How Ron DeSantis joined the ‘ruling class’ — and turned against it

Politics

For DeSantis and his allies, the culture wars are the central struggle of American public life, and schools are the most important battleground where they will be fought.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at the Moms for Liberty Summit in Philadelphia.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at the Moms for Liberty Summit in Philadelphia, June 30, 2023. Haiyun Jiang/The New York Times

Early last year, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis nestled into his chair onstage in Naples, Florida, to explain to an audience of the would-be conservative elite his journey through the reigning liberal one they hoped to destroy. His host was Larry P. Arnn, the president of Hillsdale College, a small Christian school in southern Michigan that has become an academic hub of the Trump-era right. His subject was Yale University, where DeSantis was educated and where, as he tells it, he first met the enemy.

“I’m a public school kid,” DeSantis told the audience, unspooling a story that he has shared in recent years with aides, friendly interviewers, donors, voters and readers of his memoir, “The Courage to Be Free.” “My mom was a nurse, my dad worked for a TV ratings company, installing the metering devices back then. And I show up in jean shorts and a T-shirt.” The outfit “did not go over well with the Andover and Groton kids” who mocked his lack of polish.

Worse than Yale’s snobbery was its politics: College was “the first time that I saw unadulterated leftism,” he told the Republican Jewish Coalition this March. “We’re basically being told the Soviet Union was the victim in the Cold War.” Teachers and students alike “rejected God, and they hated our country,” he assured the audience in Naples.

Then there are the parts of the story he doesn’t tell: How his new baseball teammates at Yale — mostly fellow athletic recruits from the South and West who likewise viewed themselves as Yale outsiders — were among those who teased him about his clothes, and how he would nevertheless adopt their insular culture as his own. How he joined one of Yale’s storied “secret societies,” those breeding grounds of future senators and presidents, but left other members with the impression that he would have preferred to be tapped by a more prestigious one. How he shared with friends his dream of going to Harvard Law School and successfully applied there, stacking one elite credential neatly onto another, and co-founded a tutoring firm that touted “the only LSAT prep courses designed exclusively by Harvard Law School graduates.” How his Yale connections helped him out-raise rivals as a first-time candidate for Congress, and how he featured his Ivy credentials — “a political scarlet letter as far as a GOP primary went,” DeSantis likes to say — on his campaign websites. And how that CV helped sell him to an Ivy-obsessed President Donald Trump, whose 2018 endorsement helped propel DeSantis to the governor’s office in Florida.

DeSantis, 44, is not the first Republican politician of his generation to rail against his own Ivy League degrees while milking them for access and campaign cash. But now, as he seeks the Republican presidential nomination, he is molding his entire campaign and political persona around a vengeful war against what he calls the country’s “ruling class”: an incompetent, unaccountable elite of bureaucrats, journalists, educators and other supposed “experts” whose pernicious and unearned authority the governor has vowed to vanquish.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signs the Parental Rights in Education bill at Classical Preparatory school.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signs the Parental Rights in Education bill at Classical Preparatory school, on March 28, 2022, in Shady Hills, Fla. – Douglas R. Clifford/Tampa Bay Times via AP, File

For DeSantis and his allies, the culture wars are the central struggle of American public life, and schools are the most important battleground where they will be fought. “Education is our sword,” DeSantis’ then-education commissioner, Richard Corcoran, explained to a Hillsdale audience in 2021. And DeSantis is the man to wield it — a self-made striver who was “given nothing,” as he told the audience attending his campaign kickoff in Iowa in May. “These elites are not enacting an agenda to represent us. They’re imposing their agenda on us, via the federal government, via corporate America and via our own education system.” Even as he struggles to displace Trump as the Republican Party’s preeminent figure, DeSantis has become captain of a new conservative vanguard, positioning it to influence American politics for years to come.

Yet his emergence as his party’s chief culture warrior was anything but preordained. Genuinely embittered by his experiences at elite institutions, he also astutely grasped how they could be useful to him as he climbed the political ladder, according to dozens of friends and classmates from college and law school, as well as former aides and associates. For much of his political career, including his early years as Florida governor, he was neither closely identified with education policy nor deeply engaged in the debates over race and gender identity that have come to engulf American politics. It took the COVID pandemic to awaken DeSantis to the political potency of classrooms and fully mobilize him against what he now calls the “bureaucratic ‘expert’ class.” Now, pursuing the presidency, DeSantis has fully weaponized his resentments, offering voters a revisionist history of his own encounters with the ruling class to buttress his arguments for razing it.

But DeSantis and his ideological allies — among them a group of conservative intellectuals clustered around Hillsdale and the California-based Claremont Institute who acquired new prominence during the Trump administration — are not aiming to abolish the ruling class. Instead, emboldened by the broader COVID-era backlash over school closures and diversity programs, they hope to replace it with a distinctly conservative one, trained in schools recaptured from liberals and reshaped by “classical” principles — a more traditionalist, Christian-inflected approach to education.

A student protest at New College.
A student protest at New College, a left-leaning public liberal arts school that Gov. Ron DeSantis took over by installing new conservative leaders, at the campus in Sarasota, Fla., Jan. 1, 2023. – Todd Anderson/The New York Times

In a written response to questions for this article, a DeSantis spokesperson, Bryan Griffin, described The New York Times’ reporting as a “hit piece likely manufactured and seeded by political opponents designed to smear Ron DeSantis ahead of the debate,” and defended the governor’s record. “In the COVID era, the world went mad with radical gender ideology and began pushing it harder than ever into school curriculum,” Griffin said. “DeSantis stepped up to the moment and stopped the indoctrination despite the left and the media’s best efforts to cover for it.”

To uproot what he considers liberal political activism from public schools and universities, DeSantis has stripped power from teachers and administrators and transferred it to himself and his appointees. But even as he calls to dismantle “woke” orthodoxy, he has sought to impose another, with a sweeping ban on the teaching of “identity politics” or “systemic racism” in required classes at Florida’s public colleges and universities and new civics training for high school teachers that plays down the role of slavery in early American history. Under the banner of “parental rights,” DeSantis-backed policies have given conservative Floridians a kind of veto power over books and curriculums favored by their more liberal neighbors.

Earlier this year, the governor seized control of New College of Florida, a left-leaning public liberal arts school in Sarasota. He appointed a conservative majority to the board of trustees; the college’s new overseers then fired the school’s leadership, installed Corcoran as president and announced plans to turn New College into a Florida version of Hillsdale. “The goal of the university is not free inquiry,” Christopher Rufo, a conservative activist and one of the new trustees, said during a recent appearance in California. Instead, he argued, conservatives need to deploy state power to retake public institutions wherever they can.

“The universities are not overly politicized. The universities are overly ideologized and insufficiently politicized,” Rufo said. “We should repoliticize the universities and understand that education is at heart a political question.”

Yale University’s baseball field.
Yale University’s baseball field, where Gov. Ron DeSantis played on the team as an undergraduate at the Ivy League school, in West Haven, Conn., July 27, 2023. – Christopher Capozziello/The New York Times

DeSantis had never been to New England when he arrived at Yale in the late 1990s, an honor student and baseball standout from the middle-class suburban Gulf Coast city of Dunedin, Florida. He was far from the only public school graduate in Yale’s freshman class, but he already carried a chip on his shoulder, caught between a powerful confidence in his own gifts and his discomfort with Yale’s more cosmopolitan milieu.

He found his tribe on the baseball team. The baseball players segregated themselves from the rest of Yale and cultivated a hostility toward their peers, their latent status anxiety sharpened by a realization that some of their fellow students did not take them or their sport seriously.

Along with many of his teammates, he joined Delta Kappa Epsilon, a fraternity composed largely of athletes, many from working-class backgrounds. At Yale, DKE was known as boorish even by fraternity standards, with a reputation for over-the-top hazing of pledges. When DeSantis was a senior, according to former brothers and pledges, a large group of pledges quit after one hazing episode turned violent. On another night, pledges were ordered to a frat house room, two of them recalled. After entering one at a time, each was blindfolded and ordered to drop his pants, with DeSantis, other brothers, and at least one female guest on hand to mock their genitalia.

DeSantis denied these accounts through his spokesperson, who called them “ridiculous assertions and completely false.”

In “The Courage to Be Free,” DeSantis’ Yale education is tidily repackaged as a prologue to his future battles with the ruling class. “In retrospect, Yale allowed me to see the future,” he writes. “It just took me 20 years to realize it.” Yet the book is curiously vague, identifying no particular exchanges or classes where he encountered the fervent anti-Americanism that, in his telling, defined his education there. His spokesperson declined to identify any.

The law school at Harvard University.
The law school at Harvard University, where Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis was a graduate student, in Cambridge, Mass., July 27, 2023. – Billy Hickey/The New York Times

DeSantis began fashioning a deeper critique of the ruling class even as he quietly climbed its ranks, already telling others that he imagined himself as a future president. Harvard Law was little different from Yale, he writes in “The Courage to Be Free,” with a stultifying careerism layered onto overtly liberal politics. The Harvard faculty of the early 2000s, DeSantis asserted, “was increasingly dominated by adherents of so-called critical legal studies” — a left-wing school of argument that seemingly neutral laws can be racist or discriminatory. At the same time, he wrote, Harvard offered an “assembly-line style of education” aimed chiefly at preparing students for “a lucrative career in business or law.” DeSantis instead joined the Navy, serving as a military prosecutor and combat adviser.

His academic credentials would yield a bounty when he finally entered politics. He was little-known to local Republican leaders and voters in the newly drawn congressional district he set out to win in early 2012, but he was a disciplined campaigner and proved a formidable fundraiser. Yale friends around the country sent checks, helping drive a flood of out-of-state money. A Yale friend put him in touch with a political adviser to Trump, who praised him on Twitter as “very impressive.”

When DeSantis decided to run for governor a few years later, he had even more help from the Yale world, tapping an older, more conservative generation of alumni.

Katie Stallings sets up her second-grade classroom at MacFarlane Park Elementary in Tampa.
Following Gov. Ron DeSantis’s order that all Florida schools reopen for in-person instruction at the start of the new academic year, despite the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, Katie Stallings sets up her second-grade classroom at MacFarlane Park Elementary in Tampa, Aug. 17, 2020. – Octavio Jones/The New York Times

After being elected governor by a hair’s breadth, DeSantis at first seemed mindful of the political center. He committed billions of dollars to protect the Everglades. Appearing at his alma mater Dunedin High School, he announced a proposal to raise teachers’ minimum salaries.

Then came COVID. At first, DeSantis reluctantly heeded Trump administration health officials like Dr. Anthony Fauci. He imposed a state lockdown in April 2020; he sometimes appeared masked at public events. But amid shifting federal guidance and growing worry about the social and economic impacts of lockdowns, he began doing his own research. He consulted experts who departed from the emerging medical consensus around COVID restrictions, and he moved quickly to relax them. That summer, embracing data showing that children were at low risk for severe illness or death from COVID, DeSantis took perhaps his biggest gamble: His administration ordered all Florida schools to reopen for in-person instruction when the school year began.

The pandemic changed the political contours of education. In blue and purple states around the country, a swath of otherwise middle-of-the-road parents erupted against Democrats and teachers unions over continued school closures. There was a rising backlash against mask mandates and the spread, in the wake of the George Floyd protests, of “anti-racist” and “equity” curriculums. Rufo, previously a little-known documentarian and activist, had introduced millions of people to the academic doctrine known as critical race theory, saying it had infiltrated public school classrooms and workplaces around the country. New groups quickly formed to channel this swell of parental anger into political action, notably in Florida, where three mothers, one with ties to the state Republican Party, formed a group called Moms for Liberty and quickly built it into a national force.

For DeSantis, education officials represented yet another set of “experts” who were getting it wrong. “Ron bet big against the grain on one thing, which was reopening schools,” said one former aide. “It paid off, and he was right. He learned that lesson at the same time that education became more political. And he cared more about education because Moms for Liberty suddenly existed.”

As he battled against critical race theory and bureaucratic elites, DeSantis became entwined with a rising movement of conservative academics and activists outside Florida.

Less known for technical policy advice than for sweeping polemics about the decay of American government and culture, Claremont scholars shared DeSantis’ belief that “American freedom required a recovering of the Founding ideals,” as Brian T. Kennedy, a former president of Claremont who remains a fellow there, put it. One of Claremont’s founders, Arnn, had taken over Hillsdale in 2000 and transformed it into both a fundraising juggernaut and a redoubt of Christian, classically oriented liberal arts education.

As DeSantis’ profile rose amid the COVID battles, both Claremont and Hillsdale lavished him with attention and praise. In Naples last year, Arnn introduced DeSantis as “one of the most important people living.”

Hillsdale College.
Hillsdale College, a liberal arts school that has become an academic hub of the Trump-era right, in Hillsdale, Mich., Dec. 7, 2016. – Sean Proctor/The New York Times

As his preparations for the presidential campaign accelerated this year, so did DeSantis’ crusade against the ruling class. In February, the governor and his wife, Casey, invited Claremont President Ryan P. Williams, along with several other Claremont fellows and affiliates, to a private meeting at the Capitol in Tallahassee, Florida. The occasion was the opening of Claremont’s new Florida outpost, under the aegis of Scott Yenor, a professor at Boise State University and a Claremont fellow, now the institute’s new “senior director of state coalitions.” Later that day, the Claremont crowd joined the governor and his top aides for cocktails and dinner. Over a glass of Macallan at the Governor’s Mansion, he regaled them with the story of his takeover of New College the previous month and exchanged ideas about battling campus liberals.

The red-carpet welcome underscored Claremont’s increasingly prominent role in DeSantis’ policy apparatus. Earlier that month, DeSantis had invited another Claremont fellow to join his “round table” on the need to pass new laws against “legacy media defamation.” In March, Yenor joined DeSantis for yet another round table, this one focused on the evils of diversity, equity and inclusion programs in higher education.

On the same day he appeared with the governor in March, Yenor unveiled a report, “Florida Universities: From Woke to Professionalism,” asserting that public colleges were “gripped by DEI ideology” that threatened to “tear Florida apart.”

Two months later, the governor signed a law banning the state’s public colleges and universities from spending money on diversity programs, setting off a now-familiar cycle of negative headlines and DeSantis counterattacks. In legal battles to defend DeSantis’ higher-education agenda, lawyers for his administration, far from defending academic freedom, have argued that the concept does not even apply to public university professors: College curriculums and in-class instruction are merely “government speech,” controllable by duly elected officials. The American Association of University Professors likened the state’s position to “authoritarian control of education similar to what exists in North Korea, Iran, or Russia.”

Corcoran, then the education commissioner, tapped Hillsdale to join a small group of outside institutions helping to revise the state’s civics standards, another signature DeSantis initiative. Both Hillsdale and Claremont personnel feature disproportionately in a series of online teacher training courses subsequently created for the effort. (A Hillsdale spokesperson said individuals involved in the training and in Florida’s textbook reviews had acted in their “private capacity,” not on behalf of the school.) In-person training last summer amounted to an indoctrination, according to some teachers who attended, into conservative views about constitutional “originalism” and the separation of church and state.

In a statement last year about the training, the Florida Education Department told the Miami Herald that “every lesson we teach is based on history, not ideology or any form of indoctrination.” But Corcoran was more direct while speaking at Hillsdale. Education, he said then, is “100% ideological.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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