Andrew Bjelland: Ron DeSantis shows his true colors in Utah visit

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis rallies with Utah Republican lawmakers and supporters, hoping for a financial and political boost for his 2024 presidential campaign at the Capitol, July 21, 2023.

Last weekend Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis graced Utahns with his presence — sort of. He spent a three day donor-conference weekend at Park City’s luxurious Stein Eriksen Lodge. At a cost of at least $87,000 — paid for by the pro-DeSantis super-PAC Never Back Down — the candidate hobnobbed with 70 donors and bundlers in an effort to refill his war chest and recharge his electoral prospects.

A July 4 poll indicated some slippage in DeSantis’s prospects: 29% of Utah Republican voters preferred Trump, with DeSantis second at 24%. In some national polls, however, the slippage was far greater. Trump was preferred over DeSantis by nearly 40%. Both candidates are vying for the same base-support. Both are populist dividers, not uniters.

During his Utah getaway, reporters questioned DeSantis about a divisive issue: the Florida Board of Education’s revised teaching standards. In accordance with legislation signed by DeSantis, Florida’s public school teachers are now required to instruct students that “slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.”

DeSantis provided a regressive defense: “I think that they’re probably going to show some of the folks that eventually parlayed, you know, being a blacksmith into doing things later in life.” This response, coming from a Yale B.A. in history and a Harvard Law School J.D., was at best underwhelming. Perhaps he should have added: Later in life like, you know, after the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect and after the Confederacy lost the Civil War.

Be forewarned: DeSantis is the type of candidate the Republican donor-class treasures most — a well educated libertarian anti-redistributionist cloaked in populist clothing.

Today’s populism is a variant of “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” delineated by Richard Hofstader in 1964. His analysis targeted the heated exaggerations, unfounded suspicions, and conspiratorial fantasies whereby demagogues leverage “the animosities and passions of a small minority” to their own political advantage.

DeSantis is among this style’s consummate practitioners. He is divisive at every turn: in his whitewashing of history; in his rigid anti-abortion stance; in his cynical employment of asylum seekers as political pawns; in his attacks on a largely fabricated “wokeness;” in his anti-LGBTQ extremism; in his book banning; in his opposition to academic freedom; in his anti-science and anti-vax posturing; in his Big-Lie-inspired “justification” of voter suppression; in his depiction of himself as “God’s chosen fighter” in the culture wars.

He may employ populist tactics, but DeSantis is at heart an elitist libertarian. In his 2011 book “Dreams From Our Founding Fathers,” DeSantis claimed that our nation’s founders “strived [sic] to construct a system … that prevented government-mandated wealth redistribution.” He described the Affordable Care Act and the federal bureaucracy as despotic “constraints on the whole of society.” Although in his book he did not directly oppose Social Security and Medicare, such opposition is consistent with his extreme anti-redistributionism.

As a member of Florida’s congressional delegation, DeSantis three times — in 2013, 2014 and 2015 — voted to “reform” Social Security by raising the retirement age to 70 years and decreasing cost-of-living increases. In 2015 and in 2017, he voted to cut Medicare benefits. He continues to support “reform” of both programs.

A number of donors, Republican politicians and conservative pundits recognize that DeSantis is the solid anti-redistributionist of their dreams. Many Republicans believe he is more electable than Trump. They also believe DeSantis would more effectively and more consistently pursue the conservative agenda by reducing taxes, promoting deregulation, privatizing government services, further shredding America’s social safety net and increasing the gush of wealth into plutocrats’ already overflowing coffers.

The major take-away: If DeSantis were to be nominated and elected president, his ideological commitments and policies would ensure America’s income, wealth, healthcare, education and housing gaps would further widen and deepen. He would ignore the considered preferences of the moderate majority and launch an all out assault on representative democracy.

Andrew Bjelland

Andrew Bjelland, PhD, is professor emeritus, Philosophy Department, Seattle University, where he held the Pigott-McCone Chair in Humanities. Prior to his retirement, he regularly taught Political Philosophy, Medical Ethics and Logic. He resides in Salt Lake City.