Ron’s Retro-COVID Denialism 

I noticed it as soon as Ron DeSantis emerged from the midterms as the Republican Party’s new flavor of the month. 

It was a casual assertion—so casual, in fact, that you might easily have missed it—but presented as an obvious fact upon which we all agreed and therefore didn’t even merit elaboration or special emphasis. And it was widespread in conservative media. 

It was the notion that DeSantis had been right about COVID-19 all along: that the vaunted virus was really just a big nothingburger over which everyone in Snowflakeland overreacted, while Ron admirably kept his cool. Indeed, this idea has rapidly become one of the centerpieces of his appeal to the Republican electorate, or so we are told. 

Jim Geraghty, senior editor at National Review, offered a textbook example in a post-midterm opinion piece for the Washington Post:

As governor, DeSantis took on some gargantuan fights and won. Most notably, his pandemic policies—reopening society faster and wider than many other states—spurred outrage from liberals who nicknamed him “DeathSantis”….But the governor came out of the pandemic more popular in Florida than when it started.

As Americans consider lockdown fallout—including children’s learning loss from school closings, the impact of prolonged isolation on mental health, ruined small businesses, etc.—governors who quickly reopened their states look increasingly wise.

Oh, do they? Whitemansplain that to me some more, Jim. 

This blithe canard that the response to COVID was overblown certainly serves the right wing narrative, especially in hindsight. But that doesn’t make it remotely true. Nor does being popular make a policy “wise,” any more than it makes a politician so.  

So let’s be clear.

COVID-19 killed over a million Americans over the past two years and nine months, and still counting. It has killed more of us than died in both world wars combined, more than in the Civil War, and will soon surpass all the war dead in all our conflicts from 1775 to 1991

It is currently the third leading cause of death in this country. 

Those numbers ought to be horrifying enough. But without the interventions of sane public servants like Anthony Fauci, Vivek Murthy, Ashish Jha, and Joe Biden, it might have been two million, or three million, or five million, and still rising. When it came to combatting the pandemic during that early and most lethal phase, the United States—the most technologically and medically advanced country in the world—looked as hapless and beleaguered as the worst backwater in the developing world, and it was all our own doing. It was truly pitiful. Bob Woodward, who interviewed Trump during that very period, subsequently expressed his horror at the depraved indifference to human life Donald displayed as he prioritized his own political future—as he imagined it—over the very lives of the American citizens he was duty-bound to serve. Trump plainly believed that aggressive action to stop the spread of the virus—or even to simply acknowledge it—would only hurt him. The opposite turned out to be true. His approach wasn’t great for the people who died either.  

But unfortunately for Biden and Team Sanity, you don’t get credit for the disasters you avoided, at least not at the polls, or to the degree that is deserved. So it’s not at all surprising to see the right wing trotting out this counterfactual post-COVID revisionism in which their refusal to take the pandemic seriously was the correct path after all. But to paraphrase the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg, speaking on another matter, that’s like safely emerging from a rainstorm and angrily insisting, “What did I need that umbrella for? I didn’t get wet at all!”

That Washington Post article, by the by, is titled “DeSantis Would Pave the Way for a Post-Trump GOP Return To Normal,” which kind of says it all about what’s wrong with the Republican Party. It was the first place I saw this insidious claim, but I soon began to see it regularly and routinely from conservative commentators, often tossed about as “needless to say, we all know” kind of aside. And its popularity is only growing as Trump appears to be imploding, at last, leaving DeSantis the presumptive heir to the keys to the clown car that is the contemporary GOP. 

Which is why Ron DeSantis’s cynical decision to rally round the anti-science agenda of the MAGA base, and its attendant post hoc gaslighting, and the feedback loop in which Republicans applaud that position and internalize its lies, is especially troubling. And that gaslighting has been dialed up to eleven ever since the midterms, as one shitty wing of the GOP gets behind DeSantis and girds for intramural battle with another shitty wing that is still on Team Trump. 

FLORIDA MAN

The whole appeal of Ron DeSantis to Republicans, ostensibly, is that unlike Donald Trump, he is smart. Fair enough—he went to Harvard and Yale, right? So as an educated man, when COVID-19 first appeared, he initially advocated the appropriate, common sense measures that the best-informed public health experts advised, measures that saved untold lives and kept the pandemic from being even worse in those places where they were duly implemented. Much, much worse. 

DeSantis instituted a lockdown, set up highway checkpoints for travelers entering Florida, and took steps to make the vaccine readily available once it was approved for use. Writing in The Bulwark, the Never Trump conservative Amanda Carpenter notes that he attended the “Operation Warp Speed” vaccine summit in December 2020 and outlined plans for Florida’s vaccine rollout, including a “Seniors First” initiative; formed a partnership to create in-store vaccine sites with Publix supermarkets (itself owned by a hardcore Trumper who later helped finance the January 6thrally); and even personally participated in a “Fox & Friends” segment where health care workers vaccinated a 94-year-old World War II veteran in his home. 

Here he is speaking in July 2021:

If you are vaccinated, fully vaccinated, the chance of you getting seriously ill or dying from COVID is effectively zero. If you look at the people that are being admitted to hospitals, over 95 percent of them are either not fully vaccinated or not vaccinated at all. And so these vaccines are saving lives. They are reducing mortality.

So far, so good, yes?

But very quickly Ron stuck his finger in the humid Florida air and realized which way the prevailing political winds were blowing. Seeing that a Strangelovian precious bodily fluids mentality ruled the right wing roost, he quickly did a 180 and embraced the anti-vax, anti-lockdown, anti-mask, COVID denialism movement with both of his stubby little arms. 

Per Carpenter, DeSantis “was among the first governors to lift restrictions on businesses—and even went so far as to forbid local governments from fining people for violating masking or social-distancing rules.” He also pushed legislation allowing parents to opt out of mask mandates for their children. Soon he was opposing vaccine mandates as well, beginning with the cruise ship industry, big business in Florida. 

In some ways, this strategic maneuver was even more despicable than Trump’s infantile wishful thinking that COVID would just go away if only he ignored it. DeSantis, by contrast, knew better, and yet promoted reckless public health policies anyway, for personal political gain. (You’re doin’ a heckuva job, Ronny.)

Moreoever, this wasn’t some sort of genial libertarianism—it was performative contempt tailor-made to thrill the mouthbreathing MAGA community. A low point may have been him bullying Florida schoolchildren, in front of the TV cameras, for choosing to wear masks. So much for personal choice. By January 2022 he was refusing to say whether or not he himself had gotten the booster. (The previous month Trump had been booed in Dallas for saying he gotten it.) Once again, as Carpenter notes, this was not small government resistance to vaccine mandates; it was tinfoil hat suspicion of vaccines themselves, or at least pandering to the same.

In May 2020, Rich Lowry wrote a widely circulated piece in National Review praising DeSantis for shrugging off COVID precautions called “Where Does Ron DeSantis Go to Get His Apology?” But perhaps that praise was, uh, premature. 

DeSantis began reopening Florida on May 4, 2020, when the pandemic was barely two months old. On that day, there were 527 new cases of COVID-19 reported in the Sunshine State. 

By July 3, there were 11,406.  

Around that time, Michael Hiltzik of the Los Angeles Times wrote a cheeky piece called, “My Apology to Florida Gov. DeSantis: Sorry, You’re Even Worse Than I Imagined,” noting how DeSantis had “turned the battle against COVID-19 into a political issue.” Since that time, COVID-19 killed more people 65 and older in Florida than in any other state, a statistic that remains alarming even taking into account the fact that Florida has a higher proportion of senior citizens than most states. (With 4.6 million seniors, it has the nation’s second highest percentage of residents 65 or older, after—weirdly—Maine.) Some might say that argued for its governor to be more cautious about relaxing COVID restrictions, not less.

As the Palm Beach Post reported just last month, a whopping 36% of Florida’s 82,065 COVID deaths are in that demographic, according to CDC figures, a higher death rate for seniors than any other state. “The figures are worse for seniors 85 and older,” the Post reports. “Florida leads the nation with 9,828 COVID-related deaths in that age group. These grim statistics leave the far-more populous states of California and Texas eating our dust…..You don’t have to be a pulmonologist to understand what’s occurring here: As more and more children, young adults and middle-aged people forgo protective masks and vaccines, the elderly are left exposed and vulnerable—many die as a result.”

SKYFALL

Ron’s defenders argue that he merely changed positions based on emerging data. Bullshit. That argument might hold water if the emerging data supported a more lax approach to fighting COVID. It’s hard to see how vaccine denialism squares with that.  

The truth is that DeSantis changed positions based on what he thought would benefit him with the Know Nothing MAGA base. And it seems to have worked, because one of the chief attractions of DeSantis to his supporters is this fairy tale that COVID was overblown, and that the left behaved like Chicken Little while governors like DeSantis and Greg Abbott of Texas were the voice of reason. Indeed, it has become an article of faith among allegedly “highbrow” conservatives at places like the National Review and the Wall Street Journal and the right-leaning columnists for the Washington Post. It is, in the end, the same willfully blind anti-science denialism that is promoted by the nutjob Ted Nugents and Jim Bakkers (and Aaron Rodgers) of the world, merely dressed up in more hoity toity, multisyllabic prose. Anecdotally, I’m now finding it pervasive among rank and file conservatives who don’t have the platforms of a columnist for NR or the WaPo, but are clearly ingesting the opinions of those pundits. 

This position is even seeping out of the right wing media and into more legitimate press. In a piece for The Atlantic called “Let’s Declare a Pandemic Amnesty,” the economist Emily Oster thoughtfully proposes that we collectively excuse the honest mistakes and errors made by our public servants as they dealt with the unprecedented emergency of a global pandemic. But almost all the errors she concerns herself with—overzealousness on social distancing, mixed messages on masking, confused guidance on the relative efficacy of the various vaccines—were on the part of the credible public health community. She spends precious little time—almost none, in fact—on the other side, those who downplayed the severity of the virus, who spread disinformation about its origin, or who promoted quack cures. That is not because she is arguing that these mistakes are outside of her proposed amnesty and demand consequences. On the contrary, it seems to be because she seems to consider those mistakes less grievous. Or at the very least that is the impression that their omission from her article creates.  

What DeSantis is doing ahead of his expected presidential run is considerably worse than a mere appeal to those who believe that there was an overabundance of caution in combatting COVID. He is openly pandering to those who believe in active conspiracy about the virus itself, its origin, and its cure….or as Carpenter puts it in The Bulwark, “sucking up to the anti-vax crowd and styling himself as a crusader against what he calls the ‘biomedical security state.’ And, like most of DeSantis’s political stunts, his overtures to the fringe are pretty cringey.”

DeSantis recently hosted a roundtable in West Palm Beach to promote the idea that the COVID vaccines have harmful side-effects which the MSM conspired to cover up. His own surgeon general, Dr. Joseph Ladapo, is an advocate of that view, for which he has come under harsh criticism from his colleagues in the medical community. Addressing what he calls the “bankruptcy of the public health establishment,” he also announced the creation of a new state agency to be called the “Public Health Integrity Committee” as a counterweight to the CDC—popular bogeyman for the right that it is—and filled it with anti-vaxxers, overseen by that surgeon general. Two of its members are co-authors of the “Great Barrington Declaration,” a manifesto that emerged early in the pandemic that argued for the goal of herd immunity, which entailed letting COVID run amok.

Carpenter surmises that this “Public Health Integrity Committee” looks like another taxpayer-funded PR stunt of the kind Ron is clearly enamored, albeit with dire consequences. 

In the recent past, he’s used the powers of his office to fly bewildered migrants to Martha’s Vineyard and leave them stranded there; challenge Disney’s favorable tax status in retaliation for opposing his “Don’t Say Gay” law; fine social media companies for deplatforming conservative political candidates; and arrest people, some of them previously informed by government entities that they were eligible to vote, for voter fraud. What all of these efforts share is a questionable legal basis; they are unlikely to succeed on the merits. But that hasn’t stopped them from grabbing national headlines. It’s almost as though that is all they were designed to do.

Given the fact that DeSantis is already the preferred alternative to Trump among many Republicans, embracing junk science to curry favor with MAGA World and outflank Trump on the right strikes some as a foolish gambit, one that would only drive away voters that DeSantis—or any Trump challenger—desperately needs. It is therefore strategically fraught, to say nothing of morally despicable. Sadly, it seems that we are about to find out whether that gamble will pay off. 

M.A.F.

At one point last year, I was driving in Philadelphia and pulled up behind a car with a bumper sticker that looked suspiciously like a Trump/Pence “Make America Great” decal from 2016. But on closer inspection, I saw that it read “DeSantis ’24—Make America Florida.”

I laughed, though I worried that some people might miss the joke and think it was serious. 

Several days went by before I learned that it was serious. As if becoming like Florida is something the rest of the country aspires to. Takes all kinds, I guess.  

Personally, I find the appeal of Ron DeSantis mystifying. “Boring Trump”, Ari Melber calls him. Another pundit—it may have been Max Boot?—noted that with his grim, charisma-free personality, the politician whom DeSantis most resembles is not Trump but Nixon. So it is ironic that his appeal rest largely on this cruelty-is-the-point culture warrior persona, rather than on his policies per se, except insofar as they reflect that image. I get that he’s supposed to be Trump without the Trumpiness, but I’m not sure he has the winning touch, or that the things he did in Florida to thrill conservatives by turning it red can be replicated outside the unique circumstances of that state. Rafi Schwartz recently asked this question in The Week, in an article titled, “Republican Voters Are Flocking To Ron DeSantis—But Why?” 

Fortunately, DeSantis’s perfidy on this COVID has drawn a lot of attention. But as time passes and the pandemic recedes further and further into our past, we will surely see more and more of this revisionism. It represents only one way in which that notion that DeSantis represents, as National Review’s Geraghty wishfully claims, any sort of Republican return to “normalcy” is utterly specious—as if the pre-Trump GOP, which created the conditions that gave rise to a monster like Trump, was in fact normal at all.

Ron DeSantis, who did a 180 on COVID when he saw which way his base was trending, who instituted a “don’t say gay” policy that emulates the hatemongering of Putin and Orban, who spent tax dollars luring asylum seekers from Texas onto a plane bound for Massachusetts—kidnapping, to call a spade a spade—who picked a homophobic fight with Disney like George Wallace standing at the doors of the University of Alabama…..this is not a man who represents a break with Trumpism, only a more disciplined and therefore even scarier incarnation of it.

Make America Florida indeed. 

**********

Photo: Florida Governor Ron DeSantis accepts condolences from a law enforcement officer after failing his audition to be a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader.

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