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February 2023 Issue [Letter from Washington]


The money behind Ron DeSantis’s populist façade
Illustration by Tim Enthoven

Illustration by Tim Enthoven

[Letter from Washington]


The money behind Ron DeSantis’s populist façade

Two weeks after Ron DeSantis moved into the governor’s mansion in Tallahassee, Florida, in January 2019, the chair of his political action committee, Susie Wiles, summarized a pair of important goals in a confidential memo to DeSantis’s chief of staff: “It is the governor’s desire,” she wrote, “to fundraise and maintain a high political profile at all times—inside and outside of Florida.” True to Wiles’s word, DeSantis has spent the past four years pursuing these objectives with unrelenting vigor and remarkable success.

His methodical ascent to national political stardom has now taken a quantum leap, thanks to the evident contrast between his solid reelection victory and the losses suffered by many of Donald Trump’s chosen candidates in the November elections. The former president’s apparent humiliation ignited joy across the political spectrum: at long last, a leader had arisen to wrest control of the Republican Party from his toxic grip. Richard Viguerie, known as a “funding father” of modern conservatism who has long yearned for the disappearance of Trump since he left office—“He costs us 20 percent of the Republican vote,” he told me a year ago—now extols DeSantis as “the future,” praising his “spine and fight.” The Murdoch media machine, presumably on orders from its patriarch, has thrown its weight behind the Florida governor, as bluntly expressed by the New York Post with the headline defuture, and a bizarre comparison to the young Bill Clinton. Even DeSantis’s opponents have noted his projection of competence; President Joe Biden himself lauded the governor’s performance during Hurricane Ian as “pretty remarkable.” The quasi-liberal online tabloid The Daily Beast proclaimed that DeSantis might be the “more popular, effective, and stable” leader that “non-MAGA Conservatives” have been looking for.

DeSantis may indeed be the chosen leader of the non-MAGA right, but he has been careful to maintain a Trumpian populist image. In 2018, during his first campaign for governor, he professed his intent to “drain the swamp in Tallahassee, which needs to be drained, just like Washington.” This past September, he told the National Conservatism Conference of his determination to confront the “Masters of the Universe,” who, “not content to line their pockets, not content to make huge profits, want to use their power to change society.”

But throughout his time in office, DeSantis has done his best to line corporate pockets, an approach that has been well rewarded—sometimes spectacularly so. When Las Vegas real estate mogul Robert Bigelow pressed a check for $10 million into DeSantis’s hand last July, the governor was so overcome by the enormity of the sum that he reportedly clutched it tightly all the way home to Florida. While Bigelow’s donation was largely inspired, so he told the Associated Press, by his belief that the rising Republican star is a young Ronald Reagan, the record suggests that it will also grant him political influence—whatever goes into the DeSantis ear, so long as it comes with financial lubrication, has tended to receive an agreeable reception. Wiles’s fundraising memo, leaked to the Tampa Bay Times, was published alongside an instructive email correspondence between senior staff regarding a high-priority program to generate cash flow into his campaign coffers. Referring to a golf game scheduled for DeSantis and three lobbyists from the giant utility company Duke Energy, Wiles asked, “Is this the one that is $25k per?” “A little more,” the committee’s financial consultant, Heather Barker, replied. “Duke is going to do $100k.” Duke then moved $75,000 to the Republican Party of Florida, whose funds Wiles said were interchangeable with those of the DeSantis political action committee; by late 2022, Duke had donated $3.26 million, according to the organization DeSantis Watch. In a memo, Barker laid out a projected price list for potential donors. Inclusion in a golf foursome with DeSantis would cost $25,000, while a one-on-one carried the stiffer tab of $100,000. Skipping the golf for a fifteen-minute meeting with the governor still ran to $25,000; inclusion in a dinner came to $150,000; and one hour at an “intimate and high dollar” gathering was priced at a cool $250,000. Donors may have found these hefty price tags eminently reasonable, considering the friendly regime they wanted to maintain in office.

Similar price lists nestle in many of our leaders’ confidential files—recall Bill Clinton’s program to rent out the Lincoln Bedroom to campaign contributors. But when coupled with swamp-draining rhetoric, the DeSantis approach highlights how the traditional challenge facing the political class has gained new weight in a post-Trump GOP: politicians must cater to the masses’ resentment of the elite while extracting a fat price from the latter for safeguarding their interests. Trump managed the challenge extremely well, but his erratic and authoritarian behavior repelled many whose interests he served, especially when his supporters turned violent with his encouragement. DeSantis is following a similar path, but his methodical ruthlessness, and his loyalty to the powers that matter, may yet carry him to his ultimate goal.

Elected to Congress in 2012 and soon attached to the extreme right-wing Freedom Caucus, DeSantis dutifully echoed standard Republican themes during his time in the House, denouncing Obamacare and the expanding national debt. But his preferred focus was as a militant national security hawk—perhaps unsurprising given his Navy service as a military lawyer posted to Guantanamo, a hot spot of human rights violations, and also to Fallujah, where he worked as a legal adviser to the Navy SEALs. He otherwise left few legislative footprints. His aspiration was to move to the Senate, launching a campaign for the seat that was to be vacated by Marco Rubio, another hawk, when Rubio ran for president in 2016. But the scheme had to be hurriedly abandoned when Rubio dropped out of the race for the White House and announced a rerun for his Senate seat. DeSantis instead ran for reelection in the House and, after winning, turned his sights to the 2018 gubernatorial race.

His problem was that the Florida Republican establishment had already picked its candidate: agricultural commissioner Adam Putman, a rising star in the party. DeSantis’s only hope was to get a signal boost from Trump. But Trump, according to one of his longtime friends and advisers, had never heard of this obscure congressman, who, in any case, had failed to endorse him in the 2016 primary. DeSantis finally managed to get Trump’s attention, so the friend informed me, with appearances on Fox, including Sean Hannity’s show, in which he vehemently denounced the Mueller investigation into Trump’s alleged collusion with Russia. Shortly thereafter, Trump delivered the coveted endorsement in a fulsome tweet: “Congressman Ron DeSantis is a brilliant young leader, Yale and then Harvard Law, who would make a great Governor of Florida. He loves our country and is a true fighter!” Buoyed by this blessing, DeSantis worked hard to display fealty, appearing frequently on Fox to echo his mentor’s themes—denouncing the FBI for planting a spy in Trump’s 2016 campaign and commending his patron as a model for children. He even ran a campaign commercial, narrated by his wife, Casey, featuring him reading The Art of the Deal to his infant child: “Then Mr. Trump said, ‘You’re fired.’ I love that part!” His primary campaign was “all about Trump,” as Orlando journalist Jason Garcia put it to me. “There was no sense of what he would actually do.” After securing the nomination, he eked out a razor-thin victory against the Democratic nominee, the charismatic Tallahassee mayor Andrew Gillum.

The story of DeSantis’s climb to the governor’s mansion on the shoulders of Donald Trump carries multiple ironies, not least of which is the vast difference in their personalities. Trump may call himself a Floridian today, but he is still a New Yorker, as journalist Sidney Blumenthal observed to me—a comedian in the mode of Don Rickles, always ready to make a joke. DeSantis is different. He is tightly controlled and intensely private: his public schedule, for example, is issued at the end of the day, when all events in which the press might take an interest are safely past, and he has rarely sat for a hard interview during his time in office. To compare him with indefatigable extroverts like Ronald Reagan or Bill Clinton seems patently absurd. But another former president—also an introvert in an extrovert’s profession—does bear comparison: Richard Nixon, who similarly lacked charisma and sought to make up for it with forced congeniality. Among other traits, the Florida governor shares with the thirty-seventh president a willingness, after careful calculation, to take a massive gamble. Nixon defied the conventional wisdom of his party and went to China; DeSantis flew in the face of medical orthodoxy by lifting Florida’s lockdown in the summer of 2020 and abolishing all COVID-19 restrictions one year later. He insisted on quickly reopening schools and thrilled the tourist industry by lifting travel restrictions. The state, with its high number of elderly residents, did suffer a surge of deaths, but the lockdown rejection, especially his refusal to keep schools closed, has proved widely popular and was by many accounts a major factor in his sweeping reelection victory.

In the governor’s standard recitation of his battle honors, his defiance of pandemic-era restrictions shares pride of place with what the Washington Post has described as his “willingness to take aim at industries that wield power in his state.” This reputation is almost entirely based on his public altercation with the Disney Company, initially sparked by the so-called Don’t Say Gay bill, which bans “classroom discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity” through the third grade and which DeSantis signed in late March. Disney, a huge presence in the state and previously a generous DeSantis donor, eventually objected publicly. Sensing an opportunity, DeSantis loudly condemned the corporation and signed a bill abolishing the special tax status it has long enjoyed at its twenty-five-thousand-acre theme park. As he told those cheering conservatives in September: “We took action and as a result, Disney is no longer going to have its own government. They are going to live under the same laws as everybody else, and they are going to pay their fair share of taxes in the state of Florida.”

Maybe. State Representative Anna V. Eskamani, whose district neighbors the Disney enclave, calls the law “100 percent performative.” She suggested to me that it would be replaced by a new bill that removes some of Disney’s authority “and allows the governor to appoint his friends to the board.” Soon after, news reports suggested that this is exactly what will happen. Many of DeSantis’s other high-profile culture war initiatives have vaporized in court. A federal district judge blocked key provisions of his Individual Freedom Act, which forbade educational institutions from teaching that any person bears responsibility for historical injustices because of their race, color, sex, or national origin, and from suggesting that any person is either privileged or oppressed on account of their race or sex. The same judge also dismissed DeSantis’s “anti-riot” law, aimed at criminalizing public protest. These reversals in no way affect the governor’s perennial proclamation of Florida being “where woke goes to die”—along with voting rights for formerly incarcerated people and, of course, abortion rights. But where real issues of profit and loss are concerned, the Washington Post proprietor Jeff Bezos has little to fear from the purported Jacobin of Tallahassee.

Duke Energy and its golfing lobbyists, for example, have contributed enough to claim a high spot on the list of DeSantis’s most generous donors. Duke and two of the other private utility companies dominating the state market—Florida Power and Light (FPL) and Tampa Electric—are regulated monopolies, meaning that they must clear rate increases with a public service commission, which is stocked with political appointees approved by the governor. In recent years, all three utility providers have received approval for eye-watering rate increases—nearly $5 billion over the next four years for FPL—and all three have made fresh demands for 2023. For many years, the office of public counsel, charged with representing the interests of utility customers, was occupied by a tough-minded attorney who fought to impede the power cartel’s hikes. This problem went away in 2020, when DeSantis signed a law that forced out the irksome obstructionist, who was then replaced by a former energy lobbyist.

A closer look at other names topping DeSantis’s donor list reveals a similar pattern. Near the top is the Seminole Tribe of Florida, which operates six out of the seven tribal casinos in the state. They are the owners of Hard Rock International, which brought in $5.2 billion last year; the tribe has funneled $3.8 million to DeSantis and other Republican accounts since the governor began his campaign. Coincidentally or not, DeSantis signed an agreement in 2021 giving the tribe a monopoly on online sports betting in the state. (This was also blocked by a federal judge.) Ordinary Floridians have not fared so well. According to an analysis of DeSantis’s tax policy by Jason Garcia in his instructive newsletter Seeking Rents, consumers are paying as much as $1.5 billion more in annual taxes than they did under former governors, much of it due to sales taxes being newly enforced on online marketplaces such as Amazon.

Meanwhile, most Florida businesses pay no corporate taxes at all, partly through several easily exploitable loopholes; the few that do have had their tax bills slashed by an estimated $2.8 billion. Businesses have also enjoyed diminished sales taxes on property leases and reduced contributions to the state unemployment fund for laid-off workers. Unsurprisingly, corporate overlords see Florida as the promised land. Also near the top of DeSantis’s donor list, contributing $16.25 million, is multibillionaire Kenneth C. Griffin, who moved his home and businesses to the state in 2022. Griffin, whose trading firm Citadel Securities has paid over $100 million in fines for offenses that include misleading clients, had for years complained about growing crime in Chicago. In Miami, he bought a $75 million waterfront property on Biscayne Bay.

Along with viewing the Miami skyline from his front window, Griffin can also keep an eye out for the tons of dead, rotting fish that regularly appear in the dying bay, victims of the pollution infesting Florida’s waterways, much of it caused by fertilizer runoff and defective sewage facilities, both products of unchecked development. The fetid waters join the asthma-inducing “black snow”—ash from burning sugarcane that falls on poor black and Hispanic communities in the farmlands southeast of Lake Okeechobee—to serve as a reminder that, in many ways, Florida functions as a Third World country, complete with special privileges for oligarchs. (Cane burning was banned when the wind blows east toward the Palm Beach enclaves of the mega-rich forty miles away.) Water pollution in particular is such a pressing issue in Florida that DeSantis created the Blue-Green Algae Task Force, which duly made a number of urgent recommendations, almost all of which he has failed to implement. He did, however, take action on black snow, updating the Right to Farm Act, and effectively immunizing sugar corporations from lawsuits prompted by their polluting practices.

Unlike most successful politicians, DeSantis does not rely on a tight group of long-serving, trusted advisers—the one key exception being his wife, Casey, a former TV journalist. He is currently on his third chief of staff as governor. Among former members of DeSantis’s inner circle, one name stands out: Susie Wiles, author of the “high political profile” fundraising memo. Wiles links many strands in the drama of modern Florida politics, most interestingly those connecting DeSantis and Trump. In 2010, she was recruited by health-industry profiteer Rick Scott for his gubernatorial campaign. Scott, whose hospital company had paid a $1.7 billion fine for Medicare fraud, had won the Republican primary thanks to a vastly expensive TV and radio ad blitz, with little or no contact with the press or ordinary voters. He was widely tipped to lose the general election, but Wiles managed to craft a campaign that carried him to victory. She was then recruited by Trump to run his 2016 campaign in Florida, one that he was expected to lose but won by just over one point, for which Wiles received much of the credit. DeSantis recruited her, with Trump’s encouragement, for what Politico called his “flagging” 2018 campaign, and she succeeded once again. As the leaked memos indicate, she was set to chart DeSantis’s path to national prominence, even while continuing to work for Trump on his reelection campaign.

Then, nine months into DeSantis’s term, something happened: the governor not only abruptly cut ties with Wiles, but demanded that Trump also dump her, which the former president agreed to do. Many were surprised that DeSantis would take the risk of jettisoning Wiles. “She’s probably the single most effective operative in the state. She’s delivered not one, not two, but three times: Trump, DeSantis and Scott,” Trump’s adviser and fellow Florida resident Roger Stone told Politico. “This is a mistake they might regret.” Ballard Partners, the powerful lobbying firm for whom Wiles also worked, even parted company with her. Nobody has explained the motives behind this sudden enmity. (It has been suggested that DeSantis believed she was the one who leaked those embarrassing fundraising memos, despite the fact that they cast her in a bad light, too.) As it turned out, Trump did regret cutting Wiles. Soon after his reelection defeat, he reached out to her. After quietly rejoining the team, she has been running much of Trump’s political operation since spring 2021.

It is hard to pinpoint the moment when DeSantis felt it safe to part ways with his political model and patron. The rift was already evident to the public in June 2021, when DeSantis ducked a reporter’s question about the validity of the 2020 presidential election. One Florida Democratic operative suggested to me that DeSantis’s decision to part ways came in the spring of 2021, as “it was becoming clear that the base rejected the vaccines.” While DeSantis was initially an enthusiastic vaccine supporter, he became more equivocal over time, opting to take the single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine in private and refusing to say whether he had received a booster—implicitly distancing himself from the self-proclaimed mastermind of the “warp speed” vaccine program. In January 2022, Trump opened hostilities with a comment about “gutless” politicians who refused to say whether or not they had been boosted. Their relations have only continued to sour. Trump unveiled a new epithet, “DeSanctimonious,” for his upstart rival just before the November election, followed by a threat to release damning information about him.

Trump’s friends and advisers believe that, in primary fights beyond Florida, Republican voters will opt for the real Donald Trump over what they deem the ersatz version. Among their myriad differences, one Trump confidant recently reminded me, is DeSantis’s hawkish instincts, at variance with the Republican Party’s isolationist wing, a constituency to which Trump catered in his original campaign. (“DeSantis is a neocon. It’s going to be one of Trump’s greatest assets.”) Another Trump friend and adviser, Michael Caputo, confidently told me that 2024 will resemble 2016, with Trump rising above a crowded lineup of hopefuls. “Who would people rather watch?” he said. “A wild, bucking bronco, or something tamer and well-behaved?”

The moneyed establishment—represented by the Griffins and Murdochs of this world, with encouragement from the multitude who loathe Trump—has expensively opted for DeSantis. Bereft of his former megadonors, Trump still has a vast and well-tended email list of small-donor MAGA supporters. Once again, he can run from his favorite position: against the establishment, of which DeSantis, he will repeatedly remind the faithful, is the chosen candidate.

 is the Washington editor of Harper’s Magazine. His most recent book is The Spoils of War.

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