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Ron DeSantis Dreams About America’s Founding – And How to Destroy His Enemies
DeSantis’ forgotten 2011 book Dreams From Our Founding Fathers helps us trace the Right’s recent intellectual and political trajectory – and how the Right invokes history to justify radicalization
Ron DeSantis wants to “make America Florida” – and he believes that’s what America’s founders would want for the country. After all, it is what George Washington, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton have told him in his dreams. And they also told him to use the awesome power of the state to go after his enemies. Or something like that.
Earlier this year, DeSantis published The Courage to be Free: Florida’s Blueprint for America’s Revival. The book received a lot of attention: It promised insight into one of the most prominent rightwing politicians in the country and someone who, for a hot minute after his victory in the Florida gubernatorial election last fall, looked like a serious threat to displace Donald Trump at the top of the 2024 Republican presidential ticket. The Courage to be Free is DeSantis’ letter of application for the presidency. It is an autobiography of sorts, but mostly it is DeSantis’ attempt to outline what the American people would be getting if they were to elect him to the most powerful political office in the world.
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The Courage to be Free is actually not Ron DeSantis’ first book. In 2011, DeSantis – in his early thirties, and gearing up for his first run for Congress – published Dreams From Our Founding Fathers: First Principles in the Age of Obama. Until it was discovered by some major media outlets earlier this year, almost no one knew about this book. It’s not really accurate to say it was forgotten, since very few people had ever been aware of its existence. It came out with High-Pitched Hum Publishing, a small publisher based in Jacksonville, Florida that used to focus on local authors who had to pay themselves for the privilege of High-Pitched Hum advertising their works on their website and making sure they were being offered through a few local bookstores. It seems like High-Pitched Hum Publishing is not accepting new manuscripts anymore, and DeSantis’ book no longer appears on their website. It may still be available as an e-book, and some used copies seem to be circulating. But the book is very hard to get and has mostly vanished from the world. That’s really too bad. Not that Dreams From Our Founding Fathers is a good book or a fun read (it really is neither). But it is interesting as a manifestation of the Tea Party moment in Republican politics, as a window into the ways in which reactionaries use and abuse history, and as a stepping stone for exploring the Right’s recent intellectual and political trajectory.
The Founding, according to Ron DeSantis
The title of the book is an obviously intentional diss directed at Barack Obama’s 1995 memoir Dreams From My Father. In fact, that is the sole mission of this book: It is an attack on Barack Obama and his “progressive allies,” as DeSantis calls them, for supposedly pursuing a political project that is fundamentally at odds with the Founders’ vision for America, violating the principles that, supposedly, animated the Framers: Small government, governmental restraint to guarantee individual liberty and freedom, to keep the state out of people’s private lives, to make sure it doesn’t meddle with private business.
The book is an authentic piece of work in the sense that it certainly doesn’t feel like a ghostwriter or an editor were involved. This is all Ronald Dion DeSantis. And he is anything but subtle, making the same point over and over and over again, across 26 chapters, 321 pages of text, and an additional 40 pages of endnotes: Here are the “first principles” that supposedly animated the Framers, here is what they wanted for America – and over there, in contrast, is Barack Obama, who is doing the exact opposite, and who the Founders would have therefore rejected and resented.
DeSantis warns us that in his desire for “transformational change,” his quest to move America “towards a European-style bureaucratic Leviathan,” Obama exhibits “an almost casual disregard for the Constitution.” Patriotic Americans understood this, according to DeSantis, which is why they started rebelling. The Tea Party, in his interpretation, had absolutely nothing to do with racial resentment – it was an uprising of citizens who were guided by an “ethic of constitutionalism” (p. 21) and realized that Obama’s mission constituted a “direct challenge to the Founding Father’s vision of America as a land of individual liberty and as a nation with a Constitution that limited government power to few, enumerated functions.” (p. 8)
If that is so, why did Americans elect for Obama in 2008? DeSantis has an answer: Because they hadn’t realized in time how radical Obama was, as they had been failed by a liberal media that chose to idolize Obama instead of scrutinizing him. Luckily for America, DeSantis is here to do the critical investigation of which these liberal journalists had deprived the American people. At length, DeSantis traces the roots of what he describes as Obama’s radical leftism. We are being presented with a version of Obama who was socialized in extremist circles, always under the influence of this Communist or that ex-terrorist. What all these forces instilled in Obama, according to DeSantis, was the desire to redistribute wealth: from white to Black, from top to bottom. That, to the future governor of Florida, is the essence of Obama’s political project: Whether through the stimulus bill or via imposing Obamacare on the country, it is all about wealth redistribution – and with it, a complete inversion of the social order.
This, however, is completely antithetical to the “philosophy of liberty” the Founders pursued: “While the Framers strived to construct a system of government that prevented government-mandated wealth redistribution,” DeSantis reminds his readers, “Obama is intent on ‘spreading the wealth’ using the power of the state. Indeed, Obama seems to desire wealth redistribution as much to punish high-earners as to ‘help’ his chosen recipients for government largesse.” (p. 101) If DeSantis is to be believed, Obama is committed to a truly revolutionary undertaking: “Moving away from a limited government that guards against a ‘leveling’ spirit and towards an unlimited government whose chief aim is to redistribute wealth.” (p. 318) If successful, the result would no longer resemble the kind of Republic the Founders envisioned, a system that kept democracy in check. “Whatever the label, Obama’s project is the transformation of the United States from a constitutional republic that limits government power and protects individual liberty to a system that subordinates liberty to the power of the state and its collectivist goals.” (p. 103)
The version of Barack Obama we encounter in this book wants to create a world in which the state is everywhere. Whereas the Framers “demanded that government be limited such that it could not exert an all-encompassing influence on the lives of the American people” (p. 171), Michelle Obama is actively undermining the rights of parents to raise their children as they see fit (by fighting against obesity and for better nutrition in schools); and the federal school bake sale regulations? A dangerous incursion of federal power into state sovereignty. The constitution, DeSantis wants us to remember, forbids “social engineering” – and yet: “The conceit that underlies many of the policies of Obama and his allies is that virtually any issue, from the waistline of children to the temperature of the earth, is ripe for intervention of expert (and progressive) central planners.” (p. 188)
It's not enough that his ideology is dangerous and his policies are bad, the Obama we are being presented here is also a deeply unsympathetic figure, a dangerous man, with a personality entirely unfit for the presidency. In a chapter titled “Hubris and Humility,” DeSantis rages against Obama’s arrogance: his “messianic posture” and “personal vanity,” his “egotism,” “hubris,” and “self-centeredness” – all contrasted with “George Washington’s abiding humility.” (p. 249) Obama, DeSantis needs his readers to understand, is exactly the type of political figure the Founders worried so deeply about – he is a demagogue, defined by the DeSantis-Founding Fathers as “a leader who capitalizes on popular prejudices by peddling false claims, by employing questionable rhetorical techniques, or by intentionally sowing divisions among different factions or interests within the body politic.” (p. 252)
The stakes for the country, DeSantis in convinced, are extremely high: “America is at a constitutional crossroads.” (p. 321) High time, therefore, for those adhering to “faithful constitutionalism” to fight back against the attempts to create “a decidedly less exceptional America, an America more akin to governments throughout Europe, in which the state, rather than the individual, is supreme.” (p. 321) The upcoming 2012 election would not just be about policy differences: “The voters’ choice between these competing visions will define the national character for a generation and, perhaps, irrevocably.” (p. 321)
“Constitutional conservatism,” 2011 vs 2023 edition
If we take these emphatic declarations of “constitutional conservatism” in Dreams From Our Founding Fathers at face value, we should expect the Founders and 2011 Ron DeSantis to have a big problem with 2023 Ron DeSantis. As governor of Florida, DeSantis has spearheaded the rightwing attempt to roll back civil liberties for vulnerable groups; no one has moved more aggressively to curtail freedom of speech and academic freedom; and he has mobilized the coercive powers of the state against those he identifies as the enemy, and that includes private businesses like Disney.
DeSantis’ path since his 2011 book in many ways mirrors the recent trajectory of the Right more broadly: From at least a rhetorical commitment to free-market, small-government libertarianism to embracing the rightwing populist culture war, and from at least pretending to be committed to restraining governmental power to mobilizing the coercive powers of the state to roll back pluralism.
And yet, DeSantis wants us to believe that he is just as much a true “constitutional conservative” today as he was in 2011. And just as in 2011, DeSantis and leading rightwing politicians, intellectuals, and activists invoke a specific version of America’s founding in order to legitimize their political actions. How do these self-proclaimed “constitutional conservatives” on the Right explain and justify the contrast between declaring your allegiance to “first principles” that safeguard against government interference in the private life of citizens on the one hand – and threatening to rip families apart if parents seek gender-affirming care for their children; between demonizing Obama for supposedly daring to go after any private business “which acts in a way that conflicts with the government’s political agenda” here – and aggressively feuding with Disney for defying Florida’s legislation that targets lgbtq rights there?
The 1776 Commission’s vision of what makes America “good”
Leading rightwing politicians, intellectuals, and activists often invoke history, especially a specific version of America’s Founding, in a quest to justify their actions and present them as part of a noble struggle in defense of “real America.” The prevailing rightwing perspective on U.S. history, and how it connects to the current political conflict, is best captured in the official report of the infamous 1776 Commission, the advisory Committee established by then-president Donald Trump in the fall of 2020, with the explicit goal of guaranteeing “patriotic education.” The Commission epitomized the anti-Critical Race Theory moral panic that was taking off at the time, and was a reaction to the supposed leftwing capture of U.S. history that had manifested most visibly, according to the Right, in the New York Times’ 1619 Project and efforts around the country to remove Confederate monuments. The call for “patriotic education” was also a key element of the Right’s reaction to the widespread protests against racist police violence in the wake of the murder of George Floyd. When he announced the Commission, Trump described “the left-wing rioting and mayhem” as “the direct result of decades of left-wing indoctrination in our schools.” The attempt to mandate a white nationalist version of history was therefore very much part of a broader reactionary counter-mobilization, as the Black Lives Matter-led protests of 2020 were widely perceived on the Right as indisputable proof that the forces of leftwing subversion had already been allowed to advance too far. The 1776 Commission released its official report on January 18, 2021 – on MLK Day! – and was disbanded by president Biden immediately upon taking office just a few days later.
At first sight, the 1776 Commission makes a similar argument to the one DeSantis advanced in Dreams From Our Founding Fathers in 2011: The modern Left, in this diagnosis, is attacking the “first principles” that had guided the Framers. However, there is not much talk about small government and governmental restraint in the 1776 Report. Instead, it is a plea to defend the nation against the assault of leftwing identity politics. No other than John C. Calhoun is presented as “perhaps the leading forerunner of identity politics,” and the Report asserts a direct line of anti-American identity politics from Calhoun to progressivism to the civil rights movement – which, in this interpretation, devolved into favoring “group rights” instead of equal opportunity “not unlike those advanced by Calhoun and his followers” – to today’s “woke” Leftism and Black Lives Matter activism. It’s a rather bold inversion of Calhoun’s actual political project, as he was one of the key intellectual and political architects of anti-democratic minority rule, weaponizing the idea of “states’ rights” to preserve white supremacy. The intention is clear: The Founding is invoked to discredit today’s Left and its supposed project of subverting the nation – and the national story – by dividing it into hostile identity groups and “placing them perpetually in conflict with each other.”
The West Coast Straussian version of history
Actual historians had little influence on the 1776 Report – instead, the Commission was stacked with rightwing politicians, activists, and political theorists from a particular political and intellectual eco-system, often associated with Hillsdale College, one of the country’s most unabashedly reactionary private colleges, or the Claremont Institute, a rightwing think tank based in Southern California. In terms of their ideological perspective, many of them can be described as West Coast Straussians or West Coast Straussian-adjacent. These terms point to a specific school of thought on the Right that goes back to political philosopher Leo Strauss, whose disciple Harry Jaffa, a famous Lincoln scholar and one of the most influential conservative intellectuals particularly in the middle decades of the twentieth century, is a key figure in the West Coast Straussian intellectual tradition. It was Jaffa’s students who founded the Claremont Institute in the late 1970s. Today, West Coast Straussians are undoubtedly the most Trumpian strand of the rightwing intellectual sphere, and the Claremont Institute is the closest thing they have to an institutional home.
Remember John Eastman, the constitutional lawyer who was one of the key conspirators in Trump’s scheme to nullify the 2020 election? He used to be the dean at the Chapman University School of Law, but had to resign from his position under pressure because of his involvement in the January 6 coup attempt. He is very much still welcome in the Claremont orbit, however: He still serves on its board of directors, is a senior fellow at the institute, and is the founding director of the Center for Constitutional Jurisprudence, which is closely affiliated with Claremont. He also clerked for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas – the man is a perfect example of the parallel universe of connections, institutions, and counter-expertise the Right has built over the past few decades. Leading Trumpian “thinkers” on the Right are often either directly affiliated with the Claremont Institute or find a platform for their radicalizing ideas via Claremont’s publications. The infamous “Flight 93” essay, for instance, in which rightwing author Michael Anton presented the Democrats as a fundamental threat to America, akin to the terrorists of 9/11, and called on conservatives to unite behind Trump, was published in the Claremont Review of Books shortly before the 2016 election; Glen Ellmers’ plea that “Conservatism Is No Longer Enough,” arguing that the boundaries of citizenship needed to be redrawn in order to exclude over half the electorate, everyone who voted for Joe Biden in 2020, came out in The American Mind, Claremont’s online publication. I’ll stop here. My point is: You will not find a lot of support for democracy – certainly not the multiracial, pluralistic kind – among the Claremont ranks or the current iteration of West Coast Straussian thought more broadly.
West Coast Straussians are obsessed with the Founding – and the idea that America is good because the Framers based the country on certain natural rights and timeless laws of nature, enshrining these eternal laws and morals in the country’s founding documents. In this interpretation, progressivism is the key enemy: A relativistic project of adapting laws and morals over time, thereby alienating America from the timeless essence which it once embodied. This, to West Coast Straussians, puts progressivism in the same category as fascism or communism – ideologies that seek to remake man and the world in defiance of the natural order through totalitarian government intervention. The 1776 Report explicitly makes this argument, claiming that progressivism is akin to fascism. Just like Mussolini, the Report claims, the progressive movement “sought to centralize power under the management of so-called experts.” The Left’s end goal, we are given to understand, is inevitably a totalitarian society.
The permission to radicalize
Don’t get me wrong: Donald Trump obviously didn’t name these West Coast Straussians and adjacent figures to the 1776 Commission because he was intimately aware of their interpretation of the Founding. He chose them because they supported him. And the 1776 Report offers a window into why they did, into the rational by which the reactionary Right has given itself permission to embrace Trumpism: If the stakes are so high, if the other side is out to destroy all that is good about America and tear the nation’s moral fabric apart, moderation and restraint are not an option. Instead, a radical counter-mobilization is desperately needed – even if that entails storming the Capitol and/or continued support for the man responsible for summoning the mob that did.
As much as the shady cadre of Claremont influencers and West Coast Straussians may be mostly working in the shadows, usually flying under the radar of mainstream attention, these are not fringe ideas. They stand in the long and powerful tradition of defining freedom as the freedom to subjugate others, the freedom of white Christian conservatives to curtail the freedoms of everyone they deem “the Other.” It’s not that the extremists, pundits, and activists who populate the reactionary intellectual sphere are leading the charge (as much as many of these people would like to believe, and probably tell themselves, that they are the vanguard of the movement). But these reactionaries are providing intellectual justifications and rationalizations for the anti-democratic radicalization of the Right. What exact impact that has is impossible to quantify, and it will differ depending on where we look and who we are talking about. In a fundamental sense, however, we all need to make sense of our actions and find ways to legitimize them in the stories we tell ourselves. And such ideas, once out in the world, infiltrate the way people perceive of the world around them and of their own place in it. That matters. And in their rationalizations, they most clearly articulate and capture the underlying sense of being under siege, of fighting a noble war for the survival of all that is good and holy against a ruthless, Godless enemy, that is fueling so much of what has been happing on the Right, from the base to the highest levels of Republican politics.
I say it’s unlikely that Ron DeSantis is fully aware of these reactionary intellectual traditions. But his second book, The Courage to be Free, certainly taps into these exact justifications: His enemy is the “ruling elite,” which he defines as anyone who adheres to “woke” ideology – and according to the governor of Florida, this leftist elite is dominating most major institutions of American life: the media, big tech, education – which enables them to impose their radically “Un-American” ideology on the country. Under these circumstances, the type of “constitutional conservatism” of the 2011 book that, at least on the surface, preached governmental restraint no longer applies; that’s for a healthy society that respects the laws of nature. Now, as the natural order the Framers supposedly sought to enshrine is under assault, “constitutional conservatism” calls for something very different, for a mobilization of the coercive powers of the state – which, in this interpretation, is necessary to defend a particular kind of “freedom”: the freedom to live in accordance with the natural order.
A radicalization, but not a departure
The path DeSantis took from his first to his second book, and the recent trajectory of the Right more broadly, constitutes a radicalization – but not a complete departure. Dreams From Our Founding Fathers doesn’t necessarily foreground the racial resentment and rightwing populist nativism of the Tea Party. In more traditional, pre-Trumpian fashion, DeSantis relies on easy-to-decode subtext and (very loud!) dog whistles. But all the characteristic of today’s politics of radicalizing white grievance are present. While DeSantis doesn’t openly embrace birtherism, he nevertheless presents Obama as the Un-American “Other” who is shaped by radical foreign influences and wants to take the well-earned wealth of white people away to give it to the Blacks. The 2011 book doesn’t yet display the fever pitch of anti-CRT hysteria, it is not advocating the banning and purging of critical Black voices. But DeSantis does spend a whole lot of time and energy on explaining why it is, in his view, ludicrous to “taint” the memory of the Framers or the interpretation of the Founding by bringing up slavery in any way.
There is very much a line from these ideas to Trumpism, just as there is a line from DeSantis’ 2011 book to the 1776 Commission’s version of the Founding – and to 2023’s The Courage to Be Free and the authoritarian policies propagated therein. There is a throughline: The allegiance was never to getting the history right – not in any sense that a historian would recognize as a good-faith effort; the “first principle,” to use the term DeSantis likes so much, is the allegiance to a vision of America as a nation in accordance with the supposed laws of nature – a society still respecting a natural order as it manifests in traditional hierarchies of race, religion, gender, and wealth. Everything else – the policies necessary to uphold that order, no matter how radical, and the historical narratives that can be used to legitimize them – flows from there.
I try to provide links and references throughout my pieces, but I want to highlight a few sources that I found particularly helpful. Historian David Waldstreicher, an expert on the Founding era, wrote a great essay in The Atlantic about DeSantis’ 2011 book. The Know Your Enemy podcast is unmatched in breaking down the Right’s intellectual history and present – their episodes on West Coast Straussians and on the conflict between Jaffa vs Kendall are particularly relevant here. Laura Field wrote the definitive dissection of what’s been going on at the Claremont Institute. And finally, I have written several long pieces for the newsletter about the recent radicalization of the reactionary intellectual sphere, with plenty of further links and references in there – you’ll find them here and here.
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