There is a large wing of the conservative elite that thinks of the Republican Party as the parents of a wayward teen might think about their child — a good kid who was doing okay until he was led astray by falling in with the wrong crowd. In this case, the wrong crowd is Donald Trump and his claque, and the Republicans are convinced that once Trump disappears, everything will return to normal.
These Republicans have rallied around a candidate of choice: Florida governor Ron DeSantis, whom they hope will run for president whenever Trump can be coaxed offstage, hopefully in 2024.
The obvious flaw in their analysis is that the party is not okay. DeSantis turns out to be a case study in the institutionalized nature of its insanity. He has been obsessively promoting anti-vaccine kookery, including appointing an anti-vaxxer as his state’s top health official. And now he’s sending out a fundraising email calling for Dr. Anthony Fauci to be jailed:
The demand rests on the flimsy pretext that Fauci supposedly lied to Congress when he testified that the NIH did not fund gain-of-function research. Tom Cotton and Ted Cruz, two other Republicans in the DeSantis wing, have claimed a subsequent NIH letter disproved this testimony. As Glenn Kessler notes in a careful fact-check, that’s wrong: “No such admission appears in the letter, and NIH officials continue to insist that the EcoHealth work using NIH funds did not constitute gain-of-function research.”
Even if Fauci did mislead Congress, of course, the notion of throwing him into prison would be ridiculously disproportionate to the offense. Imprisonment is not how fact-checking of congressional testimony is enforced in this country. DeSantis’s call to jail Fauci is a pure echo of the Trumpian call to lock up Hillary Clinton over her violation of State Department email protocols. The thinnest pretext of a scandal is a sheen to cover the raw authoritarian ambition to imprison any figure who angers the right-wing base.
Whether DeSantis is a genuine authoritarian maniac or merely pretending to be one is immaterial. The structure of the party is such that it incentivizes these positions and rhetoric. He may be less unhinged than Trump, but DeSantis points the way toward a future in which the cancer that has consumed the Republican Party continues to grow.