Right-Wing Push For Premature Reopenings Will Prolong Pandemic

President Trump, GOP governors, and members of his base who are pushing to reopen too soon while Dr. Fauci warns of “needless suffering and death.”
Protesters in Huntington Beach California demonstrate against the closing of all Orange County beaches by Gov. Gain Newsom – May 3, 2020. (Russ Allison Loar/Creative Commons)

Protesters in Huntington Beach California demonstrate against the closing of all Orange County beaches by Gov. Gain Newsom – May 3, 2020. (Russ Allison Loar/Creative Commons)

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Professor Leonard Weinberg is a Senior Fellow at CARR, Professor Emeritus at the University of Nevada, and recipient of both Fulbright and Guggenheim research awards.

In an interview on Fox News (“ Tucker Carlson Tonight”) back on March 23, Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick expressed his willingness to give up his life in exchange for the re-opening of the Longhorn state’s economy. Earlier he had expressed the view that grandparents should also be prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice.

During World War II thousands of Americans lost their lives in storming the beaches of Normandy on D Day and by launching brutal landings on such Japanese-held islands as Iwo Jima and Tarawa. The cause was the defeat of Nazi Germany and Japanese imperialism: transcendent objectives. Lt. Governor Patrick, on the other hand, expressed a willingness to die from the COVID-19 infection so that Nieman-Marcu sand Macy’s could re-open. Patrick’s willingness to lay down his life (at least rhetorically) for Macy’s seems astonishing. But he was not alone; many other right-wing political figures have expressed similar sentiments.

For instance, in another interview a few weeks later Republican Congressman Trey Hollingsworth of Indiana argued that the country faced two evils, closing of the economy and the novel coronavirus pandemic. He recommended the country choose the lesser of two evils, Americans should be prepared to die so that the country’s economy might flourish. Unlike Patrick though, Hollingsworth did not offer to give up his own life in the process.

The two GOP elected officials turned out to be prophetic. By the middle of April, with the pandemic’s death toll rising, protests broke out in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. Hundreds of protesters assembled in front of their state capitols to demand an end to the self- quarantining, social distancing, mask-wearing, and all the procedures governors had put in place to save their citizens lives. They demanded their states’ economies be re-opened immediately.

Typically, the protesters carried or wore American flags. Not infrequently though some displayed Confederate flags, along with swastika banners and pro-Trump signs – indicating their enthusiasm for the president’s re-election. More troubling was the fact a number of the protesters were armed with AR-15 assault rifles and other automatic weapons. In Michigan, armed militiamen stormed into the capitol building and disrupted a session of the state legislature. Reporters on the scene heard some of the protesters muttering ‘the revolution starts here’. Since these early protests, copycat demonstrations have occurred in several other states – almost all like Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota were ‘blue states’ with Democratic governors.

These early protests were not spontaneous manifestations of citizen discontent. They were promoted in the social media (rather like the Unite the Right demonstrations in Charlottesville in August 2017) by several far-right organizations. Freedom Works, the Michigan Conservative Coalition, Michigan Freedom Fund (sponsored by the billionaire De Vos family), and an array of gun rights organizations (e.g. the Wisconsin Firearms Coalition) had advertized their aims and means on Facebook and other outlets. Far from being ‘flash mobs’ the protests, at least the first wave of them, were planned forms of pro-Trump rallies. In fact, the president tweeted his approval of them almost immediately afterward as attempts to “liberate” the states’ from oppressive Democratic governors.

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By the end of April and the first week of May, several states had re-opened for business. Led by Georgia and Texas, Republican-controlled states of the South and Great Plains were quick to declare their independence from the federal government’s guidelines for containing the pandemic. For example, none of the states quick to declare their ‘independence’ met the requirement for a fourteen consecutive day decline in the frequency of COVID-19 cases.

President Trump’s reaction to these developments went through a number of stages. At first, he denied the problem existed. Then he minimized the threat, comparing it invidiously to the yearly influenza epidemic. But once having recognized COVID-19 as a serious threat to the population he used television briefings to blame others for its spread and suggest a number of quack cures: first the anti-malaria drug Hydroxychloroquine and then ultraviolet light and household disinfectants – to be applied internally(!).

By the first week of May, the president had come around to Patrick and Hollingsworth’s positions. He identified the pandemic as a more serious threat to the country than Pearl Harbor and the 9/11 attacks. The country was at war and he redefined himself as a ‘wartime president’ ready to lead the country through the deadly crisis. Naturally in wartime casualties must be expected. So that in promoting the American economy’s re-opening he estimated that 100,000 will die in the process; for some a conservative estimate.

In some cases, the re-opening has not gone smoothly. At a discount store in Michigan, a security officer was shot dead when he asked a customer to wear a face mask while shopping. In Oklahoma City, three employees at a McDonalds were shot when they asked a customer not to sit in a closed dining area. In another incident, a park ranger in Texas was shoved into a lake as he sought to explain the park’s rules on social distancing. Bus drivers in Miami-Dade and elsewhere have been spit on for requesting that passengers wear face masks. In other instances, store clerks have been roughed up for making the same request. The wearing of these facial coverings has become politicized, dividing left from right. On the right wearing them has been condemned as a gesture for ‘smug liberals’ who are over-reacting to the threat. For bloggers and tweeters on the right not wearing the masks has become a sign of courage and independence.

More generally, recent opinion polls indicate that the issue of when and how to re-open the American economy coincides with the country’s partisan dividing line. Individuals identifying themselves as Republicans favor a rapid opening while Democratic identifiers are far more cautious, apparently more sensitive to public health guidelines.

Right-wing commentators have reacted to Dr. Anthony Fauci’s appearance before the Senate this week with attempts to discredit him. Fauci warned that premature reopenings would lead to “needless suffering and death.”

Is there some underlying factor that serves to explain the highly partisan responses to the pandemic? It doesn’t appear to be present, or at least not to the same extent, in other western democracies. Australia and New Zealand have managed to beat back the coronavirus without the type of inter-party fighting found in the US – this despite the fact the former is led by a conservative prime minister and the latter by a social-democratic one. Hong Kong wracked by street demonstrations for months saw them cease in the face of the pandemic. In southern Europe, the otherwise fractious democracies – Greece, Italy, Spain – have managed to confront the pandemic without the interparty fighting and public protesting that has appeared in the US. In the UK Conservatives and Laborites continue to debate responses to government policy on COVID-19 but without the same hysterical tone the issue has taken on in the US.

Why does the United States seem to be a deviant case? What makes the country so exceptional? Why, for instance, has the Trump administration chosen to ignore the re-opening guidelines provided by the Center for Disease Control (CDC)?

Two, not unrelated, answers make sense. First, it is a presidential election year so that Trump and his White House advisors will do or say virtually anything they believe will advance his chances for re-election. If thousands die in restarting the economy prematurely so be it. Second, there is the matter of ideological dogma. Not only Trump but the GOP congressional delegation and much of the president’s ‘base’ in the population have absorbed a particular political ideology: social Darwinism. Ideas about the struggle for survival of the fittest, casual cruelty towards the weak and disabled, popular in conservative circles at the end of the 19th century, have now been combined with serious doubts about the value of scientific inquiry to create an impregnable dogma. When this dogma confronts reality, presently in dealing with the pandemic, it is the reality that must give way, no matter the lives lost.

If we see the American reaction to the COVID-19 threat in these terms, the fact the United States now leads the world in the number of deaths caused by the virus becomes explicable.

This article is brought to you by the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). Through their research, CARR intends to lead discussions on the development of radical right extremism around the world.

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Opinion // CARR / Coronavirus / Economy / Radical Right