Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer. Photo: Getty Images
the national interest

DeSantis 2024: If You Think Trump Was Too Sane and Honest About COVID

The Florida governor sets up a contrast to Trump’s right on the pandemic.

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer. Photo: Getty Images

Having run for governor as an almost worshipful devotee of Donald Trump, Ron DeSantis has angered his former patron by floating the possibility he might run for president without Trump’s permission.

This strategy requires a way to differentiate himself on something other than personality, where Trump is considered the beau ideal among the party’s rank and file (and DeSantis can only offer a pale imitation.) DeSantis has seized upon the pandemic response. Where Trump was tiptoeing around vaccine skepticism, DeSantis jumped in with both feet, banning private companies like cruise lines from requiring vaccination, appointing a vaccine skeptic to his state’s highest office, and refusing to say if he’s gotten his booster dose.

Trump used the last point recently to paint DeSantis as evasive and weak. “I watched a couple politicians be interviewed, and one of the questions was ‘Did you get a booster?’ Because they had the vaccine, and they’re answering like — in other words, the answer is yes, but they don’t want to say it because they’re gutless,” he told OAN.

DeSantis is now responding by attacking Trump as weak for urging people to engage in social distancing at the outset of the pandemic. Asked by a right-wing podcast if he had any regrets, DeSantis replied that he wishes he spoke out against the Trump administration “locking down the country” at the beginning of the pandemic. “I never thought in February, early March, it would lead to locking down the country,” he said. “And I think if knowing now what I know then, if that was a threat earlier, I would have been much louder about, you know, trying to say this is not.” (DeSantis often speaks in garbled prose, but the meaning of his remarks in context was perfectly clear.)

This came after DeSantis assailed conservative Supreme Court justices for upholding a vaccine mandate on health-care workers. “Roberts and Kavanaugh did not have a backbone on that decision,” he complained. What the hospitals need, according to DeSantis, is unvaccinated people roaming the halls.

What’s notable about DeSantis’s fulminations on this topic, other than their continued pandering to anti-vaccine nuts, is his evident determination to run to Trump’s right on the pandemic.

It is telling that of the many failings DeSantis could cite by Trump, he is seizing on the former president’s initial willingness to do anything at all about the pandemic. Trump repeatedly denied the coronavirus posed any serious public-health risk and insisted it would go away while trying to hide the extent of the spread and treating the entire pandemic as a deep-state plot to undermine his reelection. Looking at this record, DeSantis has decided Trump’s weak point is the brief moments of sanity and candor when he acknowledged the virus was real.

DeSantis may or may not actually be more delusional on COVID than Donald Trump. But it is a revealing commentary on the state of their party that he sees his best chance to supplant Trump as positioning himself as even crazier.

DeSantis ’24: Maybe Trump Was Too Honest and Sane on COVID