The Grim Cynicism of Ron DeSantis

As the virus surges again, Florida's governor showcases his indifference to human life

Sometimes I think about how different the world would be if Al Gore took office instead of George Bush—how many years sooner the country would have confronted climate change and the probability that 9/11 and the Iraq war never would have transpired. Or I think how many more Americans would still be alive if President Hillary Clinton was dealing with the outbreak of Covid-19.

Such “what if?” questions always fascinate me, especially when it’s not hard to imagine a very different trajectory. But this is not simply idle speculation. It represents real choices voters made with life-and-death consequences.

Remember Ron DeSantis was the guy who announced the day after he won the primary in 2018 that Florida voters shouldn’t “monkey this up”—a none too ambiguous reference to his democratic opponent Andrew Gillum, the first Black nominee of either major party in Florida's race for governor.

DeSantis, a former Navy prosecutor and Tea Party congressman from Northeast Florida, knew exactly what he was doing. Linking himself tightly with Trump, he also used the race to emphasize his low respect for government, claim without evidence that Gillum might impose income taxes (in the no-income-tax state), and insist falsely that Tallahassee (where Gillum was mayor) had the state’s highest crime rate. With over 8 million votes cast, DeSantis won by a little over 32,000 votes.

Fast forward to this week when data showed that Florida accounted for one in every five new coronavirus cases nationwide. Last Saturday, the state recorded 21,683 new daily cases, the highest number since the start of the outbreak last year. And on Sunday, hospitalizations hit a record of 10, 207.

How did DeSantis respond to the bleak, fast-moving reality that puts his state’s unvaccinated population, including school-age children, at particular risk? He issued an executive order intended to stop Florida school boards from passing mask mandates in their schools, communicating that his priority was to "protect parents' freedom to choose whether their children wear masks." And if school districts proceed with required masking? His executive order threatened to “withhold state funds, discretionary grant funds, discretionary lottery funds, or any other funds specified as eligible for this purpose by the Legislature….”

(This wasn’t DeSantis’ first attempt to stem efforts to limit the virus: He previously issued an executive order to stop Florida companies from requiring vaccines at large events.)

And what were some of the reasons to justify his dictatorial action that would harm the very schools and students he purported to support? Masks can inhibit breathing, collect “dangerous impurities” such as bacteria and parasites, and adversely affect classroom communication. Of course, classroom communication could also be affected by hospitalization or death from the accelerating spread of COVID, but that was not mentioned.

Ron DeSantis is no dummy. He’s a Harvard University graduate, which unfortunately provides no guarantee that he received a moral education.

But he’s surely smart enough to recognize the deadly danger his anti-mask stance is causing. Which makes his choices—his shamelessly cynical calculations—that much more egregious.

In a sane world, his lack of respect for human life and indifference to human suffering would bring his political future to an end. Yet in the upside-down-world that defines the Republican Party, DeSantis is said to be pondering a presidential run. Clearly, he’s all in on the GOP message of cruelty and death, if that’s what it takes to get and keep power.

Several days ago, in an expression of his political game-playing, DeSantis lashed out at President Biden for insisting that if Republican governors such as him and Texas’ Greg Abbott “aren't going to help, at least get out of the way.” In his dully practiced tone, he responded like this: “Why don’t you do your job? Why don't you get this border secure? And until you do that, I don’t wanna hear a blip about COVID from you, thank you.”

From what I can see, President Biden is doing his job by making every effort to increase vaccination rates and demand Republicans like DeSantis to start caring a little bit more about human life and a little less about fueling their voters’ worst instincts dressed up as “freedom.” For the record, I remain convinced that the way of sociopathy is not a winner for long.

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