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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

How Ron DeSantis Turned Covid Denialism Into a Major Political Weapon

The Florida governor’s deadly anti-public health politics may just help him outflank Trump, who looks like a moderate in comparison.

The COVID-19 public health emergency may officially be over, at least according to the federal government. But the virus is as present today in fights between Republican presidential campaigns as it is in wastewater across the country. In fact, the pandemic is quickly emerging as the key issue of the 2024 GOP primary.

During his glitchy Twitter space campaign launch in May, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis spent a significant amount of time castigating the federal government—and particularly the Biden administration—over its public health response to the coronavirus pandemic that has officially killed more than 1.1 million Americans and caused millions more to suffer long-term health effects.

“I never thought I would see things in America that we saw during the COVID-19 pandemic,” DeSantis declared before accusing President Biden of embracing “medical authoritarianism” and proclaiming that his state had “held the line when freedom hung in the balance.” The governor’s remarks topped off weeks of campaigning in key primary states, where he delivered stump speeches that railed against “Fauci-ism.” 

Co-hosting DeSantis’ campaign launch Twitter space was the social media company’s erratic billionaire owner, Elon Musk, who has not only been a vocal critic of mitigation measures that interfere with his businesses but called to prosecute Dr. Anthony Fauci, the president’s former chief medical adviser. More recently, Musk has been feeding “Twitter Files” to various reporters and fringe writers like anti-vaccine conspiracy theorist Alex Berenson. The “reports” have focused on supposed “censorship” of contrarian voices throughout the pandemic.

Donald Trump was quick to respond to DeSantis’ campaign announcement. Taking to his own social media platform, Truth Social, the former president attacked the governor’s COVID record, correctly noting that Florida had seen a significant number of COVID deaths on DeSantis’ watch. 

“Even Cuomo did better,” Trump declared. But, this was a fight DeSantis was prepared for.

DeSantis initially hewed closely to what other governors were doing in the early pandemic, shutting down nonessential businesses and schools, setting up contact tracing, and rolling out the vaccines—he even advised Trump to limit interstate travel. But beginning in May 2020, following calls by Trump to reopen, the Florida governor took a turn against public health. He issued executive orders banning school mask mandates and vaccine passports and signed legislation to ban employer mask and vaccine mandates. Florida was one of the states to sue the Biden administration over its vaccine-or-test mandate for large businesses. (This posturing helps explain why Florida’s age-adjusted COVID deaths per capita since the advent of vaccines are extremely high in comparison to other states.) Over the last two years, DeSantis has cultivated key alliances with many of the most prolific pandemic contrarians and public health opponents in the country. 

DeSantis is now using the public health crisis as a wedge issue to carve out support within a Republican base that is still heavily loyal to the former president and has adopted an adversarial posture against mitigation measures. To date, Trump still leads the pack in the polls by double digits and has done so consistently even despite his federal indictment. 

DeSantis’s anti-public health stance has helped him emerge as the former president’s chief rival, and his alliances with contrarians could prove critical in the race ahead—even if it means politicizing life-saving medicine and policies.

Running the Asylum

DeSantis’ popularity with COVID contrarians is no accident. Throughout the pandemic, the governor has surrounded himself with public health dissenters in an apparent effort to carve out a niche within the GOP electorate—and perhaps, more importantly, woo the powerful business interests that have been waging war on public health measures since March 2020 like billionaire industrialist Charles Koch, whose donations helped elect the governor in 2018.

These big money interests are sure to play a key role in the primary race and are reportedly up for grabs. In February, NBC reported that Americans for Prosperity (AFP), Koch’s flagship operation, had circulated a memo declaring, “the best thing for the country would be to have a president in 2025 who represents a new chapter.” 

“The American people have shown that they’re ready to move on, and so AFP will help them do that,” it read.

Americans For Prosperity Action, the group’s super PAC, has promised to back a single candidate in the GOP presidential primary for the first time in its history and has already raised big money to support them. 

In September 2021, DeSantis selected Dr. Joseph Ladapo to be Florida’s surgeon general. Ladapo made headlines last year when he issued a guidance against COVID vaccination for young men based on an analysis by the Florida Health Department. However, it was subsequently revealed that he had personally deceptively edited the analysis to make the jabs appear dangerous.

A Harvard-educated physician specializing in internal medicine, Ladapo originally rose to national prominence through an appearance in a July 2020 video with America’s Frontline Doctors (AFLDS), a pro-Trump group founded by now-convicted Capitol insurrectionist Dr. Simone Gold. AFLDS became notorious for hawking quack COVID cures as vaccine alternatives. The Ladapo video had gone viral after Trump shared it on social media before its removal as COVID misinformation. In August 2020, Ladapo sat in the Oval Office across from President Trump for a meeting along with several other medical professionals who opposed public health interventions.

Another key ally to DeSantis who was also present at the August 2020 meeting with Trump is Stanford University professor Dr. Jay Bhattacharya. A health economist, Bhattacharya is best known today as a co-author the Great Barrington Declaration (GBD), a widely rebuked but influential open letter from October 2020 that was published by a libertarian think tank. The declaration urged governments to embrace herd immunity through infection over public health mandates and was not based on any modeling by the authors.

Bhattacharya is among the nation’s most committed ideological opponents of mitigation measures, from “lockdowns” to universal vaccination. In a piece from January 11, 2021, for example—mere weeks before India’s deadliest COVID surge—he argued that vaccinating the country’s population could cause “great harm” because, he claimed, most Indians had “natural immunity.” To support his position, Bhattacharya has consistently downplayed the risks of the virus while overstating the harms of mitigation. Separate judges, including a U.S. federal district judge, presiding over cases in which Bhattacharya has testified as a witness, have found him an unreliable expert.

For example, in his October 2021 ruling against an executive order by Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee which allowed parents to opt their children out of school mask mandates, U.S. District Judge Waverly D. Crenshaw wrote that Bhattacharya’s testimony was “troubling” and “problematic.” Crenshaw explained that the professor had “offered opinions regarding the pediatric effects of masks on children, a discipline on which he admitted he was not qualified to speak.” 

“[H]is demeanor and tone while testifying suggest that he is advancing a personal agenda,” the judge wrote.

While Bhattacharya’s advocacy and work have earned criticism from mainstream public health—14 major public health organizations panned the GBD upon its release while World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus called it “unethical”—it has made him a favorite on the political right, especially among business-aligned groups like those in Koch’s network. Such groups have promoted him and the GBD heavily

For DeSantis, the professor has been a key ally and public health adviser. The relationship began in September 2020, not long after Bhattacharya’s White House meeting with Trump. According to reporting, DeSantis reached out for public health advice. That same month, the governor dropped all COVID restrictions on businesses.

Today, Bhattacharya and his GBD co-author, Martin Kulldorff, another ideological opponent of public health measures, currently serve on Florida’s Public Health Integrity Committee. DeSantis formed the body to “assess federal public health recommendations and guidance to ensure that Florida’s public health policies are tailored for Florida’s communities and priorities.” Kulldorff, a biostatistician, has been on leave from Harvard Medical School for over a year according to screenshots from the Internet Archive.

Bhattacharya and Kulldorff were once allies of the Trump White House. But the former participated in DeSantis’ Twitter campaign launch, calling it an “honor” to have worked with the governor throughout the pandemic. 

“Governor, you did the right thing when you opened the schools,” Bhattacharya told his friend in the Twitter space. A recent study by researchers from Boston Children’s Hospital found that as much as 70 percent of household COVID spread in the United States originated with a child. The study is just the latest to find that children spread the virus within households—a trend Bhattacharya has denied. As of December 31, 2022, the last available date on the widget, the Imperial College of London’s COVID-19 orphanhood calculator had estimated that nearly 280,000 American children had lost a primary or secondary caregiver to the virus.

Another COVID contrarian given an official role in crafting Florida’s public health policy by DeSantis is Dr. Tracy Beth Høeg, one of the authors of the error-ridden Urgency of Normal toolkit, which sought to help parents fight mask requirements in schools. Prior to the pandemic, Høeg’s practice was in physical medicine, but today she works in Florida’s department of health under Ladapo as a consulting epidemiologist. Unlike Bhattacharya, she has not publicly embraced the governor.

“Grassroots” Covid Denialism

DeSantis has also sought to build his reputation among “grassroots” activists dedicated to opposing public health measures. This week, both he and Trump spoke at the annual conference of the Moms For Liberty, a parents’ rights dark money group with chapters all over the country.

But the Florida governor may have an edge with the audience as he was one of the earliest promoters of the group, which was founded in Florida in 2021 by former school board members Tina Descovich and Tiffany Justice along with current Sarasota County School Board chair Bridget Ziegler, whose husband is the chairman of the Florida GOP. 

Last year, DeSantis endorsed several MFL candidates for school board. The governor and his wife also spoke at the MFL inaugural summit in Tampa. He was even presented with an award by Descovich and Justice. Following his state-run takeover of Walt Disney World’s Reedy Creek Improvement District—part of his larger war on the “woke” Disney corporation—DeSantis appointed MFL co-founder Ziegler to the district governing board. 

Moms For Liberty, which was recently designated an extremist group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, not only opposes COVID mitigation measures in schools but LGBTQIA+ inclusivity and “Critical Race Theory” as well. It has been a driving force behind book bans around the country. The group bills itself as a grassroots organization, but as Important Context has previously reported, it received a significant amount of its funding in 2021 from large contributions.

“Enthusiasm”

Since DeSantis entered the 2024 race, right-wing COVID misinformation spreaders, minimizers, and denialists have rallied around him, touting his record in Florida.

For example, DeSantis has earned plaudits from the likes of Jeffrey Tucker, the founder of the Brownstone Institute, a dark money group formed in 2021 to oppose public health measures put in place in response to COVID. Tucker has boosted DeSantis’ attacks on Trump and described the governor’s run as, in part, an effort “to protect the rights of Americans against…administrative edicts coming from Washington and state houses around the country.”

“The deep state is truly terrified of this man, not the other one,” Tucker tweeted on May 27, referring to DeSantis and Trump, respectively.

Tucker is a key organizer of the GBD. Through his Brownstone Institute, initially billed as the “spiritual child” of the GBD, Tucker has managed to become very influential in Republican politics. Brownstone-affiliated experts testified before Congress’ COVID-19 subcommittee after publishing an outline for a congressional inquiry into the pandemic response. 

Another vocal COVID minimizer on Team DeSantis is Ian Miller, a writer for the Fox-owned “anti-woke” sports media outlet Outkick whose shtick has been posting misleading graphs purporting to show that interventions do not work. For example, as COVID deaths rose in New Zealand after the country abandoned its zero COVID policy, Miller tweeted a graph with a line denoting “mask mandate.” 

After DeSantis announced that his Twitter campaign launch had generated $8 million, Miller tweeted, “The insane amount of money Ron DeSantis just raised shows how much enthusiasm there is to support someone who fought back against the absurdity of COVID lockdowns and pointless mandates and who stands up to corporations who hate their customers.”

On the Attack

With his COVID contrarian allies behind him, DeSantis has predictably been attacking Trump over his lukewarm support for the vaccines, which were developed rapidly through Operation Warp Speed—a notable success for the former administration. 

Although the jabs have proven safe and effective against severe illness and death, DeSantis’ campaign has been pushing discredited claims of significant vaccine injury as a means of outflanking Trump from the right.

For months, DeSantis’ rapid response director Christina Pushaw, who belatedly registered as a foreign agent last June for previous work for Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, has been laying the groundwork, encouraging vaccine skepticism and outrage over public health measures. She has suggested, for example, that the data on vaccine safety had changed and that the mRNA jabs are not actually vaccines—a common anti-vaccine talking point. In July, she tweeted that GOP politicians who supported “lockdowns” and vaccine mandates should be held accountable at the ballot box.

But now, the war on Trump is explicit. Earlier this month, DeSantis’ rapid response Twitter account posted a video of Trump getting questioned over the vaccines, noting that, “Trump responds by praising the COVID mRNA shots, doesn’t acknowledge any of the adverse effects.” 

The developments are concerning for experts. Dr. Peter Hotez told us he was “concerned that for this 2024 U.S. election we’ll have at least 2 candidates running on anti-vaccine anti-science platforms”—a clear reference to DeSantis and Robert F. Kennedy Jr. 

“This is not good for the country,” he said. “Our nation depends on science and technology for its strengths and global stature.”

Indeed, DeSantis’ run threatens to further mainstream deadly misinformation and further entrench anti-scientific views among the electorate—particularly if his strategy is enough to win the GOP nomination. A DeSantis presidency could potentially even see fringe scientists charged with overseeing national public health agencies.

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