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No, Ron DeSantis Isn’t Worse than Trump
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No, Ron DeSantis Isn’t Worse than Trump

When Florida right meets California left.

I’m hosting Dispatch Live tonight! I’ll be joined by Professor Dr. Paul Miller about his new book The Religion of American Greatness. I’ll also be joined by one of our newest Dispatchers, Klon Kitchen. We’ll talk about Christianity in America, nationalism, and January 6. Plus, we’ll take your questions. The event is for members only, so if you’re not a member, join today.

Since it’s clear (at least for now) that Ron DeSantis is the Republican most likely to unseat Donald Trump, we’re starting to see a predictable line of pieces online. Trump is bad, but DeSantis might be worse. Trump was incompetent authoritarian. DeSantis is ruthlessly efficient. You can read versions of that argument in MSNBC, the Washington Post, MSNBC, New York Magazine, and MSNBC.

I started reading many of these pieces earlier this morning, and I finished just as today’s January 6 Committee hearing got underway. The contrast, quite frankly, was jarring. One the one hand, DeSantis’s critics were describing a politician who played by the rules to enact policies they didn’t like. On the other hand, I watched yet another account of a politician who came within one Mike Pence “yes” (to his harebrained electors scheme) to plunging America into the worst constitutional crisis since 1861

Let me make this analysis as simple as possible. Donald Trump presents an existential threat to the continued existence of the United States as an intact republic. Our nation may not survive a second Trump term. Ron DeSantis has his flaws, but he’s absolutely within the bounds of a mainstream American politician. 

In short, there’s a difference between flaws that are normal-bad and those that are existential threat-bad, and we’d do well to keep our concerns in perspective.

My critique of DeSantis has less to do with Donald Trump and more to do with Kamala Harris or Gavin Newsom. By that I mean that DeSantis is more like a California Democrat than he is like Donald Trump. Specifically, both DeSantis and Harris are culture warriors who are prone to fight the culture the wrong way—by deploying state power at the expense of civil liberties.

This has long been my core critique of Gov. DeSantis. Discontent with social media moderation policies, he signed a social media censorship bill that’s been blocked by a federal court of appeals. Angry at corporate and academic wokeness, he signed an expansive “Stope WOKE Act” that limits the free speech rights of private corporations and university professors. It’s subject to multiple legal challenges, and a federal court has already permitted one key lawsuit to proceed and held that professors do not speak for the government

In addition, DeSantis has signed legislation that punished Walt Disney for its political speech, placed extraordinarily broad and vague limitations on teaching sexual orientation and gender identity in public schools, and prohibited even private employers from imposing vaccine mandates

These actions are inconsistent with prior conservative conceptions of limited government, corporate autonomy, and individual liberty. In a string of cases reaching back more than a decade, conservative litigators had secured key court victories that protected corporate political speech, protected corporate religious free exercise, and preserved the free speech rights of students and professors. Indeed, prior to the explosion of anti-CRT laws and other restrictions on free expression, red-state legislation had focused on passing laws that expanded rights to free speech and freedom of association in the academy. 

But DeSantis’s governing strategy doesn’t come out of nowhere. Instead, it reflects a broader move on the right to fundamentally change its approach to individual liberty. Rather than using the power of the government to preserve individual rights, the new right imitates the new left, and takes direct aim at the fundamental freedoms of its political opponents.  

To understand new Florida, one need only look to new California. 

Over the last decade, California Democrats have launched their own frontal attack on the First Amendment, one that matches or exceeds Gov. DeSantis’s in both intensity and scale. In 2018 the Supreme Court struck down its effort to force pro-life pregnancy centers to advertise for free and low-cost abortions. In 2021 it struck down California’s mandatory donor disclosure laws. It rejected California restrictions on religious free exercise five separate times during the pandemic. 

I can go on. California has required churches to provide abortion coverage in their group health plans. It has imposed prohibitions on state-funded or state-sponsored travel to states that possess policies regarding LGBT citizens that it deems discriminatory. 

Even worse, the California government has gone rogue more than once, leaking confidential donor data and confidential personal information for California concealed-carry permit holders. That’s why I found it hilarious that California Gov. Gavin Newsom ran this ad, promoting his state’s commitment to “freedom.”

When it comes to their view of state power, Newsom and DeSantis are two sides of the same coin. They just have different enemies. The two states’ governing philosophies embody the concept of “free speech for me and not for thee.” 

Civil libertarians should be concerned, but not surprised. It’s hard to think of a time when the Bill of Rights enjoyed solid bipartisan support. The parties’ support for individual liberties is often purely instrumental. Republican support for campus free speech was animated by concern for conservative students. Many of the same leftists who supported the campus free speech movements of the 1960s were perfectly content with drafting and imposing speech codes when they were in charge. 

A maximalist approach to state power is both short-sighted and divisive. It’s short-sighted because there are no stable majorities in American politics. Any power the right or left gives the state at the expense of the individual will be wielded by their political opponents when they win the presidency or Congress. And make no mistake, your opponents will win again. 

It’s divisive because Americans are extremely sensitive about their own freedoms. The same person who cheers when their hated enemy loses a culture war conflict will go volcanic when their own speech is shut down. The practical consequence is that no matter who is censoring whom, there is always a backlash. It always escalates political conflict. 

But again, all of this is normal-bad. The political branches of government have a long and sad history of attempting to suppress civil liberties. For example, the federal government’s commitment to free speech began to flag almost immediately after the states ratified the Bill of Rights. The same founding generation that drafted and ratified the First Amendment drafted and voted for the Alien and Sedition Acts (which dramatically restricted dissenting political speech) less than seven years later. 

If Kamala Harris or Gavin Newsom is the Democratic nominee in 2024 and Ron DeSantis is the Republican nominee, the American people won’t have the choice of voting for a major party nominee who consistently protects and respects American civil liberties. They’ll have profoundly different views on multiple other fronts—such as economic policy, judicial nominees, foreign policy, and abortion—but largely the same dim view of the Bill of Rights. 

At the same time, neither person is remotely comparable to Donald Trump. There is no evidence at all that Ron DeSantis would sooner destroy the republic than lose an election. There is no evidence that he shares Trump’s gross incompetence or his grotesque, habitual deceitfulness. 

Indeed, I’ve agreed with many of DeSantis’s policies, including his early approach to the pandemic—when he opened schools, protected seniors, and vigorously advocated taking the vaccine. Florida’s COVID record is, on balance, better than many blue states that imposed far more draconian restrictions on the economy and on schools. 

I have no idea if DeSantis will remain the prime Republican alternative to Trump, but if the primary contest is down to DeSantis and Trump, barring any unexpected developments, I’d both walk over broken glass to vote for DeSantis and vigorously oppose each every move he makes to diminish the civil liberties of American citizens. 

But in the meantime, I’d prefer someone else to either DeSantis or Trump (or Newsom or Harris or Biden, for that matter). I’m not giving up on a conservatism that limits state power and respects individual liberty. It may not be in fashion now, but those ideas remain most consistent with human flourishing and with American pluralism. Free speech for me and not for thee cannot be a governing philosophy, whether it comes from the Florida right or the California left.

One last thing …

Do yourself a favor. Go look at every last new image from the James Webb space telescope. They’re extraordinary, and it’s encouraging to see that American ingenuity can still produce wondrous things:

David French is a columnist for the New York Times. He’s a former senior editor of The Dispatch. He’s the author most recently of Divided We Fall: America's Secession Threat and How to Restore Our Nation.