You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Ron DeSantis’s Pandemic McCarthyism May Backfire on Him

The Florida governor’s cynical ploy is to signal to rank-and-file Republicans: Look, I can investigate people, too!

James Gilbert/Getty Images
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis

Covid-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths are up nearly 60 percent since Thanksgiving. And in a startling twist, for the first time since the advent of Covid vaccines, the majority of those dying of the disease have been vaccinated.

You can imagine the fool’s interpretation of this statistic: that vaccines must be a part of the problem! They are—but the truth is the exact opposite of what anti-vaxxers want us to believe. The problem is that too few Americans are up to date on their vaccines. While 69 percent of Americans have gotten two vaccines, immunity wanes with time. And only about 10 percent of those who are eligible have gotten the most recent bivalent booster. Seniors over 65 who fall in that gap are the ones most likely to die of Covid right now.

Now imagine you’re the governor of the state with the country’s largest population over 65. Perhaps you’d want to make sure that you’re protecting your state’s seniors from falling into that gap. Except that governor is Ron DeSantis of Florida, who just proved, yet again, that he is America’s most cynical elected official, exploiting pandemic-era foolishness to further vaccine mistrust simply for political gain.

In his latest stunt, he filed a petition to the Florida Supreme Court to empanel a grand jury to investigate “any and all wrongdoing in Florida with respect to Covid-19 vaccines.” He also announced a “public health integrity” committee as a direct counter to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He follows a well-worn reactionary path: This is pandemic McCarthyism, plain and simple.

In the early 1950s, Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin used his chairmanship of the Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations to become one of the most feared men in Washington. It began with the false claim in 1950 that McCarthy had a list of Communist Party members working in the U.S. State Department, and ultimately ballooned into a series of sham Senate investigations intended to smear civil servants, academics, media personalities, and members of the military. McCarthy’s mendacity came to define an era of fearmongering designed to punish and sanction anyone to the left of the reactionary senator.

DeSantis understands now what McCarthy grasped 72 years ago: the devilish power that reposes in the simple act of pursuing an investigation. While masquerading as an objective inquiry for the truth, sham investigations use the taint of the very question of wrongdoing to convict their subjects in the court of public opinion. No justification needed. They leverage the specter of due process to preclude any process at all.

At the time, McCarthy pursued his witchhunt under the euphemism of uprooting “un-American activities.” Yet the irony was that his activities were the most un-American of all: He pilloried law-abiding Americans to silence their speech. And he used accusations of wrongdoing to hide his own.

Ron DeSantis understands this too. Indeed, the most egregious “wrongdoing in Florida with respect to Covid-19 vaccines” has been perpetrated by DeSantis and his administration. He handpicked a surgeon general who would trade his scientific credentials for proximity to power, parroting DeSantis’s pandemic talking points without any apparent scientific justification. The DeSantis administration downplayed the pandemic and the efficacy and safety of the vaccines, validating disinformation to dissuade vulnerable Floridians from taking them. DeSantis well understands that the best way to excuse his malfeasance is to accuse others of malfeasance of their own, evidence be damned.

The evidence is clear. Vaccines have saved and continue to save lives. A new study from the Commonwealth Fund and Yale University (one of DeSantis’s two Ivy League alma maters, by the way) showed that two years since the first vaccines went in arms, they have kept nearly 20 million Americans out of the hospital and saved 3.2 million American lives. That means that any effort to prevent people from getting these life-saving vaccines—particularly from the platform DeSantis holds—has cost lives.

All for what? Political attention. This isn’t the first time DeSantis has put shameless political stunts over human lives. This is the same governor who likely broke his own state’s laws when he paid tens of thousands of dollars to fly migrants from Texas to Massachusetts, after all. But DeSantis can’t bear to give up the spotlight as House Republicans threaten to use their newfound power to pursue shameless investigations of their own from Washington. This is DeSantis’s childish ploy to say, “Hey, look at me—I can do that too!”

Meanwhile, 451 people died of Covid-19 Wednesday. That’s up 70 percent over the past two weeks. And those very same vaccines—the ones that DeSantis so badly wants a grand jury to investigate—could have saved many of those people’s lives, just like the millions they’ve already saved.

But there’s one important difference between McCarthy and DeSantis. McCarthy chaired the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. He controlled it. If a grand jury is, in fact, empaneled to investigate the “wrongdoing in Florida with respect to Covid-19 vaccines,” DeSantis will not control it. So if it does pursue an impartial investigation, Ron DeSantis just may get a lot more than he bargained for.