David: Governor Ron DeSantis has shown himself to be uniquely skilled at attracting attention to himself well beyond the borders of Florida, his home state. He's willing to pick a fight with just about anyone to grab a headline. Reporters, health officials, teachers, even Mickey Mouse. Just this month he blocked state funds for the Tampa Bay Rays stadium when players tweeted in support of gun control in the wake of the slaughter in Uvalde. He's trying to punish the Disney Corporation for criticizing Florida's so-called, Don’t Say Gay law.
Staff writer Dexter Filkins has been reporting from Florida and looking to see whether Ron DeSantis is the potential heir to Trump, or maybe his biggest political opponent. Dexter, right now we're watching the January 6th hearings and at the same time Ron DeSantis, the governor of Florida, is making a lot of noise as a politician. Is it very likely that he's the number one contender behind Trump to inherit the mantle of the Republican Party?
Dexter Filkins: Yes, I think so. All the polls suggest that if Trump doesn't run DeSantis is in poll position and he's ready. He's got more than a hundred million dollars in the bank. He practically radiates ambition.
David: Let's talk a little bit about his background. Who is Ron DeSantis? Where does he come from? What kind of person is he?
Dexter Filkins: He's from Florida. He was born in Jacksonville. He grew up outside of Tampa in a town called Dunedin and it's a working-class neighborhood. Working-class guy, went to public school. He was a great baseball player in Little League where they won the world series and in high school. He went to Yale on a baseball scholarship and then onto Harvard Law School. He's come a long way.
David: Did he distinguish himself academically at Yale and then Harvard law?
Dexter Filkins: He did. In fact, one of the more funny quotes that I got from one of his former classmates at Yale was, "Ron was so smart that we couldn't plagiarize off of his papers because everyone would know where it came from because he's the only one that smart who could have made that argument."
David: He's smart in what way?
Dexter Filkins: More than a couple of people told me his memory is practically photographic and particularly when I was having conversations about the coronavirus he was reading medical journals. He'd read them once. He would digest it, he would understand it and could have a conversation about it. He's very, very fast.
David: How would you describe Ron DeSantis ideologically and how did he become that way?
Dexter Filkins: It's hard to tell how much of Ron DeSantis is ideological and how much is opportunism. He sounds like Trump, except that he speaks in complete sentences. He's very, very articulate and very, very quick but he's competing for the same constituencies. He's very, very angry at the elites even though he went to Harvard and Yale. He's very angry at Washington. He talks about he's very angry at the politicians. He's rallying basically the white working class of Florida, of which the numbers are still quite large. He's angry.
Governor DeSantis: We're going to make sure that parents are able to send their kids to kindergarten without having some of this stuff injected into their school curriculum.
David: How did he become governor? My understanding is that although he's now seen as the dominant political figure in state politics, obviously Trump himself is in Palm Beach, that DeSantis really kind of, he squeaked by to get in.
Dexter Filkins: He squeaked by. He did, I think he won by less than 1%. I think there was at least one automatic recount. He defeated a politician named Andrew Gillum who had been the mayor of Tallahassee. Very, very close race. I think he benefited from the fact that Gillum, not only was he Black in a former Confederacy, but also because Gillum came from the left of the party. Gillum had squeaked in and beaten a moderate to get the nomination against Gwen Graham, who many people believed would've fared much better against DeSantis. DeSantis won just by hair, but he's been a missile going straight up ever since.
David: What do you mean?
Dexter Filkins: He has developed a style which is very visible, very theatrical, again very angry, but it has made him a national politician. Over the last couple of years, he really built himself and his persona and I hate to use the word brand, but it's a brand, around the way that he dealt with the coronavirus. Essentially it played in perfectly for him and his style because he could say, "I don't agree with Fauci and all the pinheads in Washington. All they want to do is oppress you and make you wear masks and keep your children at home." He charted this very, very novel course on the coronavirus. That's what made him famous.
David: Now, the COVID policy that you describe is not just sheer obstinate ignorance, we've seen some of that in political quarters in the last few years, but something a little bit more complicated.
Dexter Filkins: I had a long conversation with a professor at Stanford, of public health, an epidemiologist named Jay Bhattacharya, who said he was sitting at home one day on a Sunday and his phone rang and it was Ron DeSantis. He wanted to talk about the coronavirus. Bhattacharya, very much like DeSantis, were charting a slightly different course. Basically, I'm going to make this a little crude, but it's essentially masking doesn't really work. The only thing you can really do is protect the elderly, which DeSantis did from the get go. "Protect the elderly, and basically try to ride the virus out until a vaccine comes but don't kid yourself. There's not that much that we can do about it."
What followed from that naturally was keep the schools open, keep the government offices open, keep the beaches open, keep the shopping malls open. That's what Florida did. Very, very different from, say, New York or California.
Governor DeSantis: I think the question is we can either have a free society or we can have a biomedical security state. I can tell you Florida, we're a free state.
David: How are its statistics?
Dexter Filkins: That's very, very interesting. They went up and down and up and down and he caught a lot of hell over the course of the pandemic. Today in 2022, the numbers aren't bad. Florida is in the middle when you look at death rates. It's pretty much in the middle of the pack right next to California. California shut down their entire economy, all their schools for two years. Florida kept everything open. He's looking better than he did.
David: Now another issue that's been crucial to his presence on the national scene is LGBTQ issues and how they're taught in schools. DeSantis has been out front on that. He passed a law a couple of months ago called the parental rights in education or the so-called Don't Say Gay law, where he supported it. What's the deal there? Tell me what happened and what role DeSantis plays there.
Dexter Filkins: I think again DeSantis has become a master at picking these issues that get everyone excited.
David: Hot button cultural issues.
Dexter Filkins: Super hot button, yes. He's very, very good at staking out of position and pounding the table and saying, "I'm not giving to the liberals in the Northeast."
David: One of the stunning things about this episode is that DeSantis goes to war against a huge company in the state, against Disney.
Dexter Filkins: It's remarkable. He appears not to have suffered for it politically, not yet.
David: Describe the fight and what was the outcome?
Dexter Filkins: They hate it when you say that Don't Say Gay law, but that's how everybody understands it now. I'm going to use that. The legislature passes the law. He signs it. Disney's response initially in Orlando Disney World is tepid. Many employees at Disney World got angry at their CEO and said, "This isn't enough. We hate this." Then the CEO came forward and condemned DeSantis and condemned the law. Then DeSantis basically went after Disney. Disney, since it was built in the late 1960s, basically it governs itself. If there's a fire at Disney World, Disney World put out the fire.
David: They have special accommodations in some ways.
Dexter Filkins: Yes. Very. They govern themselves essentially. They are left alone. DeSantis just took that and threatened to zero out the entire special district for Disney World, which would be an upheaval in that part of the state. Not least among the local governments that suddenly would have to put out the fires in Disney World. Taxes would go up. It would be an upheaval. He threatened to do it and Disney got quiet. Not completely, but DeSantis didn't suffer for it. It's just remarkable. When you talk to ordinary, say ordinary voters or his supporters, that's what they love about him. They would say, any other politician would've caved into Disney, would've backed down and said, "I'm so sorry," and not Ron.
David: What's the purpose of the law in the first place?
Dexter Filkins: I hate to speculate as to his motives, but it made a lot of headlines all across the country. I think just the kind of headlines that he wants to make.
David: Which are what?
Dexter Filkins: Which is when you see him speak, he says, "I'm anti woke. I'm anti elites. I'm against the press. I'm against the pin head politicians in Washington." He can position himself very much as a kind of anti-elitist. He doesn't really need to do all that in Florida to win. He's got that constituency locked up.
David: It's all national politics?
Dexter Filkins: That's what it seems like. I think every person I talked to who knows him says this is a deeply ambitious man. He's had his eyes on the White House since he was in college and every job he had was basically a stepping stone to the next one.
David: You knocked on a lot of doors in the state of Florida in pursuit of a really deep piece on Ron DeSantis. One of the doors you knocked on was on the door of the father of Ron DeSantis. Describe that encounter.
Dexter Filkins: Well, I had just come from the CPAC Conference in Orlando where Ron Junior spoke, pounding the table. I thought--
David: It's the conservative political action committee?
Dexter Filkins: Yes. It's the big gathering. I drove to Dunedin, little town where they still live. I looked up his address. He was there. I pulled over into a McDonald's and changed into a nice, put a white shirt on and long pants. I went with absolutely no expectation of success. I went and knocked on the door.
David: As we learn to do this young reporters many years ago.
Dexter Filkins: You think, "There's no way he's going to come out and talk to me. He probably won't even be there." Low and behold, he did. He was wearing an FSU t-shirt, looked like he hadn't shaved in a couple of days, barefoot, shorts, nicest guy in the world. Absolutely really nice. Didn't really want to talk to me at first, said I'm a little suspicious. I'll be frank with you. Then we had a really nice talk about his son.
David: How did he characterize him?
Dexter Filkins: He said more than once, he said, well, "Ron is stubborn." He told a very funny story about him, which was, "Ron's a very good baseball player. My gosh, I must have thrown a half-million pitches to him when he was young, right out there in the front yard. I think he only swung at 500 of them"
David: He likes to walk. In terms of character, the guy you describe here is not exactly a winning personality in the standard sense. There's a moment that you describe in the piece where DeSantis is sparring with the CNN reporter named Rosa Flores over the vaccine rollout in Florida.
Rosa Flores: Governor, what has gone wrong with the rollout of the vaccine that we've seen phone-lines jammed, websites crashing?
Governor DeSantis: It's a lot of demand. I think at the end of the day-- Excuse me, excuse me.
Rosa Flores: If I could finish my question.
Governor DeSantis: You just said, "What has gone wrong?" I'm answering the question.
Rosa Flores: If I could complete the question though.
Governor DeSantis: You going to give a speech or are you going to ask a question?
Rosa Flores: With all due respect Governor, I'm trying--
Governor DeSantis: You ask a question. I'm going to answer it.
Rosa Flores: I'm trying to finish my question.
Governor DeSantis: No, you're giving a speech. You asked the question.
Rosa Flores: I am trying to ask you the
Governor DeSantis: You're going to ask how many questions? You get three? They only got one question. Why do you get three?
Rosa Flores: With all due respect, Governor, I'm just asking if I could finish my question.
Governor DeSantis: You finished the question.
Rosa Flores: I did not. My full question is what went wrong with the rollout of the vaccine when we've seen phone lines jammed, websites crashing and-?
Governor DeSantis: You're repeating your question.
Rosa Flores: To complete it for you, Governor, we've seen websites crash, and also senior citizens waiting overnight for the vaccine.
Governor DeSantis: Where was that at?
Rosa Flores: We've seen it in Duval, Broward, Orange, and Lee County.
Governor DeSantis: Why was like in Lee? Why did that happen? Did you investigate why?
Rosa Flores: That's my question to you, Governor. You're the governor of the state. I'm not the governor of the state.
Governor DeSantis: You didn't investigate why in Lee county, why was there a big line? Did you investigate why?
Rosa Flores: Could you tell us why?
Governor DeSantis: Because we distributed vaccine to hospitals and the hospital said, "First come first served. If you show up, we'll do it." They didn't use a registration system. There wasn't anything that was done. There's a lot of demand for it. People are going to want to go ahead and get it.
Rosa Flores: Are you saying there was no plan then from the state to make sure that senior citizens didn't wait outside overnight?
Governor DeSantis: The state is not dictating to hospitals, we're not dictating to Carlos Mongolia, how he runs his operations here. That would be a total disaster. These guys are much more competent to be able to deliver healthcare services than a state government.
David: God, that's amazing. What struck you about that moment Dex?
Dexter Filkins: Well, he won't let up. It just goes on and on and on and on. He keeps interrupting her and he will not let her finish and he will not let her ask the question and he doesn't stop. He must have interrupted her 15 times. I think the key to that is he knows he's not going to get CNN. He doesn't care about CNN. What does he care about? He cares about imagine a typical Trump voter watching that on TV, saying, "Man, beat up the CNN reporter. This is great. Stick it to them." I think he's got that down to a science.
David: Fox has had a huge role in DeSantis' ascent. You did a public records request and got a lot of emails between Fox News and DeSantis' office. What'd you learn from those emails?
Dexter Filkins: It's pretty amazing. It's basically a symbiotic relationship. DeSantis needs Fox to become a national figure. Fox needs somebody to replace Trump. They find each other. Over the course of the emails, they're each suggesting programs to the other. They're practically writing the questions for each other. They're saying, "God, that was great. We should make you a host of our show." It is so close that the traditional idea of journalism, which is journalists keep their distance from politicians, that's all gone.
David1: Not so much. What's been the impact of his appearances on Fox? Is it quantifiable?
Dexter Filkins: I think so. It's quantifiable in the polls, which are he's now far ahead of any of the potential Republican nominee for the presidential election. I think that's with the exception of Trump. There is some speculation that he may actually run against Trump if Trump doesn't drop out.
David: What's that relationship like?
Dexter Filkins: I think the most positive characterization I got of it was that it was complicated. They have a complicated relationship.
David: In English that means they hate each other.
Dexter Filkins: I think so. As I was told, Trump believes with some justification that he created DeSantis. He endorsed him during the primary and DeSantis, who had been far behind, just took off and won the nomination. I think former President Trump expects a little bit of deference and a little bit more gratitude than he's been getting from DeSantis. As somebody put it to me, "Ron refuses to kiss his ring."
David: Or anything else. If you had to pick one moment or one scene in the Governor's career that exemplifies his political stature, his importance, the way he comports himself, what it might it be?
Dexter Filkins: I think it would be actually the moment with the CNN reporter. That's it in a nutshell.
David: What about the scene where he yelled at a kid? Remember this?
Dexter Filkins: That's a remarkable scene. He was going to Tampa to announce, I think, greater funding for cybersecurity education. He gets up on the podium and there's a line of kids behind him, college kids, and they've all got masks on. DeSantis turns to them without cracking a smile. There's no irony. He says, "Take your masks off." He talks about, "I've had enough COVID theater."
Governor DeSantis: You do not have to wear those masks. Please take them off. Honestly, it's not doing anything and we got to stop with this COVID theater. You want to wear it fine, but this is ridiculous.
Dexter Filkins: He's angry. He's actually angry at these kids. You can hear nervous laughter in the background, like people are like, "Wow, is the governor joking?" When it becomes clear that he's not joking, some of the kids take their masks off, they don't know what to do.
David This is a winning strategy?
Dexter Filkins: That's the thing. You have to ask yourself.
David: Yelling at kids?
Dexter Filkins: You have to ask yourself, "How many angry candidates have been elected president of the United States?" I can think of one.
David: Dexter, thank you.
Dexter Filkins: Thanks, David.
David: Staff writer Dexter Filkins his profile of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis appears in this week's New Yorker.