When the nature of Donald Trump’s war on democracy had become clear, the full catastrophe of the 2016 election was evident: a political party in disgrace, simultaneously the captive and the embodiment of a clownish demagogue; a campaign openly subverted by a hostile foreign power; a presidency determined by a minority of the popular vote through a system dating from the eighteenth century. The result, four years later, was a violent attempt to overthrow the Constitution led by Trump and the nation in crisis.
Trump’s attempted putsch on Jan. 6 failed narrowly, but only because the boob in him overcame the would-be despot. You don’t stage a coup d’état by watching it on television with a cheeseburger in hand. But the lesson to be learned was that a cleverer and more focused figure, exploiting the open conspiracy that has systematically undermined our public institutions for the past half century and more, could succeed where a flatulent narcissist had failed. That figure is already here in the person of Ron DeSantis, the now twice-elected governor of Florida. If DeSantis does not win the Republican nomination for president next year, he will be the odds-on favorite to do so in 2028. He has already replaced Trump in one regard: he is the most dangerous man in America, certainly as far as higher education is concerned. More—and I do not say it lightly — he is one of the most vicious and evil.
The ultimate bulwark in a democracy is its system of public education. It isn’t perfect, no institution is. But it is where a nation’s diversity meets, which is why the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education that public schools be desegregated is justly regarded as among the most consequential ruling in its history. What schools teach varies with the climate of the times and the state of knowledge. But what they properly inculcate is tolerance, respect, and freedom of thought, speech, and action. Those things are what makes democracy work. Stifle them, and you cut democracy off at the root.
That is exactly what Ron DeSantis is trying to do. He went after curricula he didn’t like and encouraged the purging of books he decided should not be read. After denouncing so-called “woke” culture on Florida campuses, he chose an easy target, New College, a small school, originally private, that had been chartered as the state’s designated residential liberal arts college. The College’s excellence was undoubted; in one year, it provided four of the state’s six Fulbright scholars. It didn’t please DeSantis, though, who purged its Board of Trustees and installed a controversial president whose provost, Jason Speirs, suggested to the new Board that it summarily fire the entire faculty. Now, a similar model is being applied to the state university system as a whole, which educates the vast majority of Florida’s higher education students. As is customary with DeSantis, his proposal begins blandly enough: new faculty hires are to be made by Boards of Trustees on the recommendation of school presidents. This is the way tenure-track hires are made, with the president’s recommendation to the Board being made on the basis of a lengthy consultative process beginning with the recruitment of candidates by the faculty of academic departments and going up successive levels to the president and the Board, which is normally pro forma. In DeSantis’ formula, however, the Board may delegate the power of recommendation solely to the president, retaining itself only the power to accept or reject his choice. This means that the power of faculty appointment remains in the hands of the president and the Board alone: “the president and the board are not required to consider recommendations or opinions of the faculty of the university or other individuals or groups” . In plain English, a president working in concert with a Board may hire faculty at pleasure, representing any conviction they prefer. If, as Provost Speirs suggested, they may also fire anyone they please, and if the state governor may restructure trustee boards as DeSantis did at New College, then he may exercise personal control of the entire university system. No dictatorship could work more simply and directly. Trump, passing automatically on judges presented to him by the Federalist Society, could not be bothered with such detail. DeSantis, the graduate of Harvard and Yale, would never be satisfied with less than full power, not over a single arena but, as he has shown, every aspect of public life: not a demagogue, but a tyrant.
Well, dangerous, but vicious and evil? A story that has recently emerged about DeSantis’ own years working for the Judge Advocate General’s office in the Navy shows an even more forbidding talent: that of a torturer. When prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, held without trial for persons denounced as terrorists, went on a hunger strike early in their detention, DeSantis was assigned to protect their rights. As one of the strikers later testified, he gave him the following speech:
“I have a job. I was sent here to break your f—— hunger strike. I do not care
why you are here, I don’t care who you are. My job, sir, is to make you eat.
Today we are talking. Tomorrow there will be no talking.”
There was no talking. The strikers were tied to chairs and force-fed laxative-laced Ensure through the nose as they screamed, bled, vomited, and defecated. Observing this, DeSantis smiled, laughed, and gave every sign of pleasure. The Navy, asked about this, said they had no record of his conduct. The prisoners’ memories, years later, were vivid.
This is the man who is now governor of twenty-two million Floridians, America’s third largest state. He is the man who would be president of the United States. If he were, he would certainly have a job to do, and he would undoubtedly have a thorough way of doing it.