Trump’s futile attack on DeSantis
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-19 record of Ron De-Santis show that he knows the Florida governor has outflanked him on the populist right — indeed, outflanked him in general — regarding one of the most central issues of the last couple of years.
In typical style, Trump isn’t tiptoeing around the issue, but driving right at the governor in an attempt to take away one of his foremost strengths.
The “free state of Florida”? No, despite what you might recall, 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.”
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 the coronavirus, which has the advantage of being grounded in reality.
For Republicans, the De-Santis approach of getting out of shutdowns as soon as possible and resisting mandates and restrictions has been vindicated and has appeal to nearly all factions.
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 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-19, but it is his response to the pandemic that sets him apart and makes him, for the moment, a near-legend for many Republicans.
Trump is correct that De-Santis 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. Despite some grousing, Trump 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 — Dr. Anthony Fauci.
It tends to be forgotten, but Georgia went first in reopening in late April 2020 and Trump hit Brian Kemp for it.
At his coronavirus briefing, Trump said, “I told the governor of Georgia, Brian Kemp, that I disagree strongly with his decision to open certain facilities.”
When DeSantis, too, moved to reopen, Fauci attacked the state for moving too quickly.
By May 2020, Florida had a clearly distinguishable approach to the pandemic. DeSantis was already skeptical of shutdowns and focused on protecting the most vulnerable rather than population-wide measures. Crucially, the state was absolutely insistent that schools return to in-person instruction.
Over time, DeSantis shifted from simply lifting restrictions continued from page
to using the power of his office and the state to block further COVID-19 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.
DeSantis’ response to the coronavirus 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 and, if developing an issue that is going to be almost impossible for Trump to counteract counts, he’s guilty as charged.
Rich Lowry is editor of the National Review.