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DeSantis Sucks Up to the Anti-Vax Crowd

Another stunt aimed at the fringe base.
December 15, 2022
DeSantis Sucks Up to the Anti-Vax Crowd
(Photo by Giorgio VIERA / AFP) (Photo by GIORGIO VIERA/AFP via Getty Images)

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’s record handling the COVID-19 pandemic is nuanced. After initially locking down the state’s businesses and schools and installing highway checkpoints to monitor travel, he was among the first governors to lift restrictions on businesses—and even went so far as to forbid local governments from fining people for violating masking or social-distancing rules. He worked hard to make vaccines readily available but didn’t support vaccine mandates or vaccine passports. Taking this whole picture into account, DeSantis could tell a compelling story about balancing individual liberty and public health, about tough decisions and real leadership.

But DeSantis has decided to screw all that.

As he seeks to elevate his profile further and distinguish himself from potential 2024 presidential rivals, DeSantis is sucking up to the anti-vax crowd and styling himself as a crusader against what he calls the “biomedical security state.” And, like most of DeSantis’s political stunts, his overtures to the fringe are pretty cringey.

On Tuesday, as the state legislature was embroiled in a complex debate about skyrocketing home-insurance rates, DeSantis hosted a roundtable in West Palm Beach that brought doctors and scientists together with other Floridians to question the efficacy and safety of COVID vaccines. Steven Ordonia, described in an official press release as a “victim of adverse events from mRNA vaccines,” claimed, “It’s a terrible crime that this vaccine has been pushed in the media as long as it has been and has prevented any news of horrible side effects in the mainstream media from being communicated. . . . This vaccine has nearly ruined my life and severely altered it.”

Another Floridian selected by DeSantis to speak, Michelle Utter, said she was “ignored, gaslit, and abandoned” when, after receiving her second shot, no one believed she suffered “inflammation everywhere” that rendered her unable to move.

At one point, DeSantis asked Louisiana emergency-room physician Joseph Fraiman, “If someone came up to you and just said, hey doctor, are mRNA COVID shots safe and effective, how would you respond?” Dr. Fraiman responded that this kind of language was “a lie”:

Well, I would say that from the day that these were authorized in December [2020], there was uncertainty on if the benefits were going to outweigh the harm. We didn’t know. We did not know. It’s not possible to have known it at that time. There’s uncertainty, there’s definitely uncertainty on young people, people with no risk factors, that’s clear. . . . The ‘safe and effective’ terminology that’s been used, has been based on—it’s just uncertainty. It’s a lie. It has to be.

Florida’s surgeon general, Dr. Joseph Ladapo, another participant in the roundtable, affirmed Dr. Fraiman’s view. “You’ve done research to back that up,” he said, inviting Fraiman to talk more about harms. Left unmentioned by Ladapo or anyone else in the roundtable is the fact that Fraiman’s study suffers from gigantic methodological flaws that undermine its findings.

Ladapo then cited his own study about cardiac mortality linked to the vaccines, which led him to recommend that young men not get the vaccine, putting him at odds with the broader public health community. Ladapo’s study, too, is hugely flawed: As one science watchdog explained, the study “doesn’t really show what Dr. Ladapo claims it shows” and Ladapo’s recommendation against vaccination for young men “clearly willfully extrapolates far beyond what this nothing burger of a study can even be claimed to show.”

So how did a figure like Ladapo come to be Florida’s surgeon general? DeSantis appointed him in the fall of 2021 to help “buck CDC with new official state guidance.” It was a messy appointment: The state’s previous surgeon general appears to have resigned his post under acrimonious circumstances in August 2021, and has gone on to criticize Ladapo. Meanwhile, the UCLA physician-administrator who was Ladapo’s former boss doesn’t think he should have been given the job, and says that Ladapo’s opinions “were contrary to the best scientific evidence available” and “caused concern among a large number of his research and clinical colleagues and subordinates who felt that his opinions violated the Hippocratic Oath that physicians do no harm.” Since his appointment, Ladapo has found himself mentioned in the news for making the rounds on conspiracy-themed conservative podcasts.

The people of Florida deserve better from their surgeon general. And on the part of Gov. DeSantis, the selection of and reliance on Ladapo demonstrates not an admirable desire to encourage unconventional thinking but rather a desperate wish to kiss up to cranky, conspiracist anti-vax voters.

When the roundtable concluded, DeSantis made a series of planned announcements. He called for investigations into vaccine manufacturers and public officials who he alleges lied about the life-threatening side effects of shots. DeSantis said:

These companies have made a fortune off this federal government imposing, or at least attempting to impose, mandates, and a lot of false statements that were made over the last year and a half, almost two years, saying that it would end COVID; saying you won’t get infected; telling people, young people, that you need to get it so you protect your elderly parents; minimizing any discussion of any type of adverse impacts when it comes to mRNA shots. . . . So today, I’m announcing a petition with the Supreme Court of Florida to empanel a statewide grand jury to investigate any and all wrongdoing in Florida with respect to COVID-19 vaccines . . . that will come with legal processes that will be able to get more information and to bring legal accountability for those who committed misconduct.

DeSantis also announced the creation of a new state agency to counter the CDC, the “Public Health Integrity Committee.” This new body is needed, DeSantis said, because of the “bankruptcy of the public health establishment” and “our CDC, at this point, anything they put out, you just assume at this point that it’s not worth the paper that it’s printed on.” Ladapo, in his capacity as surgeon general, will oversee that committee, and Fraiman and other participants in Tuesday’s roundtable will serve as members of it.

Among the roundtable participants DeSantis is appointing to the committee are Stanford professor Jay Bhattacharya and Harvard epidemiologist Martin Kulldorff, two of the three authors of the “Great Barrington Declaration,” a controversial 2020 manifesto that made the case for achieving herd immunity by letting COVID spread naturally, whatever the cost for the vulnerable, rather than implementing shutdowns and lockdowns. These aren’t people who are new to DeSantis world—several of the participants in Tuesday’s roundtable also joined in a similar type of event with him last March. They represent DeSantis’s COVID kitchen cabinet.

As DeSantis elevates vaccine skeptics and picks fights with vaccine manufacturers and public health officials, a new Wall Street Journal poll shows him significantly outpacing former President Trump as the preferred 2024 nominee among GOP primary voters.

Is DeSantis making these gains because of his overtures to the fringe activists in the party, or because Republican voters see him as a more palatable alternative to Trump? Probably both, but sucking up to the anti-vaxers probably doesn’t play that well outside a very distinct slice of MAGA. Further, as the WSJ poll attests, DeSantis’s likely 2024 candidacy is already approaching liftoff. Running to the right of Trump on COVID is a high-risk maneuver without a clear political justification: It’s hard to see the payoff for someone in the governor’s position.

But regardless of the political calculations that brought DeSantis to this point, it’s important to recognize that his vaccine skepticism is relatively new. This is particularly odd considering that an overwhelming majority of Americans have been safely vaccinated—including millions of Floridians who received their shots when DeSantis was still advocating them.

Let’s review DeSantis’s pro-vaccine advocacy: In December 2020, he traveled to Washington to attend Trump’s “Operation Warp Speed” vaccine summit, where he outlined plans for Florida’s vaccine rollout. DeSantis then embarked on a “Seniors First” campaign to ensure Florida seniors were first in line to get jabs. He also developed a partnership with the Publix supermarket chain to establish vaccination sites in its stores. DeSantis was so happy to promote vaccination—including vaccines delivered during “house calls” to those unable to travel to get their shots—that he joined healthcare workers to vaccinate a 94-year-old WWII veteran in his home and invited Fox & Friends to cover it.

DeSantis cheered vaccines for everyone in July 2021: “If you are vaccinated, fully vaccinated, the chance of you getting seriously ill or dying from COVID is effectively zero,” he said. “If you look at the people that are being admitted to hospitals, over 95 percent of them are either not fully vaccinated or not vaccinated at all. And so these vaccines are saving lives. They are reducing mortality.”

But somewhere along the way, his tone and emphasis started to change. Instead of promoting individual vaccination efforts, he started criticizing vaccine mandates. And as he did, his status with the GOP’s base only improved.

In the spring of 2021, DeSantis backed a lawsuit opposing vaccine mandates and related restrictions placed on the cruise industry by the CDC. He installed Ladapo that September. The next month, he called a special session of the Florida legislature to oppose employer-imposed vaccine mandates and to allow parents to opt out of mask mandates for their children; in November, he signed legislation to that effect.

Then, in January 2022, he refused to tell the public if he had received a booster shot because “I’m not going to let that be a weapon for people to use. I think that’s a private matter.” DeSantis folks had probably noticed that Trump was booed by a Dallas audience the prior month after revealing he had received the booster. Suspicion of vaccine mandates began to converge with suspicion of vaccines, full stop.

Given DeSantis’s other political stunts, it’s natural to interpret the formation of his anti-vax public health committee and the investigation he is launching as yet another performance meant to endear the aspiring presidential candidate to the party’s fringe as the most powerful and committed MAGA figure in the field. What sets him apart from his possible 2024 rivals is how eager he is to use taxpayer resources to establish his new personal brand.

In the recent past, he’s used the powers of his office to fly bewildered migrants to Martha’s Vineyard and leave them stranded there; challenge Disney’s favorable tax status in retaliation for opposing his “Don’t Say Gay” law; fine social media companies for deplatforming conservative political candidates; and arrest people, some of them previously informed by government entities that they were eligible to vote, for voter fraud. What all of these efforts share is a questionable legal basis; they are unlikely to succeed on the merits. But that hasn’t stopped them from grabbing national headlines. It’s almost as though that is all they were designed to do.

DeSantis embraces this sort of political theater even though he appears to lack a natural aptitude for showmanship. In an embarrassing ad from his run for the governorship in 2018, he pretended to teach his young child to “Build the Wall.” Cozying up to Trump got him to the governor’s mansion, but he has bigger plans that require a stronger standalone profile. That’s why last month saw the release of a grandiose ad, “God Made a Fighter,” as part of his re-election campaign. (It probably goes without saying, but to save you a click: Surprise! DeSantis is that fighter, handed down to Florida from on high to own the libs.)

It’s tempting to wonder where to place DeSantis on a continuum between “cynical panderer” on one side and “true believer in his own brand-new mythology” on the other. But even this might be giving him too much credit. DeSantis could be something far more boring: a try-hard overachiever with a penchant for overdoing it, even to the point of humiliating himself.

But again, humiliating for him or not, it appears to be working. Of DeSantis’s latest vaccine play, an unnamed Trump adviser told NBC’s Marc Caputo:

This is a shot across the bow. We know exactly what Ron is up to. . . . The fact is, we’ve seen this coming for a year, ever since Ron started to get anti-vax. . . . Yes, there’s a portion of our base that is anti-vax and some people could walk away from Trump over it. That’s why Ron is doing it. It’s so transparent.

As DeSantis runs out to Trump’s right, public health has become one more thing for him to step on—as he plans for the big jump ahead.

Amanda Carpenter

Amanda Carpenter is an author, a former communications director to Sen. Ted Cruz, and a former speechwriter to Sen. Jim DeMint. She was formerly a Bulwark political columnist.