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DeSantis Readies for the National Stage

"You've got to giddy-up and get ready to tussle," the Florida governor told an audience of Hillsdale supporters last Wednesday.
President Donald Trump Holds Campaign Rally In Tampa
(Photo by Octavio Jones/Getty Images)

One day before Ron DeSantis took the stage at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), he spoke to what may be the most intimate crowd he’ll address for a while—a room of just under 1,000 Hillsdale College supporters and staff.

It was a sunny and hot February evening in Florida and America’s favorite governor was at the top of his game. Speaking at one of Hillsdale’s two annual National Leadership Seminars, this one hosted at the Naples Grande, on “Threats to American Liberty,” the Jacksonville native returned often to two major ones: elite institutions and woke ideology.

The unspoken questions in the room were palpable: What about 2024, and what about Trump? The Yale graduate and Harvard Law alumnus flashed his answers to both.

Talking fast and hardly looking at his notes (guests I spoke with afterward said his speed made him sound intelligent), DeSantis spent his hour in front of a friendly audience drawing distinctions—between conservatism and libertarianism, between himself and the broader GOP, and, most carefully, between himself and former president Donald Trump. Using phrases like “military industrial complex” and his now-favorite “biomedical security state,” and shifting the conversation from keywords like “freedom” and “liberty” to courage, justice, and the positive project of government, DeSantis seemed to be using the talk not just to float his presidential prospects, but also to demonstrate his alignment with major goalposts of the new right.

“Freedom is not enough of a condition to secure a just society,” DeSantis said. “It’s essential, but you need more.

You can’t just say private companies can do whatever the hell they want to. They are not the friend of conservatives right now, they are not the friend of freedom. They are using these harmful ideologies and we have a responsibility to stand up and fight against it.

The elites and Big Tech “regime enforcers” need to be taken down a few notches, he said—whether through Section 230 reform or other means was unclear—because “you can’t have a free society if the majority of the discourse is controlled by a half dozen leftists in Silicon Valley.”

These are bold words for an audience of conservative donors, many of whom made their success in business, but a lot has changed in the last few decades. Regardless, the audience was enthusiastic, interrupting frequently with cheers and calls of “Freedom!”

The governor also rejected the idea that free trade fosters democracy: “We are a country with an economy, not the other way around.”

He even took a swing at tax cuts.

“The Republican Party has been very good at saying cut taxes for corporations,” he said. “But now, corporations are getting so woke, do we really want to cut their taxes? I’m not saying raise them, but we’re getting away from what the average American cares about.”

What Americans care about, more than tax cuts, is what their children are taught in school; what their grandchildren are becoming at college; and what their sons are being forced to accept in the military. On the topic of woke ideology, however, the DeSantis was optimistic: “Wokeness is a mile wide—you know, it’s affected a lot of our institutions—but it’s only an inch deep. If you stand up against it, the people, normal people, are with you.”

Likewise with immigration. At least, the governor seemed to bank on as much when he took the conversation a good step beyond mere wall-building: “I think we all want an end to illegal immigration, but even our legal immigration system is not in the best interest of the American people.” H1-B visas and chain migration are on his chopping block; instead, he advocates merit-based immigration. “Common culture is very important. What unites us as a people has to be a belief in the foundations of this country, otherwise it falls apart,” he said. 

The transition from DeSantis the governor to DeSantis the presidential candidate was seamless. After concluding his remarks, the governor took a seat at stage left with Hillsdale College President Larry Arnn for a question and answer session. Arnn prodded DeSantis on nearly every major political issue on the table for 2024. Rather than distance himself from the former president, DeSantis styled himself more as a Trump 2.0—everything Trump almost was.

How do you advance a conservative agenda while still preserving federalism? Arnn asked. DeSantis echoed a point he made earlier in the night, that “I got elected governor to make decisions and lead. I did not get elected to subcontract those decisions out to the Dr. Faucis of the world.” (On the topic of Anthony Fauci, too, he gracefully avoided blaming one former president by blaming another: “Ronald Reagan should have fired him.”)

DeSantis said that when he was elected governor in 2019, he immediately consulted lawyers to understand the extent of and the limits on his powers as the state’s executive.

“Sometimes, people don’t know what their authorities are, so they kind of go into a position of power like a bull in a China cabinet. But everything I do, I make sure in advance that I know we can do it,” he said.

Perhaps most importantly, he did not miss a chance to reflect on the gravest error of the previous administration: “At the federal level, personnel is incredibly important…You have to have people in there that actually believe in the agenda, that aren’t going to be flattered by the media. If media aren’t attacking you, you’re not doing it right.”

“Have you always been this timid?” Arnn teased. And indeed, courage—the political virtue even Trump skeptics could laud in the 45th president—seemed to be DeSantis’ preferred topic.

“Those who stand for the truth will be under the fire,” he said. “In times like these, you need to understand the policy, yes…but you need to have courage. If you don’t have the backbone to fight back, they will steamroll you.”

And again: “You gotta giddy-up and get ready to tussle.”

Whether it’s next year or in a later cycle, DeSantis made his aspirations clear as he concluded his remarks: “I have only begun to fight.”