MIAMI — "Welcome to America's citadel of freedom: the free state of Florida, proud to be a refuge of sanity in a world gone mad," said Gov. Ron DeSantis on Sunday night, in a keynote speech to the third U.S. National Conservatism Conference. The address felt a lot like a road test for potential themes of a 2024 presidential campaign, with DeSantis largely avoiding hot-button issues that appear to be damaging Republicans at the moment — such as abortion or threats to democracy — but fulsomely praising his own heavy-handed educational "reforms" and vowing to wage war on "woke" corporations and Big Tech "censorship."
Since 2019, the National Conservatism movement and its series of conferences have served as a highbrow meetup for right-wing intellectuals, writers and think-tank staff who largely agree that the old conservative coalition that fueled "mainstream" Republican politics until the mid-2000s is now defunct and a new coalition must take its place. Many NatCon adherents belong to a "post-liberal" school of thought which holds that classical liberalism — in the Adam Smith sense of that term, with its focus on free markets and individual rights — led directly to the "neo-Marxist" progressive movements they abhor, as well as to the unchecked power of corporations to enforce economic and cultural hegemony.
Last year, Viktor Orbán's Hungary emerged as the nation NatCons saw as their most imitable model. But more recently, Florida, which this week hosts its second consecutive NatCon conference, has been declared America's most promising version of a domestic Hungary. So it was no coincidence that DeSantis, a national conservative lightning rod and likely 2024 candidate (even, perhaps, against Donald Trump), was the headline act on opening night.
Sunday also featured keynote addresses from Sen. Rick Scott of Florida (the embattled chair of Senate Republicans' campaign arm) and conservative tech billionaire and GOP mega-donor Peter Thiel. Monday featured speeches from Florida's other Republican senator, Marco Rubio, the slightly tarnished Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri and Rep. Ken Buck of Colorado. Leading Southern Baptist theologian Albert Mohler will close the conference Tuesday night.
While both Rubio and Hawley spoke at last year's NatCon, DeSantis' debut address was greeted with a rapturous welcome. Marion Smith, CEO of the Common Sense Society, an international conservative nonprofit, introduced DeSantis as not only "the future president of the United States" but one fashioned after Ronald Reagan.
"I'm surely not the only person that is reminded of another governor of a very sunny state in the 1970s," Smith said, "who provided through successful commonsensical policies an alternative to the malaise taking place nationally."
In the hour-long speech that followed, DeSantis touched on many of his major talking points of recent months, including during his recent national tour to promote the campaigns of far-right Republican candidates such as Arizona gubernatorial nominee Kari Lake and U.S. Senate nominee Blake Masters (who hosted a VIP reception at the conference Sunday afternoon) to Pennsylvania gubernatorial nominee Doug Mastriano. DeSantis touted the influx of new transplants to Florida during the COVID pandemic; his moves to restrict how public schools teach racism and LGBTQ issues; his war with the Walt Disney Company over Florida's "Don't Say Gay" law; his efforts to ban gender-affirming medical care for transgender minors; and his "law and order" agenda, which includes the "anti-riot" law enacted amid the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests and a new "election integrity" police force, which has become mired in controversy only weeks after its creation.
But alongside these greatest hits, DeSantis sounded like someone who seems to know he's leading the pack in a more national sense. He boasted about recent criticism his anti-riot legislation has attracted from the UN, declared that the World Economic Forum's agenda was "dead on arrival" in Florida and invoked Reagan's legacy to declare that he was "basically the protector of the state's freedom and opportunity."
"The last few years have witnessed a great American exodus from states and localities governed by leftist politicians...that are failing on core matters of concern for everyday Americans," DeSantis said at the start of his speech. But Florida had become "the promised land for record numbers of people," thanks to its willingness to "buck the discredited ruling class" and stand "for what's right."
Striking the same populist note as much of the NatCon conference, DeSantis also said that Florida had "rejected the elites" on many fronts — pandemic public health measures, school closures, mask or vaccine mandates and public "lockdowns" — with the result that Florida had become "a roadblock to what I think would have taken hold in our country if not for our leadership, and that is a biomedical security state."
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To a standing ovation, DeSantis declared, "This country would look a lot different now if people like me hadn't stood up and said, 'Not on my watch.'"
DeSantis focused in some depth on his track record of attacking public K-12 schools and universities, approvingly noting the fact that 1.3 million students in Florida are in "school choice" programs; that new legislation gives the state far more power over tenured professors at Florida's public universities; and that his new civics initiative, which mandates that students learn that Americans' rights "come from God, not from the government" and study the "victims of Communist regimes."
He also recounted how Florida had banned "critical race theory" not just in schools but also in the corporate sector, by giving employees the right to opt out of diversity training so they don't have "to self-flagellate to keep [their] job."
That last point resonates with a larger NatCon focus that differentiates this movement from generations of previous American conservatives. They tend to view many large corporations with skepticism, believing that they have become a cornerstone of "woke" cultural hegemony and — perhaps to a lesser extent — that they have fostered a labor market that harms middle-class families. DeSantis echoed some of these arguments as well.
"When Reagan came on the scene," he said, "it was really big government that was to blame, and big government that needed to be reeled in." That might still be the case, he continued, "but now you have a woke mind-virus that has infected all these other institutions" — including, he said, private institutions that "are exercising quasi-public power in terms of trying to change policy in this country."
"When Reagan came on the scene, it was really big government that was to blame," DeSantis said. "But now you have a woke mind-virus that has infected" corporations that "are exercising quasi-public power."
Among an earlier generation of conservatives, DeSantis said, "muscle memory" drove the reaction that "If it's private, defer to it." But times have changed. "We don't want to micromanage different things in the economy," he continued, "but corporatism is not the same as free enterprise.… My view is, obviously free enterprise is the best economic system, but that is a means to an end — it's a means to having a good fulfilling life and a prosperous society, but it is not an end in itself. We need to make sure that the U.S. is a nation that has an economy, not the other way around."
DeSantis said Republicans must be willing to take on Big Tech in particular and suggested that, when it comes to how such companies have acted in China, they "cannot be viewed as private entities, given that we know beyond a shadow of a doubt that they are doing the regime's bidding when it comes to censorship." Even if Twitter, Facebook and Google are not "formally colluding with the [Chinese] government," he continued, "they are de facto the enforcement arm of regime narratives."
But that wasn't just the case overseas, he suggested. In the U.S., he continued, "They are trying to enforce an orthodoxy on the country" through terms of service that he said were imposed in "radically different ways based on your underlying viewpoint."
Because of that, DeSantis said, Florida was working to enable private citizens whose social media accounts were suspended to sue technology companies for political or ideological discrimination, predicting that such a bill would land before the Supreme Court within the next year and a half.
DeSantis also echoed other speakers on Sunday in attacking the recent FBI search of Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago residence as evidence that national law enforcement and national security agencies "have been weaponized" "against the rest of us." The deep state, he elaborated, "is not a conspiracy" but rather the logical result of how many federal agencies and institutions had "been captured by a failed, ossified ruling class" working in conjunction with corporations and technology companies.
"That is an agenda that is trying to render the conservative half of the country second-class citizens," he said towards the end of his speech, referencing Joe Biden's recent speech attacking Trump's MAGA movement.
Sounding a great deal like someone gearing up to declare his candidacy for larger office, DeSantis concluded, "The left is playing for keeps." And fighting back, he said, wouldn't be easy, "because they have so much support across the commanding heights of society. It requires that, yes, we use common sense, yes, we understand the issues and be correct on those, but more and more it requires that you do so by demonstrating courage under fire," and then letting "the political chips fall where they may."