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It was six days after the worst storm in nearly a century struck Florida’s south-west coast, disfiguring seaside communities and barrier islands. Retirees who came here to spend their golden years in the sun and salt breeze were wilting. They’d gone days without electricity and clean water. A realisation was settling in that many of them were now homeless and without the means, or the years, to rebuild.

But they had Ron DeSantis. The Florida governor, a beefy former athlete, ditched his suit and tie for a windbreaker embroidered with the state seal when he arrived outside a library-turned-relief centre in Fort Myers, a city that bore the brunt of the hurricane’s fury. At his elbow was his glamorous wife, Casey, a former television news anchor, with an inscrutable gaze trained on the future.

DeSantis, 44, boasts Yale and Harvard degrees and what some describe as a photographic memory. The recovery effort appeared to be in solid hands as he rattled off statistics and organisational plans with a vigour and fluency that President Biden’s handlers can only dream of.

Then came the righteous anger that DeSantis increasingly channels for a growing legion of fans. It was aimed at a quartet of alleged looters the police had arrested nearby a few days earlier. They were Hispanic and three of the four were illegal immigrants. “These are people that are foreigners. They’re illegally in our country. And not only that, they try to loot and ransack in the aftermath of a natural disaster,” DeSantis, a former prosecutor, fumed, his hand chopping the air for emphasis. “I mean, they should be prosecuted but they need to be sent back to their home country. They should not be here at all!”

The crowd whooped in delight and erupted again when DeSantis vowed that, if he could, he would “drag them out by the collars” and “send them back to where they came from”.

DeSantis came to national attention with an unorthodox response to the Covid-19 pandemic that made him a hero to conservatives. Since then, he has harnessed a combination of intellect and calculated hostility — to outsiders, elites, the media — to become the man of the hour for America’s rightwing populist movement. Even many Democrats concede DeSantis is likely to win re-election next month — the question is by how big a margin. It is a foregone conclusion in and around the DeSantis orbit that he will then seek the Republican nomination for the presidency in 2024. The governor may never be more popular than he is now, associates say.

Of course, a White House bid would mean crossing the man who plucked a little-known congressman from obscurity with a single tweet of support that carried him all the way into the Florida governor’s mansion: Donald Trump. Remarkably, DeSantis now equals the former leader of the free world and reality television star in name recognition among Republicans. Confirmation of his stature as a plausible rival to Trump came in January when the former president’s ally, Roger Stone, saw the need to deride DeSantis as “a Yale Harvard fat boy” who would never be president. Behind the scenes, Trump is said to bristle at mentions of DeSantis’s formidable intellect.

In personal terms, the matchup would be a contest of diametric opposites. One man is a chaotic Jupiter ruled by gut and intuition, the other a disciplined lawyer who sifts through reams of data and statistics before making a cold calculation. One is cosseted by an entourage and inherited wealth, the other solitary and self-made. One is a philanderer, the other a family man. The list goes on.

The cover of the FT Weekend Magazine, October 22/23

DeSantis is not the performer Trump is. When he tries to sound tough, his voice sometimes veers toward a whine. He sets up his jokes well enough but does not quite stick the landings. On the stump, DeSantis sometimes reads like Eve Harrington to Trump’s Margo Channing, an alluring understudy lacking the crackling presence of a star. Trump, the master salesman with a preternatural ability to locate human weakness, has already carved up formidable-seeming challengers like “Lyin’ ” Ted Cruz, “Little” Marco Rubio and “Low Energy” Jeb Bush.

Still, should it come to it, DeSantis would have his own advantages. Suburban women have warmed to a married father of three young children who supported his wife through breast cancer and has never boasted on a hot mic about how he liked to “grab ’em by the pussy”. To the donor class, DeSantis promises competence and a low-tax, small government approach sans the drama and unpredictability of the former president. “They see a certain kerb appeal without the baggage of Trump,” a New York political adviser explained. “They tried with Trump and it was just too crazy.”

For the moment, DeSantis remains a cipher, a middle-class man with Ivy League credentials, a constitutionalist and a culture warrior. Lately, he has added a Christian nationalist streak to the mix with a martial vow in speeches to “put on the full armour of God” as he battles the “woke” brigades. It is unclear how deeply felt this is for DeSantis, a Catholic, or if it is merely the price of admission for a Republican primary. Then again, Trump did not seem to care much about outlawing abortion but still ended up appointing three Supreme Court justices who proved instrumental in overturning Roe vs Wade.

Even the suggestion of a clash with Trump is fraught for DeSantis, who would like to be the former president’s heir, without being regarded by the MAGA faithful as a disloyal usurper. So he has been vague about his plans while positioning himself as the most credible option, should Trump’s many legal problems trip him up. “I think the governor is just sitting back and playing the odds right now,” said Alex Patton, a Florida pollster. In the meantime, observers will continue to debate what DeSantis believes at his core. Those who know him say one thing is certain: a fierce ambition has made him yearn for the presidency since he was capable of yearning.


As a politician, Ron DeSantis is an oddity. He is a populist who, according to an expanding roster of ex-aides, has little feeling for actual people and scant talent for retail politics. He does not work a room like Charlie Crist, his current Democratic opponent who served as governor from 2007 to 2011, nor does he engage in the standard niceties. (An average of polls compiled by the FiveThirtyEight blog earlier this month gave DeSantis a 7.3 percentage point lead over Crist.)

He is known to wear earbuds to deflect social interactions. Besides his wife, his most trusted adviser, he has few friends, let alone confidantes, they say. “There are no ‘DeSantis people’ in Tallahassee,” says a former aide, referring to Florida’s state capital. This person describes the governor as “almost Nixonian” in his reclusiveness and willingness to not make friends. “If Ron DeSantis gets to the White House, there’s going to be nobody with him,” they say. (DeSantis declined to comment for this article.)

To critics, he is an opportunist who jettisoned the moderation of his early days in office after seeing the profits to be made from stirring the culture wars. In just the past few months, DeSantis has stripped Disney, one of the state’s largest employers, of a decades-old tax arrangement because its chief executive dared to criticise the “Don’t Say Gay” law he signed in March. It prohibits primary schoolteachers from discussing sexual identity or orientation before the fourth grade.

DeSantis has launched a new Office of Election Crimes and Security — even though there is little evidence of voter fraud in Florida — and vowed to make the Sunshine State “the brick wall against all things woke”. The nation’s anti-California. He has dismissed Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases — a veteran of the Aids crisis and then a leading advocate of Covid public health restrictions — as a “little elf” who should be “chucked across the Potomac”.

Then, last month, he flew 50 Venezuelan migrants on chartered planes to Martha’s Vineyard, the posh island off the coast of Massachusetts where the Obamas summer. The idea was to force affluent liberals to confront their supposed hypocrisy about America’s border policy. But even some fellow Republicans winced at the cruelty of using desperate people as political props. In a class-action lawsuit, the migrants say they were lured from shelters in San Antonio, Texas with food vouchers and false promises of jobs, only to be abandoned on an island in the dark.

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“He’s really good at ‘othering’ people,” said Mac Stipanovich, a veteran Florida Republican activist who was involved in the 2000 recount that handed the presidency to George W Bush, but has grown disgusted with the party under Trump. Perhaps one-third of the party was always composed of extremists and oddballs who were generally beyond the pale, Stipanovich estimated. Trump coaxed another silent third to come out of the closet. “This is the business model for today’s Republican party: stoking outrage, creating fear and then exploiting that fear,” he said.

Yet supporters see consistency and principle in DeSantis as he hones an evolving populism that was unleashed by Trump but whose full doctrine is still being written. At its heart, they say, it is about a strong leader protecting ordinary people in an increasingly turbulent and uncertain world. It is disdainful of a supposedly corrupt establishment, including “elites” who would sneer at someone for refusing to get vaccinated, or for driving a petrol car. In a sharp departure from generations of conservatives, it is also suspicious of big companies.

“He’s leading the vanguard of Republicans who are no longer going to snap to big business,” said Adam Goodman, a political strategist at Ballard Partners, a Florida lobbying firm with close ties to the governor. “He’s saying they should live under the same rules as the rest of us, and that’s a come-uppance of sorts.” DeSantis voters, Goodman explained, “feel like things are out of control. They’re looking for leadership.”

This new populism displays an almost theatrical contempt for the media — except for Fox News and other conservative outlets. One former DeSantis aide recalled their unease when the governor began haranguing reporters until, they realised, “people loved it”. (His distaste for the media may have been rightly whetted by a bungled report on CBS’s 60 Minutes inaccurately suggesting DeSantis favoured a supermarket chain with a Covid vaccine rollout contract because it had given him a large donation. Even top Democrats debunked the claim.)

This new populism has old contradictions. While presenting himself as a defender of the common man, for example, DeSantis is not averse to hoovering up money from the wealthiest and best-connected, including hedge fund titans like Paul Tudor Jones and Ken Griffin and the industrialist Koch family. He raised $177mn through September 9 of this year, a record for a governor.

David Clark, who served as deputy chief of staff to DeSantis from 2019 to 2020, acknowledged that his former boss may not have drinking buddies. Still, he saw decency beneath a stoic exterior and a method to DeSantis’s governance. Its guardrails are the constitution, pragmatism and numeracy. “He’s a data guy who understands all the details,” said Clark. Given a choice between an 85-page document or a two-page summary, DeSantis would invariably choose the former. This would be a break from the previous two Republican presidents, who preferred bullet points or to be read aloud to.

While he lacks charisma, one of his great political gifts may be to engage with the complexity of a pandemic or hurricane at the level of a graduate student, and then speak about it in a clear and direct style that ordinary people can understand. Not an entertainer, like Trump, but a straight-shooter.

Ultimately, Clark said, there was more to the DeSantises than bloodless calculation and personal ambition. Binding them was a honeyed conviction about what America is and should be: a place where hard work and opportunity yield success. “They believe in the dream,” he said.


DeSantis nurtured his dream in Dunedin, Florida, a sleepy town west of Tampa that must have seemed like paradise to the families who turned up in the 1970s, many from out of state. Dunedin features rows of ranch houses with tidy lawns whose owners maintain them under threat of fine. It remains almost 90 per cent white, according to the most recent census.

The town is intensely patriotic, and American flags are plentiful. The local chamber of commerce recently hung an aluminium arch over the entrance to downtown that reads “Defending Freedom”.

DeSantis’s father installed TV monitoring boxes for Nielsen, which had an office in town. His mother was a nurse. DeSantis was a top student and athlete. He went on to Yale, where he majored in history and political science and played baseball, a sport beloved by statisticians. He was the team’s top hitter in his senior year, with a .336 batting average, and was elected captain by his teammates. More revealing, perhaps, DeSantis committed only a single error for three consecutive seasons. “I wasn’t someone destined to go to the Ivy League,” DeSantis said in 2014, when he was named Yale baseball’s man of the year. “The fact that we had the camaraderie of Yale baseball made Yale a positive experience for me.” His former coach, John Stuper, hailed him as “truly a man of the people”.

At Yale, he also found refuge at the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity, an athlete-heavy club that featured barrels of beer and prominent former members, including the Bushes and Supreme Court justice Brett Kavanaugh. In his recent pandemic memoir, What Just Happened: Notes on a Long Year, the author and critic Charles Finch recalled two things about his former classmate, known then as “D”: he did an uncanny impression of baseball star Jose Canseco and, according to a friend, would tell dates he liked Thai food, but pronounced it “thigh”. If they corrected him, Finch wrote, he would find an excuse to leave. “He didn’t want a girlfriend who corrected him.”

Another former classmate recalled that it was a different brilliant Yale athlete, football player Eric Johnson, who friends expected would go on to great things. (After playing professionally, Johnson married pop star Jessica Simpson.) D, this person said, struck them as “just another white jock at Yale”.

After graduating in 2001, DeSantis taught history for a year at the Darlington school in Georgia, before going on to Harvard Law School and enrolling as a military legal officer of the type portrayed by Tom Cruise in the film A Few Good Men. He spent a year in Iraq, advising a Seal Team in Falluja during Bush’s surge.

DeSantis announced his political intentions in a 2011 book, Dreams From Our Founding Fathers: First Principles in the Age of Obama. (The title attempted to troll Obama’s memoir, Dreams From My Father.) In it, DeSantis accuses the former president of exceeding his constitutional authority with bailouts of the automotive sector and his compulsory health insurance programme. Alongside the discussion of the Federalist Papers, DeSantis argues that Obama was, all along, trying to live out the centralised planning and redistributive dreams of his late father.

If it was not a bestseller, the book was a calling card for a young conservative making his first run for Congress. In 2012, he did the rounds of conservative Washington think-tanks and interest groups, such as the Heritage Foundation and Club for Growth. He was shepherded by Daniel Faraci, a consultant, who recalled a particular affinity with FreedomWorks, the advocacy group that grew out of the Tea Party and was led by former House majority leader Dick Armey. “What I thought was going to be a 20-minute discussion — we ended up being in there for a few hours,” Faraci said, remembering DeSantis wowing his hosts, as he parsed the judicial philosophies of Supreme Court justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas. “They ended up endorsing him right there.”

DeSantis prevailed in a conservative north Florida district and embarked on a congressional career distinguished mostly by obstruction. He was a co-founder of the Freedom Caucus, a group of young hardliners who made life miserable for John Boehner, the Republican speaker of the House. As a deficit hawk, DeSantis opposed a relief package in 2013 for states affected by Hurricane Sandy, arguing against what he called a “put it on the credit card mentality”. That vote infuriated some colleagues in New York and New Jersey, and now looks particularly hypocritical as Florida pleads for billions of dollars in federal money to recover from Hurricane Ian.

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An aerial shot of Fort Myers, Florida, taken on September 29, in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian. The main street is completely flooded: two semi-submerged cars are driving slowly along it under a grey sky
Fort Myers in the aftermath of September’s Hurricane Ian. DeSantis is asking for billions of federal aid to help rebuild Florida but never discusses global warming, saying the term has become ‘politicised’ © Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Arguably, DeSantis’s most consequential congressional accomplishment was to forge a close bond with Fox News. He became a frequent guest on the network, offering a vigorous defence of Trump as he became mired in scandal after scandal. It was, say observers, an example of his shrewd political antennae, his ability to understand how the Republican party was shifting. Matt Gaetz, a young Republican who followed DeSantis into Congress in 2017, told Politico how he had copied his Fox-first strategy. “I used to make fun of Ron for putting on make-up. And now I had to go to him for tips to put it on and hide the circles under my eyes,” Gaetz quipped. The two have drifted apart since Gaetz came under investigation for alleged sex trafficking, which he has denied.

When the governor’s seat came open in 2018, DeSantis was considered a long shot. The favourite was Adam Putnam, then the golden boy of Florida’s Republican party. At age 22, Putnam had become the youngest person ever elected to the state legislature and then spent two decades cementing relationships with donors and party officials across the state. He was the quintessential Republican you would want to have a beer with. Upon endorsing DeSantis, one Florida Republican was told by a friend he had committed political suicide.

Putnam opened with a double-digit lead in opinion polls and a $20mn fundraising advantage. DeSantis clung tight to Fox News and Trump. He was rewarded when the president, in December 2017, tweeted: “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!”

DeSantis played up the Trump tie with a TV ad in which he was shown teaching his toddler how to “build the wall” with toy blocks. He later received the president’s full endorsement; Putnam was eviscerated. “That’s how powerful the Trump blessing was at that moment,” Goodman recalled. “[DeSantis] was relatively unknown to a big portion of Florida, and Trump just said, ‘This is it.’”

In the general election that followed, DeSantis claimed a slim victory over Andrew Gillum, a mayor of Tallahassee seeking to become Florida’s first black governor. It was a lacklustre campaign in which DeSantis urged voters not to “monkey this up”, a comment interpreted by many as a racist dog whistle. He won by less than a percentage point. One analyst described the contest as a classic turnout election, in which Republicans’ fear of socialism trumped Democrats’ fear of racism.


When the DeSantises moved to Tallahassee, Casey’s power was immediately evident. The governor’s wife of 12 years claimed what had been the chief-of-staff’s office, confirming her role as her husband’s closest adviser. She has her own staff. As she tells it, she and Ron met-cute at a golf driving range. She says she was looking at a bucket of balls; he thought she was looking at him. It is possible that both things are true.

Casey DeSantis has a social grace her husband struggles to muster and has become immensely popular as first lady. Mental health for school children has been one of her top issues. Behind the scenes, say former aides, she sometimes remarks about how various actions might play in “the future” — taken as a veiled reference to a presidential campaign — and maintains a watchful eye over those who enter the governor’s circle. “He and Casey are a unit,” one said.

A recent campaign ad showcased to devastating effect her broadcasting talent and her ability to humanise her husband. Titled “That Is Who Ron DeSantis Is”, the spot opens with Casey narrating the chapters of Ron’s life, from Little League baseball to his time in the Navy, as old photos flash on screen. Then, sitting on a sofa, she speaks directly to camera: “When I was diagnosed with cancer, he was the dad who took care of my children when I could not. He was there to pick me up off the ground when I literally could not stand . . . That’s who Ron DeSantis is.” The ad garnered more than 1.3mn views on Twitter in a week. Even a top Florida Democrat admitted it made her tremble.

Ron DeSantis with his wife Casey, President Biden and the First Lady visiting a hurricane-hit area of Florida earlier this month
With his wife Casey, President Biden and the First Lady visiting hurricane-hit areas. Casey is DeSantis’s closest adviser; he has few friends and is seen as ‘almost Nixonian’ in his reclusiveness © Olivier Douliery/AFP/Getty Images

For progressives, the early days of the DeSantis administration were also earth-shaking. Among the new Republican governor’s first acts was to issue a posthumous pardon to the Groveland Four, black men wrongly accused of raping a white woman in 1949. He lifted restrictions on medical marijuana. He raised pay for public school teachers. And, to the joy of environmentalists and conservationists including the billionaire Tudor Jones, DeSantis pushed through a restoration plan for the Everglades wetlands against the wishes of the state’s famously powerful sugar industry.

They were old enemies. As a member of Congress, DeSantis was one of only two Floridians to vote against a longstanding federal subsidy programme that has benefited the industry. In the governor’s race, Big Sugar, like many other business groups, had supported Putnam. Faraci recalled how DeSantis made no effort to hide his distaste for subsidies during an introductory meeting with sugar lobbyists in Washington. “We take every candidate from Florida through the offices of Florida Crystals,” he said of one of the state’s largest sugarcane growers and refiners. “The company is used to just cutting a cheque and getting the support.”

A great question surrounding DeSantis is what changed him from those early days of reaching across the aisle. The answer is the pandemic. It is the event that not only appears to have transformed DeSantis as a politician but also firmly fixed the national spotlight on him.

When Covid struck with full force in early 2020, DeSantis declared a public health emergency and embraced the same lockdown prescriptions as other states. But over time, DeSantis the data guy began to question the federal government’s approach. As David Clark tells it, DeSantis and his team began losing confidence in the Centers for Disease Control the more they engaged with it. They found its guidance ever-shifting or too uniform for a nation that ranges from the density of New York City to the expanses of the Dakotas.

DeSantis also appreciated the toll the lockdown would take on small businesses and blue-collar workers, those who were not members of the “Zoom class” who could work from home. “It was, ‘Enough is enough. We have smart medical people, we see the data just like the CDC, and we’re going to figure out what’s best for Florida,’” Clark said.

Aides depict a governor at work in the predawn darkness, poring over academic papers, mortality rates, symptom tracers, flight trackers — even weather reports. He called hospital executives and consulted public health experts, like Stanford’s Jay Bhattacharya, who deviated from the CDC line. He decided, based on his interpretation of studies from Bangladesh and Denmark, that masks were providing little benefit.

Come May, Florida was beginning to relax some restrictions. By September, it had opted to lift them on businesses and prevent local governments from levying fines to enforce their own. Two months later, daily cases spiked to more than 10,000 per day and many prophets predicted doom for Florida. But, as with the rest of the country, the wave soon began to recede. DeSantis would block mask mandates for public schools, contradicting the Biden administration’s recommendations. “Nobody ever said ‘herd immunity’ but we were all thinking it,” recalled one former aide who was struck by DeSantis’s froideur as he took decisions that might affect the lives of millions. “He looked at the data and said, ‘One-and-a-half to two per cent of the people who get it are going to die and there’s not much I can do’ . . . There was no crying.”

DeSantis sitting with President Trump in the White House. He is holding a chart and discussing his plans to reopen Florida post-pandemic
With President Trump in the White House discussing Covid. Lifting restrictions in Florida in May 2020 transformed DeSantis as a politician, cementing his appeal with conservatives © Doug Mills/The New York Times/Pool/Getty Images

The shift made DeSantis beloved by conservatives and libertarians chafing at the federal government’s restrictions. The Free State of Florida became a mythical place where you could party at a beachside bar while the rest of the country was at home ordering takeout. Manhattanites with the means flocked there during lockdown. While states like New York and California bled jobs and residents, Florida’s economy suffered less damage and recovered more quickly. Beyond the numbers, it also gained an aura as the place to be, America’s new wonderland.

Surely, sceptics fretted, all those unmasked spring-breakers would soon fall ill, and then kill their grandparents? But they didn’t, at least not notably more than in other states.

It is not so straightforward to judge a state’s performance in the pandemic, given their differences and the quality of their reported data. As of early October, Florida’s 379 Covid deaths per 100,000 residents ranked 39th out of 50 states, just slightly behind New York’s 374. Yet, adjusted for age, the state ranked 22nd and outperformed New York, which maintained stringent lockdown measures.

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To David Dowdy, an infectious disease epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins University, the complexities are too great to make sweeping judgments about politicians and the pandemic. New York’s numbers may be inflated because it was an early epicentre in the US, when scientists were only beginning to understand what they were confronting. With time, its performance improved. Meanwhile, Florida’s temperate climate means people could spend more time outdoors. Masks, Dowdy argued, are helpful at preventing infections. But, like seat belts, their type and implementation matter, and they are but one of a series of interventions to reduce risk. “I would hesitate to give Ron DeSantis too much credit — or too much blame,” Dowdy said.

Under DeSantis, Florida did take anti-Covid measures. It was energetic in distributing personal protective equipment, for example. Critically, it avoided some mistakes, like New York governor Andrew Cuomo’s decision to send elderly people diagnosed with Covid back to nursing homes. Yet for a time, Cuomo was lionised by the media while DeSantis came to be mocked as “DeathSantis”. Cuomo has since been forced from office after, among other transgressions, being found to have deliberately undercounted Covid deaths in the state’s nursing homes.

One Democratic member of the Florida legislature who is a critic of DeSantis despaired that their son credits the governor with helping to sustain his small business through the pandemic, despite the $800bn in emergency small business loans provided by the federal government. “It was Covid that turned everything around for him,” the legislator said, in frustration.

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The DeSantis that emerged from the pandemic is, depending on who you ask, more self-assured in his approach to governing. Or he’s more of a bully. It was during the pandemic that he began to stoke Us-against-Them rhetoric, suggesting that Floridians were being called stupid and patronised. The clash with Disney confirmed a willingness to brutalise opponents. Disney World in Orlando is as synonymous with Florida as oranges and alligators. “His style now is so dependent [on] being a fighter and never backing down,” said Patton. “The style used to be: I’m a federalist. I’m a constitutionalist. I’m a Harvard lawyer. Now it’s: I’m an asshole to the libs.”

He hired a new communications director, Christina Pushaw, who is renowned for bringing a hatchet to social media fights. In the furore over the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, Pushaw tweeted that opposition to the bill was tantamount to complicity in paedophilia. Alex Patton called her “the 4chan translator”, referring to the now-shuttered internet chatboard that became a haven for the paranoid far right.

Shades of the new DeSantis were on display at a February event held by the Federalist Society, the powerful conservative legal organisation that advises Republican presidents on judicial appointments. There was the cerebral side of the governor, explaining his constitutional approach to public health restrictions: “The default needs to be freedom. And then if there’s a justification to do things on health, it’s a burden on those people to do it.”

There was also a gloating, I-told-you-so tone about the state’s handling of Covid that would vindicate those who complain that DeSantis is all too aware he is the smartest guy in the room. “We were right on that and they were grievously, grievously wrong,” he said of masks in schools. He accused federal officials of using Covid restrictions as a form of control and “to target people they don’t like”. He demanded that experts whose Covid models turned out to be wrong “should be held accountable”.

As he now scoops up more money from around the country, DeSantis is solidifying his place as the Republicans’ most credible Trump alternative. He is also gaining greater leeway to snub Floridians that cross him. Businesses have little option but to support him since the state’s Democratic party is currently in tatters. Meanwhile, DeSantis can now wield his popularity and resources to threaten local politicians. In the legislature, the governor rules more by fear than love.

Even after the stunt with the Venezuelan migrants, criticism was relatively muted. William Diaz, a leader of Florida’s Venezuelan community, has long kept a copy of Ronald Reagan’s final speech on his phone. The 40th president’s farewell address cast America as a shining city that should be “open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here”. The day the country closes its borders to immigrants, Diaz lamented, is the day it dies. “All this is a fight within the Republican party: who is more in the media, DeSantis or Trump?”

Other Florida Hispanics, like Lilian Rodriguez, were unbothered by the episode. Rodriguez came from Cuba on a boat with her mother when she was four, fleeing the Castro regime. She is now a lawyer, and recently became a leader of the Ready For Ron political action committee. Rodriguez had information from knowledgeable friends, she said, that the Venezuelan migrants were criminals let out of the country’s prisons. She saw little comparison to the tens of thousands of Cuban “Marielitos” who came to America in 1980, including many released by Castro from prisons and mental hospitals. Surely, she must have seen some parallel, and some cruelty in the Venezuelans’ treatment? “I would say it’s cruel for the current administration to deny there’s a crisis on the border,” she replied.


On a recent evening in Tampa, I struggled to make sense of DeSantis-era Florida. I had come from hurricane-ravaged Fort Myers, ruminating on the idea that while the governor had been battling gay teachers, militant socialists and migrant looters, a true villain had struck: climate change.

While the governor is a champion of coastal resiliency projects, he is loath to even mention global warming, a term that he believes has become politicised. Since taking office, he has signed a bill preventing cities from setting 100 per cent clean energy goals or banning fossil fuels. In August, he barred managers of the state’s $186bn pension fund from considering environmental and sustainability issues when investing. Then there is Florida’s property insurance market. It’s not as sexy as a culture-war issue, but it is in dire need of repair as the climate warms.

There was no dampening the mood at a buzzy restaurant in a part of town that had remained open throughout the pandemic. The weather was mild, and the place was packed with flashily dressed people seemingly having a ball. This was the Florida that I, as a sceptical New Yorker, had heard so much about in recent months. Among the party I joined, there were no elite credentials I was aware of. The table was laid with platters of oysters, giant shrimp and lamb chops. Waiters topped up glasses of Italian reds. Was this the dream Ron and Casey DeSantis talk about?

Then one of the guests, a lawyer, began complaining to me about how it was all coming apart, and couldn’t stop. “Look, I don’t have any skin in the game,” he kept insisting. He loved DeSantis and was supporting him, he told me, for his daughters and their future, even if it might be bad for his legal practice. Elsewhere, DeSantis supporters I encountered talked incessantly about “what’s happening at the border”, as if hordes of intruders were lying in wait outside the parking lot. A dream maybe, but one accompanied by the constant fear of waking up.

Joshua Chaffin is the FT’s New York correspondent

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