A confession: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is living in my head.
For nearly three years now, I’ve been fascinated by the performance art of this blustering pettifogger. My first column, published in June 2020, covered DeSantis’ truculent defense of his management of the COVID-19 pandemic in his state.
At the time, he complained that criticism of his record on COVID was nothing but a “partisan narrative.” Within days, Florida would see a record surge in cases. To this day, DeSantis has continued to claim success against the virus, never mind that his state has notched one of the worst COVID death rates in the country.
‘If you want to do things like gender ideology, go to Berkeley. … We don’t want to be diverted into a lot of these niche subjects that are heavily politicized.’
— Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis
Following DeSantis and his hijinks has been what could be described as one of my guilty pleasures. Nothing that happened in Florida had real relevance to our lives here in California; appalling as his policies were, we could afford to watch from a safe distance as DeSantis waged war on LGBTQ+ residents, teachers, universities, anti-discrimination laws, gun safety and so many other the institutions and principles that a sane, inclusive society holds dear.
But things have changed. DeSantis is on the verge of announcing his candidacy for the GOP nomination for president, which will require us to weigh him in the balance as a national political figure. That will be a test for society in general.
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It also will be a test for our political press, which so far has treated DeSantis indulgently, as a horse in the presidential race and a possible alternative to Donald Trump, without expending much time or effort examining the impact his policy initiatives have had on the residents of Florida.
Press interest has perked up lately, with DeSantis’ policy initiatives becoming more febrile as his announcement draws nigh.
But the press hasn’t begun to devote sufficient attention to the curious experiment DeSantis has launched, based on the hypothesis that it’s possible to win a presidential nomination, not to mention a presidential election, by appealing exclusively to a bloc of racists, antisemites, gun nuts and other nightcrawlers of the far right. An America led by DeSantis as he has portrayed himself thus far would be a dystopian hellhole.
Let the examination begin.
It would be proper to start with scrutiny of DeSantis’ positions on the most important geopolitical issues of our time, if they could be detected.
DeSantis’ efforts to plant his flag on issues such as the Russian war on Ukraine and America’s proper role in that conflict collapsed into incoherence. That led to the first glimmers among conservatives that perhaps he is not ready for prime time, notwithstanding the fruitless efforts of his sycophants to depict his confusion as the product of deep thinking.
Immigration? Certainly an issue worthy of painstaking thoughtfulness by an aspirant to national political office. DeSantis’ approach has been to gauge the performative cruelty and pointlessness of the approach of his fellow Republican governor Greg Abbott of Texas and say, “Hold my beer.”
Abbott has been shipping migrants released from federal custody from Texas to New York, Chicago and Washington, D.C. Those are places with infrastructures of aid for immigrants (though Abbott sent busloads to be dropped off in front of Vice President Kamala Harris’ D.C. residence in freezing temperatures on Christmas Eve).
DeSantis couldn’t find enough victims to be rounded up in his state, so he sent his agents to Texas to collect them. His Florida-funded transports dropped them off without warning on Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., which didn’t have any assistance infrastructure. DeSantis’ agents lied to the passengers about where they were going and what they would find at their destination.
As it turned out, the people of Martha’s Vineyard, apparently selected for their supposed hypocrisy on immigration, responded to the stunt humanely by arranging assistance, presumably to DeSantis’ surprise.
By the way, most if not all the passengers of these transports are in the U.S. legally.
They’re asylum-seekers who have completed the initial step in their processing by government authorities by getting a hearing scheduled, being fingerprinted and subjecting to background checks. Then they’re released to await further processing; if anything, the GOP transports interfered with this entirely legal process, to the asylum-seekers’ disadvantage.
When critics questioned the expenditure of Florida tax revenue in Texas, DeSantis simply had his indulgent state legislators rewrite the law and appropriate $12 million more to transport migrants from outside Florida to Democratic locations.
If one believes that the prime imperative of state governors is to keep their residents safe, DeSantis must be judged an abject failure.
The most important test for contemporary governors has been the pandemic. Nearly from the outset, DeSantis accepted the unfounded claims by a cadre of unqualified theorists that the proper approach was to focus protection on the most vulnerable population — the elderly — and allow the virus to roam free among everyone else in a quest for “herd immunity.”
It didn’t work.
Up-to-date figures place Florida’s COVID death rate of 411 per 100,000 population at 10th worst in the nation; California, with a rate of 259.4, ranks 42nd. If California had Florida’s death rate, its COVID toll would be 161,000, rather than 102,500. Florida has recorded about 88,300 deaths. If it had California’s death rate, about 32,000 Floridians would have been spared.
DeSantis’ defenders point out that Florida has the second-highest percentage of residents 65 and older in the nation. But its death rate is almost twice that of Maine, the state with the oldest demographics, and higher than the nine other states with the highest percentage of residents 65 and older.
The chief distinction between Florida and those other states is DeSantis. He has waged war on anti-pandemic policies. He has demonized Anthony Fauci, who as director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases was the nation’s most respected epidemiological expert — though a target of the ignorant far right. There was no reason for DeSantis to do this, except to curry partisan favor with the right wing.
DeSantis installed a known COVID “crank,” Joseph Ladapo, as his state’s surgeon general. Together they have mounted an attack on COVID vaccines, which are indisputably safe and effective in reducing illness and death from the virus.
Ladapo has been an advocate of treatments for COVID such as hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin, which have been shown to be useless for the purpose. He was recently reported to have personally altered a scientific study to exaggerate the health risks of COVID vaccines for young men; legitimate scientific data show the risk to be negligible, and lower than the risks from contracting the disease.
In March, Ladapo was officially upbraided by the Food and Drug Administration for his campaign of misinformation about the vaccine. Earlier this month, Ladapo was appointed to another term as state surgeon general.
DeSantis’ assaults on schoolteachers, professors and universities have been well documented. His policies and the laws he has signed or advocated aim to eradicate diversity and inclusion programs on campus and restrict free discussion of contentious subjects.
In practice, these strictures elevate a white-oriented historiography to the level of received truth, turning the clock back on decades of pedagogical progress. The laws and regulations are written so vaguely that teachers have no way of knowing when they’ve crossed a line. Their natural inclination is to err on the side of removing books from school libraries and narrowing their curricula.
DeSantis depicts this process as protecting pupils and students from discomfiting discussions. In fact, he’s keeping Floridians from learning the skills of critical thinking and academic inquiry. His view of the university is of a glorified vocational school. In a speech Monday, he sneered, “If you want to do things like gender ideology, go to Berkeley. … We don’t want to be diverted into a lot of these niche subjects that are heavily politicized.” (His obviously hand-picked claque responded with cheers for this vacuous spiel.)
DeSantis has consistently eviscerated LBGTQ+ rights. He has bought into the right-wing hysteria about medical support for transgender youth. Last week, he signed a bill allowing healthcare providers to refuse service to almost anyone due to a “conscience-based objection” — a rule the LGBTQ+ community properly sees as a license to refuse service to them.
Is there no right-wing trope that DeSantis won’t embrace? On Friday, he jumped into the case of Daniel Penny, the white ex-Marine charged with manslaughter for placing Jordan Neely, a Black schizophrenic homeless person, in a chokehold on a New York subway train.
“We must defeat the Soros-Funded DAs, stop the Left’s pro-criminal agenda, and take back the streets for law abiding citizens. We stand with Good Samaritans like Daniel Penny,” he tweeted. Let’s show this Marine… America’s got his back.”
This was a remarkable achievement in Twitterography. It combined three right-wing causes—antisemitism, racism and bloodlust — in a single five-line tweet. Down our way, we call this a hat trick.
The question that will soon confront American voters and the press is whether campaigning of this nature will have legs beyond the hermetic boundaries of Florida. The Republican-controlled legislature in Tallahassee has been content to do DeSantis’ bidding on all these topics, feeding his worst instincts with raw red meat.
Egged on by the conservative peanut gallery, DeSantis has relentlessly pushed himself to the right. Perhaps he has been misled by his obsequious reception in the Florida fever swamps into thinking that the whole country lives up his street.
Possibly DeSantis thinks he has no other chance against Trump except to out-Trump him. He certainly doesn’t have much personal appeal; even his supporters acknowledge that he’s uneasy with the retail politics of kissing babies and making nice to donors. When I wrote recently that DeSantis has all the charisma of a linoleum floor, I received indignant replies from contractors, accusing me of slandering linoleum.
One of the few DeSantis initiatives that has garnered national attention, his stupid fight with the Walt Disney Co. over the latter’s criticism of his “Don’t Say Gay” law, has unnerved even Republican fat cats.
Recent political history suggests that politicians who scurry to the right to appease the GOP’s extremists in primaries find it very difficult to claw their way back to the center to broaden their appeal in general elections on a national level. (Mitt Romney couldn’t do it, for instance.)
It’s too early to know whether DeSantis will be willing or able to moderate his policies and rhetoric for a national audience or to be convincing if he tries. Judging from the record thus far, he’s going to become only more noxious before he’s finally ushered off the national stage.