DeSantis’s COVID Gamble Paid Off

Florida’s governor turned his coronavirus policies into a parable of American freedom.

Ron DeSantis emerging from a bacterium
Getty; The Atlantic

You don’t have to be in Florida very long before you hear someone complain theatrically about snowbirds—the refugees from the northern winter who flock to Orlando and Miami. The coronavirus pandemic created new creatures: Call them the maskbirds, flying south to escape the stricter COVID-19 policies of other parts of the country. Net migration to Florida sharply increased from 2020 to 2021, one study found. Search through the newspapers, and you’ll see story after story about people abandoning New York for Florida’s sunshine, lower taxes, and mask-free life.

That influx alone doesn’t account for Ron DeSantis’s nearly 20-point victory in the gubernatorial race, which had many causes. But it does help explain it. The first-term Republican’s defiance of conventional public-health wisdom in the initial year of the pandemic gave him a national platform while also flattering the self-image of his current constituents—or at least a large number of them—as brave freedom lovers. (The data bear this out: His approval ratings dipped early in the pandemic before recovering.)

DeSantis takes every chance to hammer home the idea of Florida as the “nation’s citadel of freedom,” as he put it in a campaign stump speech in Melbourne last week. That allows him to champion his own state against a range of opponents defined by geography and referenced by name: crime-ridden blue cities such as San Francisco, the piously pro-immigration liberals of Martha’s Vineyard, the “elites” in Washington, D.C.

In the governor’s narrative of the coronavirus, the people of Florida did not cower at home or tentatively venture outside in masks, nor did they labor under vaccine mandates as new variants spread across the country. No, they were free. Free to support their family. Free to attend school. Free to run a business. Free from the constraints of fogged glasses and not being able to unlock their iPhone.

To that, a liberal might add: free to get sick or even die from a respiratory disease for which safe, effective vaccines are available. Which is exactly the point. DeSantis’s COVID policies reassured members of his political base that they were in control: They understood the risks and took them anyway. And although Florida had a relatively high COVID death toll, the welter of confounding factors (weather, demographics, wealth) denied liberals the smackdown they craved.

Added to that, DeSantis’s instincts were not as extreme as his opponents suggest—or, knowing how it plays with his base, as he likes to claim. Florida reopened its schools in August 2020—earlier than many major blue-state districts but after many European countries. Throughout the pandemic, Florida’s work-from-home and masking policies would not have made it an outlier in European terms. Sometimes, liberals have to accept that the polarization of U.S. politics goes two ways, and that their favored policies look extreme to outsiders: “No other high-income country in the world relied to such a great extent on remote instruction,” Meira Levinson and Daniel Markovits wrote in The Atlantic earlier this year.

DeSantis’s COVID gamble also played into other politically useful narratives. His message was a macho one of risk-taking and courage, which tapped into the existing Republican advantage among male voters. One of the warm-up clips at the Melbourne rally was from Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show, in which Carlson mocked DeSantis’s Democratic opponent, Charlie Crist, for wearing a mask while exercising in a hotel gym. On the big screen, Carlson said, “We reached out to Charlie Crist’s office and asked, ‘What exactly were you doing with a mask on alone in the gym, you freak?’” To that machismo, DeSantis added a dash of social conservatism, even puritanism, telling the crowd, “Heck, if we were just here four years ago and someone had told you we would have states in this country lock kids out of school for a year—you’d have them close churches, but they left the liquor stores and the strip clubs open—you would have said that would not have been possible in the United States of America.”

He solicited boos with a mention of the government infectious-disease expert Anthony Fauci, showing how to draw on the well of conspiracist energy created by COVID without diving into it. Soon after in his Melbourne speech, he did something even more interesting without any fanfare. He slipped in an attack on his own party for its cowardly adherence to the scientific consensus: “Make no mistake, at the time, I was getting hammered, hit by the media every day, 24/7; the left’s attacking me,” he said. “We even had some weak Republicans attacking me.” (More boos.)

No names were given, but he was subtly laundering an idea that might prove useful in a GOP primary campaign in 2024. Who in the Republican Party got vaccinated, reluctantly wore a mask, and walked back his endorsement of untested treatments for the coronavirus? Trump—who briefly played the role of “responsible world leader” for a few short months of the pandemic. To whom did the hated Fauci report? Also Trump. An ambitious governor might ask, “Hey, weren’t you the guy who stood next to Anthony Fauci all those months while I was keeping Florida’s schools and businesses open?”

If DeSantis was indeed testing such a line of attack, it lacked the immediacy of Trump’s new nickname for him, aired at a rally a day later: “Ron DeSanctimonious.” That was Trump all over: gleeful, grubby, trollish. But although the phrase shimmered in the air—and captivated Twitter—Trump didn’t repeat it again at later events and even grudgingly semi-endorsed the governor. For once, a Trump target seemed unbruised by an encounter with the great bully. Until now, no one else in the Republican Party has found a way to defuse the mockery with which the former president treats all authority not his own. But winning Florida by a greater margin than Trump did in either 2016 or 2020 speaks for itself.

When liberals look at DeSantis, they see a culture warrior with authoritarian tendencies: He has pushed back on the Biden White House’s approach to LGBTQ rights—one man at his rally wore a T-shirt that read I IDENTIFY AS NON-BIDENARY—and makes a regular show of disdaining news media. But as Americans have tired of pandemic precautions, and as regrets about long school closures have surfaced even among Democrats, DeSantis has been able to attract swing voters by positioning himself as a champion of both cultural and economic freedom. The maskbirds are too few in number to have given DeSantis his victory. But they influenced the election all the same—by becoming a symbol of Florida as an ideal.