Ron DeSantis Is TNR’s 2020 Scoundrel of the Year

By Jeb Lund, published in The New Republic (TNR),  Dec 29, 2020

For so many of us, the person of the year is Nothing. The thing that killed mom or laid out the elementary school teacher was Nothing. Nobody saw it. Either dad tracked nothing home from the grocery store or there was a fatal amount of Nothing smeared all over the produce. Maybe it was on the car door handle. Nothing got through the mask I wore to the drug store. Nothing is coming to help.

This year, we didn’t know when Nothing was going to happen to us. The only people left to answer for how the Covid-19 pandemic became real to them are those it left alive. How did the Nothing creep in? Was it negligence or accident? Or did it sneak in on the decisions of powerful men?

Becoming Scoundrel of the Year requires something less than Nothing; it requires being its handmaiden. Ronald DeSantis, current Florida Gubernatorial Occupant, is not even an original source of nothingness. It molded him, and it will be his only legacy, but his direct victims will never know what act of economic extortion and unvarnished mortal contempt brought about their demise. Nothing will be his fault.

You can’t see Nothing coming, but you can see Ron, broadcasting from its nerve center, mask hung ineptly, eyebrows arched like a dog that shit on the rug, face red and puffy like every press conference is a field sobriety test he’s bombing in real time. The man is a fading echo of something more substantial. As we wait for the individual pandemic horror that becomes, for each of us, the eponymous one, DeSantis is all we have.

Ron DeSantis always wanted to make something of himself. What a pity. From working-class beginnings in Dunedin, Florida, DeSantis began his journey to restoring anti-elitist, real-world values by going to Eli Yale’s Finishing School for Fancy Boys when they needed a baseball player, then Harvard Law School. At both, he drank deep of the rarified intellectualism that produced George W. Bush, the commitments to ethics and service that drive Mike Pompeo, and the American heartland experience so uniquely embodied by Ted Cruz. Later, he served as a JAG officer in the Navy, the same crucible that forged Lindsey Graham.

After his discharge from the Navy, DeSantis spent an exhaustive two years in the wilderness of the private sector, then plotted a course to power by writing a book about America, values, the Constitution, values, the dangers of socialism, and Barack Obama. DeSantis’s Dreams from Our Founding Fathers lengthens Obama’s Dreams from My Father to a devastating degree not seen since the addition of “… in bed” to fortune cookie fortunes.

You could plot the rest of Captain Ron’s by-the-numbers ASMR bio yourself to the soothing ticking of a ventilator. DeSantis won a safely conservative House seat by running against Obama and socialism in 2012, even suggesting that Obama’s face should be on food stamps. In the House, he helped found the Freedom Caucus, which is a lot like having your name on the remedial wing at Murder School. Taking the long view of his constituents’ needs, he contributed to a wonderful precedent by voting against Hurricane Sandy aid. Thankfully, at that point Florida had run out of hurricanes and would never be hit by another again.

When Marco Rubio ran for president in 2016 and announced his intention to vacate his Senate seat, DeSantis saw his chance. Alas, Donald Trump horsewhipped Rubio almost everywhere but Marco’s literal backyard, and Rubio—who entered politics to be near rich people, like someone taking a high school weight-training elective to hang out near football players and maybe be mistaken for one of them—slunk back to his incumbency, but not before DeSantis’s abortive Senate run had tapped into the Koch and Club For Growth donor networks that have helped give Florida politics the healthful complexion of the Eglin Air Force Base test range.

Despite keeping Trump at arm’s length through 2016 and playing to his strengths by campaigning against Democrats rather than for Trump, DeSantis courted the president’s favor by trying to defund the Mueller investigation, calling for the impeachment of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, and fulminating on Fox News about how unfair things are. Incredibly, directly appealing to Trump’s interests while mentioning him by name on the TV channel devoted to him and running ads about Ron’s toddler daughter learning to “build the wall” had the effect of getting the president’s attention—and, critically, his endorsement for the 2018 Florida gubernatorial primary.

DeSantis ran against Democrat Andrew Gillum, whom he tirelessly characterized as a Black socialist former mayor of Black crime capital Tallahassee. He won the governorship by a margin of 30,000 votes. Assuming every Florida Covid-19 death was a DeSantis supporter, he only has about 10,000 more to last him the next two years.

Florida does not have a governor, but pestilence does, and in this respect DeSantis has served his only non-Trump constituency with an ardor unparalleled in his career. His legacy of evasion, distortion, and endangerment in furtherance of the unchecked spread of disease among every other citizen of the state could only be surpassed by his dying of Covid-19 in a protracted Clouseau-esque manner.

We see people dying—it sucks,” he said. Bro—no shit, bro? There are fates worse than death, though, like accountability. “I had no illusions of ever being treated favorably by the Acela media,” DeSantis added. “This is as hard as I’ve ever worked at anything, and I’ve had to work very hard in my life to get where I’m at.” Have some perspective—think of the death toll on him.

Unluckily for DeSantis, working as hard as he’s ever worked in his life produces yet more of his particular brand of Nothing with a relentless fidelity. When the rest of the United States begged Florida to shut down in March and April, he listened to the Chamber of Commerce’s demands that the state stay open via magical-thinking restrictions that presume viruses distinguish between houses of booze, houses of God, and hours of the day. When America begged him to close the beaches, he dragged his feet until the media was awash in images of MTV Spring Break 2020: Viral Loaded. Florida ultimately shut from April 2020 to … April 2020, then reopened and never looked back. We couldn’t let the cure (not getting the disease) be worse than getting the disease (getting the disease); what part of that isn’t getting through to you?

In June, after cases tripled, DeSantis announced, “No, we’re not shutting down, you know, we’re going to go forward.” He called for schools to be open in the fall and blamed the increase in cases on the increase in testing. He transitioned from attributing Florida’s Covid-19 bloom to people from New York in March, saying that “tens of thousands have defied [state directives in New York] and so we’re ending up in a situation where we’re having to pick up some of those pieces” to blaming migrant workers and a watermelon farm in June. As ever, responsibility fell on nameless New York liberals, rootless cosmopolitans of variegated pigments, nameless Florida migrants, and not, even for a second, the Republican in charge.

What didn’t get blamed was the one thing that DeSantis’s actions suggested was his goal all along: herd immunity. While it wasn’t until December that Americans knew that a chief deputy to Trump’s Covid-19 mouthpiece Michael Caputo was aggressively pursuing a herd immunity strategy, Floridians could watch DeSantis quietly try to move the goalposts. While April’s eruption of cases and deaths were New York’s fault, he mocked the early coronavirus “hysteria,” then emphasized that “Florida is Ground Zero for nursing homes, we’re God’s waiting room” and that the people dying were “folks 65 and up.” Meanwhile, he lied, “This particular pandemic is one where, I don’t think nationwide there’s been a single fatality under 25. For whatever reason it just doesn’t seem to threaten, you know, kids.… If you’re younger it just hasn’t had an impact. So that should factor into how we’re viewing this.”

It should. While DeSantis deserves credit for putting visitation restrictions on nursing homes, he managed to shift focus and blame in a manner consonant with, at the very least, letting a vast intervention of Nothing float the state toward herd immunity by default. He ended Florida’s April flirtation with safety just as the Easter numbers were surging. By mid-summer, villainy had shifted to a testing regime that stubbornly kept finding the virus, and DeSantis had no way of accounting for the state’s uncontrolled spread, save to explain that it didn’t actually matter:

Higher positivity, more number of tests—probably the most significant change we’ve seen is a radical change in the median age of people who are testing positive. The median age was in their 60s. In the last two to three weeks, you’ve seen a dramatic decline. Now it consistently is 33, 34, 35. You’re talking about a lot of people in their thirties. Those groups, by and large, are much less at risk for really serious consequences. In the state of Florida, 86 percent of all the fatalities have been over the age of 86.

How providential that the cohort least likely to die of Covid-19 was infecting itself in a way that could eventually serve to herd-immunize the elderly and vulnerable in a world where government stood powerless in the face of youthful exuberance, because you cannot control American adults under 44. The right people were getting infected less, and the cannon fodder was leaping out of the trenches. What was anyone gonna do? Stop this crazy thing?

But that was merely reframing the context for reading the bad data. Next came the need to change it.

For months, Florida has swirled with more rumors about hospitals than there were rumors about where your meat came from in Occupied France. For every shitbird in the Ralph Lauren flatfront militia threatening to take the Insurrection Act into their own hands, there’s someone who heard about a hospital in Jacksonville or Orlando where they’re not allowed to say when someone died of Covid-19.

Unfortunately, for Captain Ron, the latter rumor-mongering grows out of something very much like the truth, including delayed and suppressed Covid-19 data, changing metrics, muzzling local health directors to keep schools open, muzzling state-level health officials, fighting lawsuits trying to turn over information to the public, and taking advantage of the punitive array of consequences for whistleblowers. The latter prospect became terrifyingly real when Florida Department of Law Enforcement agents conducted an armed raid of a former state data scientist potentially guilty of illegally emailing former coworkers and absolutely guilty of making DeSantis look like a jerkoff. Last but not least, it turns out that the State of Florida deliberately excluded Covid-19 death data from official counts for a few weeks leading to this year’s presidential election, making it appear as if the pandemic were becoming less lethal as the Trump-DeSantis Nothing Offensive reclaimed the state. After the election, the count resumed.

At every step of the pandemic, DeSantis has chosen a path of disinformation, misinformation, and omission to conceal the severity of the crisis. The voice coming from the TV in Tallahassee speaks in the same tones as the Sackler family telling you Oxycontin isn’t addictive and Camel Cigarettes telling you that your T-zone was never better. Fuck it—you know what probably works? Hydroxychloroquine. Here’s DeSantis as late as December 15: “The evidence does not show that restaurants are a significant threat.” Keeeeeep fuckin’ that chicken. He has created a statewide environment of depraved indifference to human life and either engaged in or tolerated a conspiracy to suppress information affecting Floridians’ mortal safety, and in any other circumstance we would call him a murderer.

None of this passive culling of the citizenry was done on principle, and it certainly wasn’t done for you. As ever, DeSantis’s only audience was the creature that made him, his Maxi-Me, Donald Trump. If Florida’s governor is, at best, a weather vane that always finds the strongest gust pointing toward Washington, he at least has the virtue of being right about it. He might not have begun as a Trumpist, but he has every intention of outlasting the boss.

Indeed, an heir to the Trumpian creed is slouching forth from the Sunshine State. DeSantis has suppressed local health officials and lifted bans on gatherings. When Hillsborough County got big ideas about shuttering a local minister’s Megachurch, DeSantis issued a superseding stay-at-home order that exempted church services. Since then, almost a million more Floridians have gotten the chance to try to pray the RNA away. Millions more, however, haven’t had their First Amendment rights as well respected: When the Trump administration decided to try to distract from its slow suffocation of hundreds of thousands of Americans by inventing a wave of communist insurrections in every city by Black Lives Antifa, DeSantis was happy to play along, with a law that made vehicular homicides at the hands of right-wing vigilantes an acceptable form of political expression.

Floridians have been waiting nine months for a mask mandate; and they’ll get Nothing. They’ve been waiting forever for unemployment and will get much the same, stymied by a system designed by Rick Scott and the finest minds in Republican consultancy to be enraging, protracted, and hostile to the concept of functionality. When the community most needed a moral voice that insisted on a set of priorities for all, to the benefit of all, DeSantis once again staked Nothing. Pile on enough Nothing, and it sunders the invisible connections that can endure even months of lockdown. Once a void is big enough, there’s no telling what it will swallow. He delegated, and in so doing unwittingly revealed to so many of us who, among our friends, truly didn’t care what happened to anyone else either.

Ronald DeSantis, the First Impaired Boater of the Intracoastal Waterway, a man whose administration has overseen four times the number of deaths to Covid-19 as the state lost to the Civil War, is only halfway through his first term as someone who will do Nothing to jeopardize his chances of becoming president. His world is a liminal space, the Governor’s Mansion an especially classy van on the way between gigs. You can stuff the ground with dead, but he’ll never trip over the bumps because he’s never really been here. The true cost of the Florida dead will be felt, if it is felt at all, at the exact second it costs him the next office and not a second sooner.

Image Credits: DREW ANGERER/GETTY
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