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Ron DeSantis leads charge for more coercive conservative government

The Republican Florida governor’s embrace of regulation of private business comes as many leaders on the right are revisiting their ideological boundaries

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) delivers remarks at the Air Force One Pavilion in the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, Calif., on Monday. (Lauren Justice for The Washington Post)
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Back when he was a member of the House Freedom Caucus, Ron DeSantis embraced a classic conservative argument about the threats to American freedom posed by government regulation of the internet.

“If you want government to exercise a power that you like right now, someone else can come in and exercise that power in a way you don’t like,” he said to applause at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in 2017. “Why don’t we just deny government the power to do it to begin with, and let the American people have a free internet and make their own choices?”

Just a few years later, DeSantis reversed himself as Florida’s governor, claiming that technology companies and their political views had become the real threat to liberty. Far from government being the problem, as former president Ronald Reagan had famously argued, DeSantis offered a new law as the solution. He signed a bill that imposed fines of up to $250,000 a day on social media companies that deplatformed candidates for office in his state for any reason.

The move was just one part of his broad embrace of the often coercive power of the government to push back on the private decisions of corporations, banks, academies of higher learning and the national media. He has argued that these institutions now make up an “anointed” regime of elite thought that threatens the country, and that Silicon Valley companies are operating in a way “probably unforeseen by the founding fathers.”

“Thus, elected officials need to wield authority in a way that protects individuals from these powerful institutions,” he wrote in his new book “The Courage to Be Free: Florida’s Blueprint for America’s Revival.” “In this context, elected officials who do nothing more than get out of the way are essentially greenlighting these institutions to continue their unimpeded march through society.”

It is a political vision that clashes directly with the thrust of the pre-Donald Trump conservative movement, which associated most government regulations of the private sector with authoritarian regimes in the Soviet Union and China. It also has set DeSantis on a collision course with other potential presidential contenders, including former vice president Mike Pence and New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, who have voiced concerns about the Florida government’s decision to punish companies for their business decisions.

“The danger facing the Republican Party is we have leadership and voices that are effectively trying to beat Democrats at their own game of big government solutions,” Sununu said in a recent interview, when asked about the DeSantis model. “Not only will we never beat the Democrats at that game, but we should never be playing that game in the first place because we are conservatives, or we should be. … Government’s not here to fix culture.”

Advisers for DeSantis did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

DeSantis, like Trump before him, still embraces the rhetoric of limited government. He approvingly quotes James Madison’s 1788 warning to Thomas Jefferson: “Wherever the real power in a government lies, there is a danger of oppression.” But he has also cast himself as a wartime leader at a time of crisis — opening his book with a quote from Winston Churchill, the British prime minister during World War II, about courage.

During a speech in California on Sunday, DeSantis compared his crusade against “the woke mind virus” to Reagan’s confrontation, during the Cold War, of the Soviet Union. Reagan, he argued, had offered a clear model.

“He understood if they could just get the government out of the way and let free people innovate and invest that the economy would get better, and it did,” DeSantis said. “He also rejected the idea that Soviet communism was something we just had to coexist with. No, his policy was very simple: We win and they lose.”

As governor, DeSantis has explicitly punished the Walt Disney Co., removing its power to self-govern the land around Walt Disney World in Orlando because the company’s leadership publicly opposed one of his education policies in Florida elementary schools. He has further suggested that a new board he appointed to oversee the company “would like to see the type of entertainment that all families can appreciate” — suggesting a state interest in the company’s content.

He has also separately argued for expanding rights of private action against media organizations, complaining that there are too many protections under current legal standards for reporters who use anonymous quotes in their reporting.

When cruise lines tried to woo passengers back by requiring vaccines to board their ships, which were particularly vulnerable to covid-19 outbreaks, DeSantis signed a law that outlawed the health measures, successfully arguing in court that the requirement amounted to discrimination against the unvaccinated. He has also proposed a law that would prohibit banks and financial institutions from considering political, religious or social beliefs of customers when deciding whether to extend credit, bank accounts or loans.

Grover Norquist, the founder of Americans for Tax Reform, who has long argued for a “leave-us-alone” brand of conservatism, sees in DeSantis’s moves an echo of the George W. Bush administration’s embrace of extraordinary government police powers after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, which many conservative activists later came to regret. He argues that most Republican elected leaders continue to see the danger of statist solutions to social challenges.

“There are times when people react and think that government actions can be a short cut to getting things done,” he said. “State power is like the hand grenade. It is pretty good for killing people, not for much else. There is a danger of using the state to fix things. At the same time, I see this as understandable expressions of frustration.”

Scholars at the libertarian-leaning CATO Institute have been similarly critical of the DeSantis drift, with senior fellow David Boaz comparing DeSantis’s decision to punish Disney World’s governing board in Florida to “Xi Jinping confiscation,” a reference to China’s leader. In a 2022 report on the “limited government” records of the nation’s governors, CATO ranked DeSantis 18th in the nation, behind Democrats such as North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper and New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.

But others in the conservative movement, influenced by the Trump presidency, have cheered the conservative evolution that DeSantis has heralded. As president, Trump had no qualms about trying to use state power to punish private industry, signing an executive order that urged the loss of liability protection for technology companies he accused of censoring conservative voices and repeatedly threatening Amazon after tangling in public with its founder Jeff Bezos, the owner of The Washington Post.

Kevin Roberts, president of the Heritage Foundation, an intellectual anchor for conservatism during the Reagan presidency, said the shifts in the movement have been positive. He describes the evolution not as a betrayal of past principles but the incorporation of new values in response to the changing landscape.

“We are using the state to facilitate the common good,” Roberts said, noting that Heritage has been a vocal supporter of regulating tech companies and preventing conservative institutions from being denied financial services. “Among all these competing goods — the free market, human flourishing and free speech — the government has got to step in and make sure we have institutions like the family and we are protecting the innocence of children.”

For DeSantis, the new wartime footing marks a striking contrast to his prior positions. When he was first running for Congress, he was outspoken in his belief that government should not dictate its views to the private sector. Like most conservatives at the time, he associated such efforts with liberal overreach.

“I’m in favor of not mandating Catholic hospitals provide services that relate abortion,” he said in 2012, during debates over the reach of the Affordable Care Act. “I don’t think the government should be ordering them to do that.” As a member of the House, he described himself as “sick of government always telling us how to live our lives” by regulating what kind of health care or lightbulbs people could buy. He was outraged by disclosures in 2013 that the IRS had been targeting some conservative nonprofit groups for greater scrutiny, though investigations later found that progressive groups were also targeted.

“I don’t think government should be in the speech police business generally,” he said during a House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee hearing in 2014.

During his 2019 inaugural address as governor, he promised to be guided by Abraham Lincoln’s admonition to the 166th Ohio Regiment in 1864, when he cast the Civil War during his reelection effort as a fight for a “free government” that provides an “open field and fair chance for one’s industry, enterprise and intelligence.”

Brooke Rollins, the president and CEO of the Trump-aligned America First Policy Institute, said there has been a clear shift in conservatism from when she ran the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a free-market think tank, during the presidencies of George W. Bush and Barack Obama. She said the right has begun to learn from the tactics of liberals, who have historically been more aggressive about using the courts and government to force social change.

“I think that the time is coming where people are stepping up to say that is not what the country is about. And we need to be able to use those same tools to be able to take back our country,” Rollins said.

But she also acknowledged that the changes remained controversial within some parts of the Republican coalition, a divide that is likely to surface in the coming 2024 Republican presidential nomination battle.

“I am actually really encouraged. I think we are going to have a very vigorous, healthy family debate over the next year. There are going to be tough moments,” she said. “At the end of this, I think the right, the conservative movement and the America First movement will be stronger because of it.”

2024 presidential candidates

Several major Republican candidates and three Democrats have officially declared they are running for their party’s 2024 presidential nomination, and plenty of others are making moves. We’re tracking 2024 presidential candidates here.

Republicans: Top contenders for the GOP 2024 nomination include former president Donald Trump, who announced in November, and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. Here is The Post’s ranking of the top 10 Republican presidential candidates for 2024.

Democrats: President Biden has officially announced he is running for reelection in 2024. Author Marianne Williamson and anti-vaccine advocate Robert Kennedy Jr., both long-shot candidates, are also seeking the Democratic nomination. Here is The Post’s ranking of the top 10 Democratic presidential candidates for 2024.