The USA, (Brussels Morning Newspaper) Ron DeSantis and Donald Trump are, for the moment, the leading candidates for the Republican presidential nomination in 2024. Although both are what President Biden has described as MAGA Republicans, there are important differences between the two men. For example, DeSantis has impressively threaded a needle of both embracing the MAGA movement while also hewing to traditional conservative Republican politics, whereas Trump has at times strayed from mainstream conservative views through his populist rhetoric and positions on trade.
There are other differences as well. Trump has demonstrated that his buffoonish style grows out of both a limited intellect and decreasing mental facilities. His vocabulary and syntax are strange and unsophisticated. He has evinced almost no intellectual interest in anything in his adult life and was always and undistinguished student able to attend elite schools because of his family money. Trump’s decreasing cognitive abilities have been a subject of inquiry and concern for years now.
DeSantis is different. Liked Ted Cruz during the first years of his political career, part of DeSantis’s brand is that he is the smart one. He is frequently described that way in profiles and other articles. Like Trump, DeSantis attended Ivy League universities-in his case for both college, Yale, and law school, Harvard. However, unlike Trump, DeSantis did not buy his way in.
DeSantis’s Covid policy should be seen in this context. Throughout the pandemic, DeSantis was an ardent Covid denier-a position he has recommitted himself to in 2023. He recently again stated “when the world lost its mind, Florida was a refuge of sanity, serving strongly as freedom’s linchpin.” Similarly, DeSantis has called for permanent bans against mandatory Covid restrictions in Florida. Trump was also a Covid denier, but when Trump said idiotic things like “Supposing we hit the body with a tremendous whether it’s ultraviolet or just very powerful light,” it was very possible that he really believed that would cure Covid. There was never any reason to think Trump had either a basic knowledge of how viruses work or the capacity to fully understand a briefing on that topic. In contrast, there is strong reason to believe DeSantis understands the reality of Covid and has decided to pursue a policy of essentially ignoring the virus. That decision can only be attributed to DeSantis’s ambition and to his own belief in the MAGA anti-science orthodoxy.
DeSantis’s Covid policy has been deadly. Florida has more deaths per capita than the US overall, about 50% more than California, a state that has become a target of much of DeSantis’s rhetoric. California Governor Gavin Newsom, who also has presidential ambitions, and DeSantis have often sparred in the media in what some believe is a preview of the 2024 election-spoiler, it isn’t. However, part of the comparison between the two governors is that Newsom has kept Californians much safer from Covid while DeSantis, for all his boasts about sanity, has failed to keep Floridians safe from Covid.
A comparison between the state of Florida and Newsom’s hometown of San Francisco is even more stark. Few cities or states had as strong Covid policies as San Francisco or as high compliance with those policies. While San Francisco’s downtown is struggling to rebound, it should not be overlooked that San Francisco’s per capita Covid deaths are less than one third those of Florida. It is true that Florida has an older population who are more vulnerable to Covid due to their age. However, that is also the point. DeSantis embraced Covid denial knowing that millions of residents of his state were particularly vulnerable to the disease.
The reality of DeSantis’s Covid policies belies a media narrative that he somehow responded to the crisis well, but they also reveal a lot about DeSantis, who has emerged as the strongest Republican alternative to Trump. DeSantis knowingly, in a way that perhaps was not true of even Trump, sent thousands of people in his state to their graves, because of his political goals, beliefs and priorities. For DeSantis, talking tough on Covid was a way to demonstrate his MAGA credentials and to become a national conservative figure. The thousands of deaths that a Covid policy that prioritized saving lives over DeSantis’s political future would have prevented are just collateral damage for DeSantis.
It is not just the Florida Governor’s political ambitions that drove his Covid policy, but also his views on Florida’s economy. Again, this reveals quite a bit about DeSantis’s priorities. During the pandemic, DeSantis frequently urged people and businesses, except those with liberal policies, to visit or relocate to Florida. Part of his pitch was that Florida was open for business. In this case, keeping business open and profits flowing to the corporate powers that fund his campaign was a higher priority for DeSantis than saving lives.
As the 2024 election approaches, we will hear much more from Ron DeSantis. His sterling educational resume and reputation for having a sharp intellect will be part of that narrative. There is ample reason to believe that DeSantis is a smart man, but that only makes him more responsible for the terrible and deadly decisions he made in the face of a global pandemic.