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Ron DeSantis, the great anti-vax—and Never Trump—hope.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. (Photo by Octavio Jones/Getty Images.)

I want two things out of the 2024 presidential cycle. One is the end of Donald Trump’s political career, whether in the primary or general election. I don’t care when or how it happens as long as it happens.

The other is a greater willingness among conservatives to criticize their leadership. We’ve spent seven years encased in a repulsive personality cult devoted to a repulsive personality. If the cult disbands in the next election, one obvious lesson in the aftermath is that it shouldn’t be replaced by a new one.

I’m more optimistic each day that I’ll get the first item on my wish list. If you haven’t seen the latest polls pitting Trump against Ron DeSantis in a hypothetical primary, take a look. All the usual caveats apply—a head-to-head matchup doesn’t tell us how a multi-candidate primary might play out, and polls of registered voters don’t tell us what likely voters will do.

But the trend is unmistakable. This morning the Wall Street Journal has DeSantis up 14 points in a national survey of likely, not registered, Republican primary voters. Whatever qualifiers you want to throw at that result, let’s please agree that it’s more encouraging than what you or I would have expected a year ago. Or two months ago.

I’m less optimistic about the other item on my list.

Maybe I’m naïve to wish for it. In an era of negative hyperpartisanship, the sins of the other party are always worse than those of your own, whatever your own side’s sins might be. It’s “Flight 93 elections” all the way down, which makes criticizing your leadership tantamount to sabotaging the heroes who are storming the cockpit. 

But there has to be room to criticize this, doesn’t there?

Last month I said DeSantis is my guy in the coming primary. He still is. I don’t care much for him or his politics, but until another Republican seems capable of winning the primary or DeSantis starts calling for a coup against the U.S. government, he’s the least bad viable option.

“Never Trump” means never Trump. Even when the alternative is a populist drooler whose anti-Fauci posturing has left him chest deep in anti-vax crankery.

Because I’m a minimally intelligent adult, I’m capable of holding several ideas in my head simultaneously that are in tension with each other. Trump is a fascist psycho who can never be trusted with power again; DeSantis is a reprobate for seeding doubt about the COVID vaccines to advance his presidential ambitions; Trump is better on the vaccines than DeSantis is; DeSantis is nonetheless preferable as Republican nominee; and, most importantly, all of this can and should be acknowledged, especially by mainstream conservatives normally given to partisan apologetics.

The great Never Trump hope is also the great anti-vax hope. We all need to make peace with it somehow.

It’s unclear what skullduggery DeSantis believes will be uncovered if a grand jury is empaneled to investigate “any and all wrongdoing in Florida with respect to COVID-19 vaccines.” None, presumably. With a mandate as broad as that, the point of the probe isn’t to dive deep into some particular allegation of malfeasance. (There’s no non-political reason for the governor to spearhead a criminal probe in a state that has an attorney general and many capable district attorneys, some of them Republican.) The point is to signal to right-wing anti-vaxxers that DeSantis shares their priorities, and their suspicions.

If the wimps in Washington won’t throw resources at discovering the terrible truth about the vaccines, rest assured that he will.

The inspiration for his initiative was an analysis published by the Florida Department of Health in October alleging an increased risk of cardiac-related death from the vaccines among men 18-39. That analysis was immediately challenged by experts, but it’s true that the mRNA vaccines can cause myocarditis in younger men in rare cases. The American College of Cardiology acknowledges it but recommends the shots anyway. The CDC acknowledges it too, just as they acknowledged last year that the Johnson & Johnson vaccine (which isn’t an mRNA platform) was causing blood clots sporadically.

On April 13, 2021, they went so far as to call for a pause in administering the J&J vaccine while scientists investigated further. They did so knowing that spooking the public about a tiny risk of serious side effects might put undecideds off from getting vaccinated—and as it happens, the week of April 13, 2021, ended up being the high-water mark for vaccine uptake in the U.S. But you can understand why the CDC chose to disclose despite the potential cost. Officials calculated that people would be more willing to get the shot if they knew the agency was sharing all available information with them, including information about unforeseen risks, than they would if they suppressed that information and it ended up leaking.

Here’s their reward for being transparent. Last night DeSantis told Fox News viewers that “it seems like our medical establishment never wanted to be honest with people about the potential drawbacks” from the vaccines.

Believe it or not, it wasn’t long ago that DeSantis was admired for his pro-vaccine advocacy. Even after he began pandering to the kooks last year, his fans in conservative media would get indignant if you accused him of flirting with anti-vaxxers. He’s anti-mandate, they would say, not anti-vax.

You don’t hear that from them much anymore.

As recently as summer 2021, he praised the vaccines for “saving lives” and encouraged Floridians to get their shots. That was a welcome and potentially important endorsement given DeSantis’ stature among vaccine-skeptical right-wing populists. If Trump and their favorite governor were both willing to vouch for the product, they might think better of their skepticism and decide to get jabbed.

It turned out, though, that many were more anti-vax than they were pro-DeSantis. And as the governor realized it, and what it might mean for his chances in a populist presidential primary, he pivoted.

By mid-September 2021, Politico was running stories about DeSantis standing shoulder-to-shoulder with anti-vaxxers. Literally.

That photo op came shortly after Trump was booed at one of his own rallies for encouraging the crowd to get their shots. Weeks later, in the thick of a pandemic, DeSantis named Dr. Joseph Ladapo his state’s new surgeon general despite the fact that Ladapo doesn’t specialize in infectious diseases. What recommended Ladapo for the job, evidently, were his op-eds against lockdowns and his willingness to link arms with quacks recommending hydroxychloroquine as a COVID “cure.”

By the winter of 2021-22, DeSantis was so pitifully wary of antagonizing anti-vaxxers that he couldn’t give a straight answer when asked on television whether he’d been boosted.

Not long after, Trump sneered in an interview at certain “gutless” politicians who refused to admit to having received a third dose of his great big beautiful Operation Warp Speed-supported vaccine, as Trump himself did. He didn’t name names, but he didn’t need to.

Almost a year later, with DeSantis now safely reelected, he hasn’t gotten better on the issue. If anything, he’s gotten worse. “We will answer this question,” Ladapo said at DeSantis’ press conference yesterday, referring to possible hidden side effects from the vaccines. Then he added, conspiratorially, “It is a question that I am sure keeps the CEOs of Pfizer and Moderna up late at night, hoping no one ever looks.”

Last month Ladapo turned up on a pro-QAnon podcast to warn about the vaccines.

DeSantis fanboys in conservative media have largely given up arguing that his vaccine posturing is anything other than what it obviously is, a pander to an important crank cohort whose propaganda carries a body count. He’s keen to get to Trump’s right in the coming primary, sees differences over COVID policy as a plum opportunity to do it, and is willing to fold anti-vaxxism into his pitch in the belief that doing so will pry some MAGA populists away from Trump.

It’s plain as day. Just ask Team Trump, which took note of Tuesday’s DeSantis press conference.

“This is a shot across the bow. We know exactly what Ron is up to,” said another Trump adviser who spoke more bluntly, but on the condition of anonymity to be able to speak freely.

“The fact is, we’ve seen this coming for a year, ever since Ron started to get anti-vax,” the Republican said, explaining the governor’s opposition to the vaccine. “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.”

“He knows there’s a problem with the base and vaccines,” another Trump adviser said. “But if this is a fight DeSantis wants to pick, bring it.”

Politics is a cynical business, one might say. DeSantis is playing the game to win. Right—but it’s not clear how this latest stunt gets him any closer to victory. Were Republican primary voters unwilling to vote for him because he wasn’t anti-vax enough until the moment he started babbling about a grand jury?

Also, beyond a certain point, the price one is willing to pay to win the political game isn’t just steep, it’s sociopathic.

On Tuesday, the same day the governor announced that he’d form his own CDC and would call for a criminal probe of the vaccines, a new study was published estimating that more than 3 million lives have been saved and 18 million hospitalizations averted by America’s COVID vaccination program. It’s anyone’s guess what effect DeSantis’ and Ladapo’s outspoken skepticism has had on booster uptake in Florida but this data from the Washington Post is provocative.

Other data from Florida (and Ohio) points to a partisan gap in excess deaths emerging in 2021 after the vaccines became available to all, with Republicans dying at a higher rate than Democrats relative to the pre-pandemic baseline. Coincidentally, Republicans have been less likely to get vaccinated than Democrats have.

In light of all this, what obligation do pro-vaccine conservatives have to speak out against DeSantis’ flirtation with anti-vaxxers?

For “broad” Never Trumpers, that question is easy. You do what you’ve always done, speak the truth and let the chips fall where they may. The fact that he’s preferable to Trump doesn’t earn him a “get out of accountability free” card. If he and the Republican Party suffer as a consequence of your criticism, it’s their own fault for covering themselves in kook stink.

For “narrow” Never Trumpers, it’s not as easy. Yes, DeSantis has done wrong and he should pay some penalty. But let’s be careful about tearing down the one man who looks capable of ending the American right’s Trumpy nightmare. Having a conservative president who is adjacent to anti-vaxxers beats having a Democratic president who isn’t, the argument goes. Some muted criticism of DeSantis is fine provided that we keep our eyes on the prize of nominating someone other than the orange menace in 2024.

For our friends the Anti-Anti-Trumpers, silence is golden. If you browbeat them to criticize DeSantis’ “investigate the vaccines” venture, they might do some perfunctory throat-clearing about how his energy is better spent elsewhere before changing the subject. But they’d rather keep mum. The Anti-Antis are staunch partisans, after all, and therefore uncomfortable criticizing a man whom they hope to lead their party on the theory that every unkind word said about a Republican brings the Democrats that much closer to power. Whether those unkind words are true and salutary is neither here nor there.

Some Anti-Antis will doubtless respond by accusing DeSantis’ conservative critics of trying to tear him down for their own selfish, secretly pro-Trump bottom-line reasons. The myth of the mercenary Never Trumper will never die, as less principled conservatives need it to explain their own comparative cowardice. If you spent five years playing footsie with Trump for brainless partisan reasons, it’s a comfort to think that those who refused must be on the take from the left.

The upshot of all these strategic calculations is that only “broad” Never Trumpers will be willing to apply strong pressure to DeSantis to change his ways. The “narrow” Never Trumpers won’t do it; they despise Trump but are eager to vote Republican for president next time and will cut a non-Trump nominee tons of slack accordingly, if reluctantly. The Anti-Antis won’t do it; they’re tribalists who think being governed by any Republican, however corrupt, beats being governed by a Democrat. The populists won’t do it; they’re anti-vax themselves.

You can’t un-kook a party if only one small wayward faction within it is willing to risk undermining its leaders by punishing them for kookery. And so, in certain ways, the post-Trump GOP might get kookier than it is now. Ron DeSantis as party leader will never inspire the sort of ecstatic personality cult that surrounds Trump, as he lacks Trump’s charisma, but the taboo on the right against criticizing him and his crankish excesses may turn out to be as strong for him as it was for Trump.

Or stronger. Apart from the populists, conservatives of all stripes gave up long ago on apologizing for Trump consistently, as his behavior proved too consistently contemptible. DeSantis will be more respectable so defending him won’t require as much effort. His contemptible moments can and will be excused.

The end of the Trump cult doesn’t mean the end of the idea that the party leader is infallible.

“Broad” Never Trumpers will spend the next two years wrestling with this question: If DeSantis makes our dream come true by dispatching Trump in a primary, should we punish him anyway for his anti-vax propaganda by withholding our votes in the general election?

One friend watched his press conference on Tuesday and told me she can’t vote for him for president, although she will vote for him over Trump in a primary if need be. Another friend told me he’s on the cusp of reaching the same conclusion.

Some of us don’t want to empower a party whose national majority may depend in part on discouraging vaccination.

Of course, memories are short. If DeSantis pivots toward the center after clinching the nomination, he may end up persuading most of us that he’ll govern responsibly as president after all. Depending on who the Democratic nominee is, we may be eager to be persuaded. Still conservative at heart, even the “broad” Never Trumpers might come home in the end.

But there’s another scenario, unlikely yet amusing, in which Trump loses the primary to DeSantis and then helps scare away Never Trumpers and swing voters from voting Republican in the general election by attacking DeSantis for being … anti-vax.

That would be a funhouse mirror of populist politics. Imagine the conspiracy-theorist-in-chief, who floated theories about vaccines causing autism on a Republican debate stage in 2015, emerging as America’s most outspoken vaccine advocate at the expense of the “respectable” mainstream Republican who ousted him. Imagine fringy Trump cronies coming out of the woodwork to lambaste DeSantis not for supporting COVID vaccines but for not supporting them enough.

We don’t have to imagine. It’s begun already. Roger Stone complained to NBC this week about DeSantis’ turn toward anti-vaxxism: “Prior to this, his position was identical to Trump’s, and he advocated the efficiency and safety of vaccines. That’s his record.” Laura Loomer groused that DeSantis is an “ingrate” who’s been “disingenuous” in undermining the vaccines produced by Trump’s Operation Warp Speed for political gain.

We may end up with the most diehard, crankish MAGA loyalists taking a strong pro-vaccine turn in the fall of 2024 purely out of spite, to cause headaches for the usurper who dethroned their hero. Which, in turn, will put pressure on DeSantis’ mainstream Anti-Anti-Trump cheering section to counter that their man’s anti-vaxxism, while not optimal, shouldn’t be considered a big deal.

Nearly everyone has abandoned their principles in the Trump era for the sake of maneuvering politically. Why shouldn’t it happen with the vaccines too?

Nick Catoggio is a staff writer at The Dispatch and is based in Texas. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 16 years gradually alienating a populist readership at Hot Air. When Nick isn’t busy writing a daily newsletter on politics, he’s … probably planning the next day’s newsletter.