That was a moment worth staging for applause by the Blue Lives Matter contingent. By contrast, the governor waited until just before midnight the same day to approve Senate Bill 50, a blandly worded law that collects sales tax from online shoppers while giving tax breaks to Florida businesses. The difference between the splashy staging of the anti-riot bill and the quiet enactment of S.B. 50 “illustrates DeSantis to me so perfectly,” Garcia said. “He’s a governor that is masterful at driving these angry social-war fights that divide people, then turning around and governing like a pro-corporate Republican.”
From the outside, Mar-a-Lago looks less like a millionaires’ playground and more like an all-inclusive Mediterranean resort. But Trump’s Palm Beach estate does have a watchtower outside, and a guard who was not keen to let me in, even to speak to the manager.
No matter. Instead I headed around the corner to the house owned by the real-estate billionaire Jeff Greene, hoping that he had insight into the one man who could crush DeSantis’s ambitions. Someone, somewhere, buzzed me into the gate, but Greene was playing tennis when I arrived, so I wandered around the estate for five minutes, worried about being shot by an overzealous security guard. When Greene finally brought me inside, his house was everything I had hoped for: toilets with self-warming seats, a terrace backing onto the beach, photos of him embracing world leaders, the works. “That’s a Picasso,” he said, leading me down a corridor to his terrace. This was the Palm Beach lifestyle I had heard so much about.
Greene was once a member of Mar-a-Lago, but he let his membership lapse after he ran as a Democratic candidate for governor in 2018 (he came in fourth in the primary). His campaign promoted him as someone willing to stand up to Donald Trump, using a grainy video of him and Trump gesticulating at each other in the dining room at the Trump International Golf Club in West Palm Beach in December 2016 as proof. Despite this history, Greene had sympathy for Trump’s complaint that DeSantis would be nothing without him.
Trump seems to feel DeSantis’s betrayal keenly. Shortly before the November election, he debuted a new nickname for his rival: Ron DeSanctimonious. But it didn’t land, somehow, and Trump’s more recent efforts—Meatball Ron, Shutdown Ron, Tiny D—have not been as devastating as Low-Energy Jeb or Little Marco. Locked away for two years in Mar-a-Lago like the world’s most gregarious shut-in, the former president has been consumed by his insistence that the 2020 election was stolen, long past when it stopped being a useful, base-enraging lie.
The demands of Palm Beach socializing meant that Greene was certain to encounter Trump again—in fact, Greene was due at Mar-a-Lago the following weekend for a benefit in aid of the Palm Beach Police and Fire Foundation. That might be awkward, because a few months earlier he had told the Financial Times that Trump had “no friends.” Then came the former president’s dinner with Ye—Kanye West—who was going around saying things like “I like Hitler,” and the white supremacist Nick Fuentes.
“I realized that I probably should call the Financial Times to say I owe President Trump an apology,” Greene told me, looking the least apologetic a man has ever looked, an attitude the tennis whites amplified, “because he really does have two friends.”
Was he not worried about going to Mar-a-Lago under the circumstances? Not at all, it turned out, because Greene would be accompanied by his friend Mehmet Oz, Trump’s anointed (and failed) candidate for a Senate seat in Pennsylvania, as well as by his best man, with whom he had just spent two weeks in St. Barts.
And who would that be? Mike Tyson.
I blinked a few times, before my brain supplied the necessary explanation: Florida.
On January 3, DeSantis was sworn in as governor for a second time, on the steps of the capitol in Tallahassee. The ceremony was scheduled to begin at 11 a.m., but at 10:20, the public seating area was full, and stragglers had to watch on a giant television screen on South Monroe Street, which had been renamed “Ron DeSantis Way” for the occasion. (Other elected officials were assigned smaller side streets in their honor.) Again, I felt inescapably British: We wouldn’t let our politicians get carried away like this.
In the press pen, an enthusiastic livestreamer broadcast his hope that Pfizer, Moderna, and the media would be held accountable for their crimes, then emitted an audible “Ooh” of appreciation when Casey DeSantis stepped out in a mint-green caped dress, with elbow-length white gloves. Her husband took a seat on the dais, splay-legged, his hands disconcertingly locked into a diamond in front of his crotch.
This is what it looks like to become the Chosen One. The former Fox host Glenn Beck had lent DeSantis his rare Bible for the swearing-in. The podcaster Dave Rubin, previously torn between the Florida governor and Trump, tweeted a photograph from the bleachers—not the VIP section, I noted—and later produced a YouTube video praising the “one line in DeSantis’ speech that made the crowd go nuts.” (I had been led to believe that Floridians going nuts would involve some combination of gasoline, swimming trunks, guns, pythons, golf carts, alcohol, and an unexplained fatality. Here, they just stood and clapped.) The donors and the party hierarchy were ready to move on from Donald Trump; so, it seemed, were the partisan media.
The speech drew on the dark Bannonite energy of the right-wing online ecosystem, name-checking “entrenched bureaucrats in D.C., jet-setters in Davos, and corporations wielding public power” and breezing through the obligatory geographic shout-outs, “from the Space Coast to the Sun Coast,” to Daytona, Hialeah, and the rest. “Freedom lives here, in our great Sunshine State of Florida!”
The rest of the 16-minute speech was a tour through the greatest hits of his campaign, followed by the predictable raising of his eyes to the horizon of greater ambitions. DeSantis wanted to offer a Florida Blueprint to the rest of America; this was a place that was preserving the “sacred fire of liberty” that had burned in Independence Hall, at Gettysburg, on the D-Day beaches of Normandy, and that had inspired a president to stand in Berlin and declare, “Tear down this wall.” Yes, the speech said, I may be currently in charge of highway maintenance and appointments to the board of chiropractic medicine, but I have so much more to give.
The central question about DeSantis is this: Is he a corporate tax-cutter or a conspiratorial frother? Is he closer to Mitch McConnell or Marjorie Taylor Greene? The great DeSantis innovation has been to realize how much cover calculated outrage provides for rewarding cronies—and that the more you preach “freedom,” the more you can get away with authoritarianism.
Although the Sunshine State forged DeSantis, he’s not a true Florida Man. Some 400 miles away from Tallahassee, at Mar-a-Lago, you could get the full sugar rush of Trump, a born performer who finds his causes by sniffing the wind, then road-tests potential lines on Truth Social and live audiences, feeling the crackle of a palpable hit. DeSantis offers a synthetic, lab-grown alternative. He’s Sweet’N Low.
During the inauguration, the Pledge of Allegiance was read by Felix Rodríguez, a paramilitary CIA officer during the Bay of Pigs incident and a recent winner of the governor’s Medal of Freedom. The 81-year-old stumbled over the words, and I realized instantly what a natural politician—Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, Ronald Reagan—would have done: walk over, take Rodríguez’s arm, and create a viral moment of human connection. DeSantis stood rigid and stern. Given a 15-hour run-up and a focus group, he might have gamed out the advantages of a small, public act of kindness. But he couldn’t get there on his own.
Nothing is more damning of the modern Republican Party than the fact that DeSantis needs to flaunt his authoritarianism, anti-intellectualism, and casual cruelty to court its base. Even then, the routine falls flat. DeSantis lacks the weirdness, effervescence, and recklessness that make his home state so compelling. A true Florida Man does not master bureaucracy and use his powers of patronage to reshape institutions in his image. A true Florida Man does not make the trains run on time. A true Florida Man tries to soup up his boat with a nitro exhaust and accidentally burns down the illegal tiki bar he built in his backyard. Some are born Florida Men, some achieve Florida Manhood, and some have Florida Manhood thrust upon them by the demands of right-wing politics.
This article appears in the May 2023 print edition with the headline “The Magic Kingdom of Ron DeSantis.”