Donald Trump hasn’t been impressing anyone with his political acuity lately, but at least he is fully aware of one of his own vulnerabilities.
His early attacks on the Covid record of Ron DeSantis, who looks at this juncture to be his most formidable potential rival, show that he knows the Florida governor has outflanked him on the populist right — indeed, outflanked him in general — on one of the most central issues of the last couple of years.
In typical style, Trump isn’t tiptoeing around the issue, or subtly trying to minimize the credit DeSantis gets, but driving right at the governor in an attempt to undercut one of his foremost strengths.
The “free state of Florida”? No, despite what you might recall, or have experienced at the time, or find when looking up the record for yourself, it was really the “shut down Sunshine state.”
“Florida was actually closed, for a great, long period of time,” Trump told reporters during his first campaign swing. “Remember, he closed the beaches and everything else? They’re trying to rewrite history.”
He followed up with a Truth Social post touting “the revelations about Ron DeSanctimonious doing FAR WORSE than many other Republican governors, including that he unapologetically shut down Florida and its beaches, was interesting, indeed.”
The supposed revelations were, of course, the dubious things that Trump himself had said.
This is brazen even by Trump’s standards. It will take all of his powers as a political sloganeer, marketeer and wrecking-ball to counter the DeSantis brand on Covid, which has the advantage of being grounded in reality.
For Republicans, DeSantis’ approach to the pandemic of getting out of shutdowns as soon as possible and resisting mandates and restrictions has been vindicated and has appeal to nearly all factions of the party.
For populists, he resisted the elites and self-appointed experts. For limited-government conservatives, he (although this is complicated) lightened the heavy hand of government. For everyone right of center, he forged his own path in the face of conventional wisdom and got attacked for it in the media and by the left — demonstrating the paramount GOP virtues of having courage and the right enemies.
DeSantis would have much to brag about in his record in Florida absent Covid, but it is his response to the pandemic that sets him apart and makes him, for the moment, a near-legend for many Republicans. There’s no wonder that Trump feels compelled to try to deny him this foundational strength.
Trump is correct that DeSantis issued shutdown orders like nearly everyone else at the outset of the pandemic. In March 2020, the governor issued statewide restrictions and then more far-reaching measures in Palm Beach and Broward counties. Beaches, as Trump said, were shut down.
The trouble Trump has is that DeSantis was initially acting in keeping with the guidance of the federal government that Trump led. Trump’s argument amounts to a version of the famous Flounder line from Animal House — DeSantis fucked up, he trusted us.
Despite Trump’s occasional grousing, he had at his right hip during the entire pandemic the man that has come to represent for Republicans all that was wrong with the pandemic response: Anthony Fauci. If Trump had a tense relationship with the long-time federal official, he largely went along with Fauci’s advice.
It tends to be forgotten, but Georgia went first in re-opening in late April 2020, and Trump hit GOP Gov. Brian Kemp for it.
At one of his signature coronavirus briefings, Trump said, “I told the governor of Georgia, Brian Kemp, that I disagree strongly with his decision to open certain facilities.” Trump opined that Kemp had moved “just too soon,” and was “in violation” of step one of his administration’s phased re-opening plan. He urged Georgians to “wait a little bit longer, just a little bit — not much — because safety has to predominate.”
When DeSantis, too, moved to re-open, Trump’s coronavirus adviser, Fauci, attacked the state for moving too quickly. “Certainly Florida I know, you know, I think jumped over a couple of checkpoints,” Fauci told the 538 podcast. He said that the state needed to shutter bars and prevent crowds.
By May 2020, Florida had a clearly distinguishable approach to the pandemic. I interviewed DeSantis then, and he already was skeptical of shutdowns and focused on protecting the most vulnerable rather than population-wide measures.
Florida had begun easing restrictions, cautiously and on a phased basis at first, but more rapidly than in almost all other states. In September 2020, DeSantis lifted capacity limits on restaurants, arguing that the experience of Miami-Dade, which closed restaurants, and Broward, which didn’t, showed they were ineffectual.
Crucially, the state was absolutely insistent that schools return to in-person instruction. Now there’s a consensus that remote learning was largely a debacle, but at the time DeSantis was believed to be making a risky choice. As the Washington Post reported in August 2020, “Florida is making a high-stakes gamble on school openings, with superintendents pressured into decisions that some fear will result in coronavirus outbreaks.”
The state had to bludgeon some counties to go along, and fight off a lawsuit from the Florida Education Association.
Another problem that Trump has is that during this period he was lavishing Florida with praise for its emphasis on re-opening. In July 2020, he enthused, “Look at what’s going on in Florida, it’s incredible,” and at an October campaign rally in Florida he called DeSantis “one of the greatest governors in our country,” specifically citing how “you’re open and you didn’t close, and you’re just amazing.”
Trump is endlessly flexible and can try to talk his way out of anything, but un-ringing this bell is likely going to be beyond even his powers.
Over time, DeSantis shifted into a different mode, using the power of his office and the state to block further Covid restrictions by localities, school boards and private businesses. He kept localities from obstructing businesses from opening or fining people for violating mask ordinances. He forbid vaccine passports. He prevented schools from forcing parents to mask their children.
All of this was a frank use of state power, although toward the goal of allowing as much individual discretion in reacting to the virus as possible.
DeSantis began talking of choosing freedom over Faucism and of his opposition to the “biomedical security state,” capturing and leading conservative sentiment that had lost all patience with anything associated with the sense of emergency around the pandemic. He took particular aim at vaccine mandates, and called for an investigation of alleged misinformation around the vaccines.
While DeSantis was a sitting governor who could take concrete and symbolic steps to advance a wholly anti-Fauci perspective, Trump, by this point, was out of office and powerless to revise what had been his partnership with Fauci or take measures more in keeping with the Republican mood in April 2022 as opposed to April 2020.
DeSantis’ response to Covid isn’t going to be decisive in a prospective 2024 primary battle with Trump. It is, however, what has put him in the game. It also is a large part of the reason that Republicans feel vested in and defensive of the governor, making it harder for Trump to mock and belittle him — not that he isn’t going to try.
Trump accuses DeSantis of disloyalty. If developing a record on covid that is going to be almost impossible for Trump to counteract counts, he’s guilty as charged.