It’s all going according to plan.
In fact, more than any other Republican, DeSantis may have cracked the code of how to position oneself to lead the GOP in a new era that is simultaneously post-Donald Trump and defined by Trumpism.
Any politician can be an Internet troll concerned with nothing so much as Owning the Libs, and many in DeSantis’s party think that’s their most fruitful path to success. But to really capture the hearts of the party base, you have to show your willingness to do actual harm to people’s lives as you wage war against the other side. And that’s where DeSantis is excelling.
Not that he’s above trolling. DeSantis sells T-shirts attacking Anthony S. Fauci and is now blaming the covid crisis in his state on undocumented immigrants in Texas; presumably we’re supposed to believe they cross the border near El Paso, walk to Corpus Christi, then dive in the Gulf of Mexico and swim to Tampa, a superhuman covid triathlon that is now filling Florida’s hospitals.
That kind of idiocy aside, no governor in America has done so much to make the spread of covid more likely. DeSantis signed a law nullifying local public health measures and banning private companies from requiring customers to show proof of vaccination. In a case brought by Norwegian Cruise Line, which hopes to prevent its cruises from becoming floating superspreader events, a judge just blocked the law’s implementation.
And in an escalating battle with local officials, he instructed school districts not to require masks and even threatened to withhold funding from any district that does so.
Each of these moves creates conflict and headlines, and each one is guaranteed to produce outrage on the part of liberals and anyone else who actually would like to see the pandemic end, which enables DeSantis to position himself as a chief antagonist in the politicized struggle over covid.
To be clear, DeSantis has encouraged people to get vaccinated. But the bulk of his public focus has been on attacking efforts to actually slow the spread of the virus. “We can either have a free society or we can have a biomedical security state, and I can tell you, Florida, we’re a free state,” he says.
With a state government so determined not just to do as little as possible itself to prevent the spread of the virus but to actively prevent anyone else from doing anything either, it isn’t surprising that the delta variant found particularly friendly ground in Florida. It’s now experiencing its worst covid surge since the pandemic began last year; last week the state registered an average of 19,000 new covid cases and 1,800 new hospitalizations every day. It accounts for an incredible one in five cases, hospitalizations and deaths in the entire country.
Yet the fact that Florida has become Delta Ground Zero has apparently only increased DeSantis’s determination to allow covid to continue spreading. He knows full well that at gatherings of Republicans the crowd cheers any mention of low vaccination rates.
DeSantis’s approval has taken a hit: A new poll finds him with approval falling to 44 percent and losing a matchup with Rep. Charlie Crist (D-Fla.), a potential opponent in his reelection bid next fall. But that probably doesn’t worry DeSantis too much. That’s because the way we’ve traditionally judged governors looking to run for president may no longer be operative in today’s Republican Party.
In the past, governors with presidential ambitions from either party would tell a story in which smarts, hard work, integrity and managerial acumen produced such extraordinary success in their state that they garnered admiration from all their constituents. It’s what George W. Bush said, and Bill Clinton before him, and Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter before them.
DeSantis won’t be saying that in 2024. His pandemic story will likely be central to his presidential bid, but his case will be less “I achieved great success” and more “I never stopped fighting with the people you hate,” whether that means President Biden, Fauci, local governments, teachers, businesses that wanted to prevent customers from exercising their “freedom” to infect other customers, or anyone else.
Other GOP governors contemplating presidential runs, including Greg Abbott of Texas and Kristi L. Noem of South Dakota, will try to make a similar case for themselves. But as of now, no one has assembled quite the portfolio of disaster that DeSantis has.
If that’s your approach, you don’t actually want high approval ratings, since that would show that some Democrats like you, too; the proof that you’re doing it right is that all Republicans love you and all Democrats loathe you. Just like Trump.
It’s hard to predict what the world will look like three years from now, but the pandemic could still define the next presidential race. Every Republican will want to say they handled it by fighting the liberals in the most dramatic and consequential way they could. If that means they were responsible for more suffering and death? That would just show how committed they were. And Ron DeSantis is certainly committed.