History of a sort was made this weekend. Florida’s Ron DeSantis, unparalleled among Republican governors in his slavish devotion to the president, finally found a red line he couldn’t cross.
As the president was wishing testing would go away for the same reason I recently removed a scale from my bathroom, DeSantis said the surge in infections in his state couldn’t be explained away by testing. Cases have increased exponentially while testing has not. There’s even a big uptick in young people, karmic payback for DeSantis providing everything but kegs of Bud Light to lure beachgoers over spring break. In early May, DeSantis clocked 819 cases. He surpassed 5,508 in 24 hours on Tuesday.
Before any other governors could follow DeSantis and contradict the president, Trump ended much of the federal support for COVID-19 testing at the end of the month, proving that he more or less meant it when he said he’d asked staff to please slow it down in keeping with his theory that bad numbers now are worse than bad outcomes later. Aides rushed to say it was a joke, as if making light of a deadly virus was better than correcting the boss. That became harder when he insisted “I don’t kid.” The head-scrambling episode is another example of how, on the rare occasion Trump tells the truth, we can’t handle it.
When we look back on COVID-19 and why the United States suffered more than almost any other place on earth—Europe is seriously considering keeping Americans out—a defining element will be the relationship between America’s governors and their president, first on testing and then on everything else. Rejecting the World Health Organization test back in January meant almost nobody who wanted a test could get a test. The president claimed he had “total authority,” until he shifted responsibility and blame to governors for whatever went wrong.
Life was good for governors from red states who played up to Trump: DeSantis got 100 percent of what he asked for; Democrat Phil Murphy in New Jersey got 6 percent. Maryland’s Gov. Larry Hogan, a no-nonsense and naturally blunt Republican, didn’t soothe Trump’s ego and had to deploy his Korean-born wife to negotiate a contract for 500,000 tests with a company in Seoul.
DeSantis is afraid to go any further. He’s still not ordering residents to wear masks, knowing that to do so would offend His Majesty. Nor is the governor imposing fines on those piling into bars and restaurants, or on the owners of those bars and restaurants, for violating the few minor restrictions in place. When a state record-keeper wouldn’t fudge the numbers, DeSantis fired her. His books show a suspicious jump in flu and pneumonia cases from below 500 in each of the last five years to 1,000 this year. He downplays the danger of running out of ICU beds.
DeSantis is informed by what happened to his Democratic counterparts who don’t fall in line. Trump stopped speaking to that “woman in Michigan” and encouraged “good people” with long rifles to threaten her. Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker gave up on getting help after he complained about the “carnival barker tweeting from the cheap seats.” Even the quiet ones were left to negotiate with Jared Kushner, who boasted he alone controlled the national stockpile.
After all of Trump’s bogus complaints about how President Obama supposedly left an “empty shelf,” the administration finally admitted that wasn’t so. There were six warehouses holding about $7 billion in products across more than 900 separate line items, including ventilators. Many of the no-bid contracts awarded by Kushner went to cronies for inferior equipment. Health-care workers around the country were left with too-short swabs and PPE with no openings for their arms. Garbage bags are cheaper and easier to get.
New York’s Gov. Andrew Cuomo had a famously hard time after calling the president King Trump. He relented and confirmed that in a phone call Trump proudly quoted, he’d “praised him for his actions.” He didn’t mean it, of course, but the perversity of Trump is that insincere flattery is better than sincere because it shows he can make a powerful politician grovel.
DeSantis served as a proxy in Trump’s competition with Cuomo, who gets too much credit for Trump’s taste. At the height of Cuomo’s surge, DeSantis threatened to quarantine visitors from New York. Now as Cuomo, along with New Jersey and Connecticut, is quarantining visitors from Florida, DeSantis says fine but takes a dig asking him not to isolate Floridians in New York’s deadly nursing homes.
That’s a show of bravado from a man whose hasty reopening even hurt America’s pastime. Florida’s governor built it, saying “If you have a team in an area where they just won’t let them operate, we’ll find a place for you here.” They came, but in a matter of weeks, many had to pack up and leave, among them the world champion Washington Nationals, the Toronto Blue Jays, and the Philadelphia Phillies after that team had seven players test positive.
Another Republican windsock, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, has gone from defending Trump to explaining himself to constituents alarmed as hospitalizations fill close to 90 percent of available beds. “Surely the public can understand that if those spikes continue, additional measures are going to be necessary,” he whimpered.
What a temptation it must be for Dr. Anthony Fauci, who emerged from his undisclosed location to resist saying “I told you so” in testimony before Congress. He warned instead that the “disturbing surge” in Florida, Texas, and Arizona could soon be “out of control.”
But never mind, Trump proceeded to the Dream City Church in Phoenix, where the pastor promised that an ionization machine would keep the 3,000-student crowd safe. Gov. Doug Ducey, who caved on the eve of Trump’s visit there on May 5 and hastily lifted his stay-at-home order, located enough of a spine to rebuff Trump by wearing a mask among the unmasked true believers.
A real test of DeSantis’ devotion will come just weeks from now, when an expected 15,000 party faithful descend, or don’t, on Jacksonville. That’s the new site of the GOP convention after Trump abruptly pulled the event from North Carolina when its Democratic governor wouldn’t bow to his demand to suspend all precautions. But polls show residents don’t want a virus bomb in their backyard. There’s reason for the host to worry. Between the 100,000 expected and the 6,200 who showed up in Tulsa were a lot of people who no longer believe Trump on the virus. A pediatrician and health experts writing in The Florida Times-Union warned it would be “a fatal mistake.”
Trump may wish he’d stayed where he was so he’d have a Democrat to blame if it turns out that even in Florida, even among the party faithful, folks aren’t dying to see him.