Much like former President Donald Trump, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis loves to project strength. And like Trump, he mistakes bluster for bravery.
Just before a press conference at the University of South Florida on Wednesday, the Florida governor and 2024 Republican presidential contender walked up to an assembled group of seven high school students standing behind his podium, wearing masks.
Knowing full-well that his comments would be heard in an otherwise quiet room full of TV cameras, he strode up to the teenagers and pointed his finger.
“You do not have to wear those masks,” the governor said. “I mean, please take them off. Honestly, it’s not doing anything and we’ve gotta stop with this COVID theater. So if you want to wear it, fine, but this is ridiculous.”
The whole episode was barely ten seconds long, but DeSantis got his point across. With his words, tone, and body language—he let them know who’s boss. By asking them to take their masks off, he implicitly ordered them to do so. And then by saying “if you want to wear it, fine” he pretended to respect someone’s decision to wear a mask, before immediately undercutting any supposed sincerity by adding “but this is ridiculous.”
It’s a headgame, not dissimilar to a schoolyard bully cornering a kid before a crowd of their peers and saying, “You can wear that stupid shirt if you want, but it’s ridiculous.”
And lest the governor’s hectoring be misunderstood, DeSantis telegraphed his anti-mask vice-signaling by letting out an exasperated sigh and shaking his head when he finally took the podium.
DeSantis’ political fame rests mainly on two things: banning local communities from imposing mask mandates, and signing several laws that ban certain forms of free speech in the name of “protecting free speech.”
So you can understand why he would feel strongly enough about being photographed with masked schoolkids.
But is he right?
There is a case to be made against school mask mandates. There are reasonable arguments (which I have made) that universal masking of students has hindered education, as well as social and cognitive development. There are plenty of good reasons to be cynical about the sudden change in CDC guidance on masks, as well as the curiously-timed rollback of mask mandates in a host of deep-Democratic cities and states—just as Democrats were getting the message that voters see them as the party of endless school closures and pointless COVID safety theater.
All that granted, it’s craven and weak to hector kids in order to score cheap political points.
It’s also ok to oppose mask mandates, while also not reacting to the sight of teenagers wearing masks as if it’s a societal disgrace and a personal insult.
But that’s not Big DeSantis Strength.
Instead, the governor treated the nervous students as if they’re the “lamestream media” or “Big Pharma” or whatever boogeyman he’s chasing for political clout this week. He behaved as if they’re the problem he’s fighting. And he surely knew they were a captive audience to his rant and wouldn’t dare talk back to him.
That’s a bully move. And bullies are cowards.
In fact, DeSantis is such a coward, so terrified of his own party’s anti-COVID vaccine base, that he won’t say one way or the other if he’s received a booster shot.
Trump even took a veiled swipe at his likely 2024 rival, telling the far-right One America News Network over his booster caginess: “I watched a couple of politicians be interviewed and one of the questions was, ‘Did you get the booster?’ Because they had the vaccine, and they’re answering like—in other words, the answer is ‘yes,’ but they don’t want to say it, because they’re gutless. You gotta say it, whether you had it or not, say it.”
A bully and a coward himself, Trump knows “gutless” when he sees it.
DeSantis is a big loud alpha when it comes to using kids as props in his anti-mask tantrum, but he’s a sheepish beta when it comes to risking the wrath wrought by Republican voters’ anti-vaccine sensitivities.