As Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida seeks the Republican presidential nomination, he has molded his campaign and political persona around a war on the country’s supposed ruling class: an incompetent, unaccountable elite of bureaucrats, journalists, educators and other “experts” whose pernicious and unearned authority the governor has vowed to vanquish. Despite his struggles on the campaign trail, Mr. DeSantis has become captain of a new conservative vanguard that views public schools and universities as the chief battleground of the culture wars — and his Florida education policies as a model for red states around the nation.
Yet Mr. DeSantis is both a member of the ruling class and a critic of it. Educated at Yale and Harvard Law, he spent his early adulthood energetically climbing into the American elite. An examination by The New York Times reveals how Mr. DeSantis, genuinely embittered by his experiences at elite institutions, also astutely grasped how they could be useful to him. He now offers voters a revisionist history of his own encounters with the ruling class to buttress his arguments for razing it — and for remaking public education itself.
Here are five takeaways from the Times article.
He reaped the benefits of an elite education.
On the campaign trail, Mr. DeSantis often describes his years at Yale and Harvard Law as a period behind enemy lines, painting both institutions as places where students and teachers were anti-American. But his overall experience was more mixed than he acknowledges.
At Yale, he joined St. Elmo, one of the school’s “secret societies,” long known as breeding grounds of future senators and presidents. Though he says Harvard was gripped by left-wing “critical legal studies,” the doctrine was long on the wane by the time he arrived, and the school provided entree to the power brokers of the conservative Federalist Society.
When he went into politics, his elite résumé helped him court wealthy donors, raise money and garner introductions to prominent Republicans. As he acknowledged in a panel discussion back in Cambridge, Mass., shortly before he first ran for governor, “Harvard opens a lot of doors” for aspiring politicians.
His fraternity brothers recalled hazing rituals and an early comfort with power.
Echoing Mr. DeSantis’s own account of culture shock at Yale, former classmates recounted the future governor, who hailed from the middle-class, suburban Gulf Coast city of Dunedin, as bewildered and soon alienated by the more cosmopolitan, diverse Yale campus.
He found his tribe on the baseball team and in the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity, where he participated in the frat’s brutal hazing rituals — an early illustration, in the view of some former frat brothers, of his comfort with power and bullying.
On one occasion, Mr. DeSantis and other brothers played a prank that involved turning on a blender between the legs of a blindfolded pledge. During the frat’s wintertime “hell week,” Mr. DeSantis required a pledge to wear a pair of baseball pants with the back and thighs cut out, exposing his buttocks and genitals, former brothers and pledges said. Mr. DeSantis denied these accounts through his spokesman, who called them “ridiculous assertions and completely false.”
He was a latecomer to the culture wars.
Mr. DeSantis is now indelibly associated with policies that take on what he considers left-wing ideology in Florida’s public schools and universities: his takeover of the liberal arts school New College; efforts that make it easier for parents to challenge books available in elementary and high schools; a law prohibiting classroom discussions of sexual orientation and gender identity that are not viewed as “age appropriate”; and bans against teaching ideas like “systemic racism” in core classes at public universities.
Yet his emergence as his party’s chief culture warrior was anything but preordained, The Times found. 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. (When a Florida lawmaker first proposed abolishing New College entirely, Mr. DeSantis replied, “What is New College?”)
It took the coronavirus pandemic — and the intertwined backlashes against mask mandates, school lockdowns and the spread of “anti-racist” and “equity” curriculums — to both awaken Mr. DeSantis to the political power of education issues and cement his suspicions of academic and scientific experts.
He’s found common cause with a new crop of conservative academics.
As he battled against critical race theory and bureaucratic elites, Mr. DeSantis became entwined with a rising movement of conservative academics and activists outside Florida, notably at Hillsdale College in Michigan and the Claremont Institute in California.
At a recent donor retreat, Mr. DeSantis featured a Claremont panel intended to “define the ‘Regime’ which illegitimately rules us” and lay out a strategy to “make states more autonomous from the woke regime by ridding themselves of leftist interests,” according to planning emails obtained by The Times.
In a report calling for Florida to abolish diversity programs, one of the experts — who argued in a 2021 speech that feminism makes women “more medicated, meddlesome and quarrelsome” — urged Mr. DeSantis to “order civil rights investigations of all university units in which women vastly outnumber men” and root out “any anti-male elements of curriculum.”
His policies have changed course on academic freedom.
In Florida, Mr. DeSantis has turned sharply away from an earlier commitment to academic freedom. Even as he calls to dismantle “woke” orthodoxy, he has imposed another, with a sweeping ban on the teaching of “identity politics” in required classes at Florida’s public colleges and universities. In the name of “parental rights,” DeSantis-backed policies have given conservative Floridians a veto over books and curriculums favored by their more liberal neighbors.
One DeSantis appointee, the conservative activist Chris Rufo, has argued that “the goal of the university is not free inquiry.” In court, lawyers for the DeSantis administration have argued that the concept of academic freedom does not apply to public university teachers, whose instruction is merely “government speech,” controllable by duly elected officials.