Photo: Intelligencer. Photo: Getty Imag
the national interest

Conservatives Are Giving Ron DeSantis the Trump Treatment

Defend the imaginary version, ignore the real thing.

Photo: Intelligencer. Photo: Getty Imag

Ron DeSantis is the patron saint of a segment of the conservative Establishment that has made its peace with Donald Trump largely by pretending he does not exist. DeSantis has followed their strategy of ignoring Trump’s lies and authoritarianism while cultivating his followers with more refined attacks on their shared enemies.

Ironically, however, DeSantis has moved far enough to the extreme that they have now been forced into the position of applying the same method to DeSantis that they used for Trump. They have constructed an imaginary version of DeSantis, lavishing praise upon the “Ron DeSantis” they created who shares all the positive qualities of the real-life politician of the same name, with none of his glaring flaws.

A representative sample of this form of DeSantis worship can be found in Karol Markowicz’s column in the New York Post (the Murdoch media empire being the epicenter of DeSantismania).

Markowicz’s thesis is that the fact that the COVID surge in Florida is declining right now proves DeSantis has been correct all along. “Florida,” she writes, “is doing better in per-capita cases and deaths from COVID than states that put in universal mask mandates and lockdowns.”

That is all true at this moment in time. But it is not true that Florida has had a low rate of COVID cases throughout the pandemic. On the whole, Florida’s per-capita death rate from COVID ranks seventh highest of any state. That is a raw figure that doesn’t account for factors like age. But finer-grained analyses don’t necessarily paint a more flattering picture. Florida has had the highest per-capita death rate among the elderly of any state during the COVID surge:

Rather than acknowledge any of these inconvenient facts, Markowicz simply pretends that the situation right now—after the virus burned through the state—represents Florida’s entire experience of the pandemic. “Florida has the lowest COVID-19 case rate in the country,” she writes, “They did it without vaccine mandates, without mask mandates in school and with no restrictions on businesses. Life simply went on.”

Well, yes, life went on. Except for the thousands of Floridians who died. Life definitely did not go on for them. But it’s true that the people who didn’t die are still alive.

Most amazingly, Markowicz’s column does not acknowledge DeSantis’s monthslong, escalating promotion of vaccine skepticism. DeSantis’s campaign has involved threatening to fine cruise ships that require proof of vaccination from their passengers and cities that require their employees to be vaccinated, appearing at rallies with anti-vaxx nuts, and appointing vaccine skeptic Joseph Ladapo as his surgeon general.

The familiar method of DeSantis’s defenders is to ignore his promotion of vaccine skepticism and treat him as a champion of the jab. “At the time of Florida’s spike,” Markowicz argues, “the state had an above-average vaccination rate when compared with the rest of the country.”

This is a well-worn talking point, but it relies on what is almost certainly inaccurate data. Many Florida counties report vaccination rates well over 100 percent of their population, likely an artifact of out-of-staters getting jabs in Florida (a widely reported phenomenon.) It would be hard to explain why Florida’s elderly population died at such a high rate if its native population were also vaccinated at a high rate.

The imaginary DeSantis is not cozying up to vaccine skeptics but instead out-sciencing the liberals. “Along with his new surgeon general, Joseph Ladapo, DeSantis is making data-driven decisions instead of impulsive ones made out of misplaced fear,” she gushes.
DeSantis and Ladapo recently appeared at a rally where Ladapo attacked the vaccine as dangerous and untested, urging his audience to ignore findings of scientists and public-health authorities suggesting the vaccine is safe and to instead “stick with their intuition and their sensibilities.”

Sticking to your intuition is the complete opposite of data-driven decisions. The whole scientific method is based on following evidence instead of intuition. People used to get leeches when they felt sick because it seemed intuitive that their blood had bad stuff in it and they needed to have the bad blood removed. But evidence proved this didn’t work.

DeSantis’s courtship of the anti-vaccine movement embarasses many of his fans. But rather than put any pressure on him to stop his dangerous kookery, they’re constructing a fake version and pretending it’s the real thing. The popularity of DeSantis with the Republican elite is a case study in a party that has given up on solving its kook problem and is instead determined to paper it over.

Conservatives Are Giving Ron DeSantis the Trump Treatment