Nihilism And Hypocrisy Is The GOP’s COVID-19 Response

Calls to sacrifice lives for the economy. Funding protests that endanger public health. The radical right is highlighting their "pro-life" hypocrisy.
President Donald J. Trump arrives on Capitol Hill to attend a Senate Republican policy luncheon Tuesday, May 19, 2020, in Washington, D.C. (Official White House Photo by Tia Dufour)

President Donald J. Trump arrives on Capitol Hill to attend a Senate Republican policy luncheon Tuesday, May 19, 2020, in Washington, D.C. (Official White House Photo by Tia Dufour)

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Dr. Miranda Christou is a Senior Fellow at CARR and Associate Professor in Sociology of Education at the University of Cyprus.

The so-called “anti-lockdown” protests around the USA have brought together a motley of groups and interests, from Proud Boys to pro-gun enthusiasts and Trump supporters. But the extremist element is the most consistently flamboyant and loud in exposing the moral quandaries of the Covid-19 debate between life and death. These are protests that go beyond the lockdown as Cas Mudde has indicated. They are the pro-life people who nihilistically dismiss the terrifying death toll in the USA to show off their morbid obsessions: marching for guns over safety, pollution over nature, and viruses over health. All in the name of freedom. How did freedom become the opposite of death?

Choosing freedom over death has been the rallying cry of many movements: independence movements, nationalist movements and even feminist movements. The Greek war of independence from the Ottoman empire featured Freedom or Death (Eleftheria i Thanatos) decades after the American Revolution was inspired by “Give me Liberty or give me Death,” a slogan that appears prominently in these quarantine-busting protests. Nationalist movements, however, pledge that personal sacrifice will lead to collective freedom. The anti-lockdown protests potentially sacrifice other people’s lives for the freedom to get a haircut.

Furthermore, the so-called American Revolution 2.0 puts on an average Joe façade even though there is evidence that their rallies are guided and financially bolstered by far-right groups. Others, such as Theda Skocpol, believe that these protests do not amount to a proper grassroots movement given that some early reports indicated that there is indeed a level of astroturfing involved. Furthermore, right-wing media such as Fox News provided a platform for these protests that completely outsized the actual representation of their sentiments among the general population.

But retro-fitting nationalist mottos does not explain why, among all the baffling slogan appropriations in these rallies, we have come to this choice between freedom and death. Or why President Trump sent “Liberate” tweets for three states that are not seeking independence. That is because in this case “freedom” is more about the market than the citizen. It is a dispute that has not only pitted human health against economic health; it actually defines our basic sense of well-being through the ability of the market to function with profit, indeed extending the logic of the market to a cost-benefit analysis of public health.

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Neoliberalism is an apt lens to view these skirmishes because it begins with the promise of liberation from the regulatory arm of the state, similar to how these protests view lockdowns as an arbitrary extension of the “nanny state.” Writing in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, Wendy Brown outlined how neoliberalism’s “economization of the political” permeates not only governance and law but also the very consciousness of the “responsibilized” citizen who “is ready to sacrifice to the cause of economic growth and fiscal constraints when called to do so.” Brown reflects on her purposeful use of the term “sacrifice” and its religious undertones and argues that this “sacrificial citizenship” rests not in the expectation of death in the battlefield but a citizen who becomes “oblatory vis-à-vis the project of economic growth.”

This was exactly the logic of the Texas lieutenant Governor who late in March submitted older people as a sacrificial offering to keep the economy going when he said that he was willing to give up his life to preserve the US economy and suspected that others would agree with him. When the state of Georgia took the lead in re-opening the economy the step was called an experiment in human sacrifice. And Timothy Egan said that Republicans’ cheerleading of Trump’s haphazard response to the pandemic has made them the party of death. In a bewildering interview the mayor of Las Vegas urged casinos to open while refusing responsibility for protecting citizens. Nihilism was also behind the US president’s resigned morbid response to the rising death toll: “It is what it is.”

We may think that there can be no healthy economy by sick people, yet this is the argument put forth by the anti-lockdown protesters. Sadly, all these “sacrifices” may, in the long run, hurt the market itself. For example, recently published preliminary findings from a study of the 1918 pandemic and the economy found that public health policies that acted earlier and more aggressively to tackle the spread of the flu created better economic outcomes in the recovery period.

Furthermore, the white supremacist element in these protests cannot be divorced from the question of who is sacrificed and for what purpose: mostly white people protests are held in states with overwhelming and disproportionate deaths of black people. When meatpacking migrant workers are sent to a plant without proper protections or testing, it is their work that is deemed “essential,” not the person. Michigan’s governor, Gretchen Whitmer noted the racist nature of (white) armed protesters in the state’s capitol building while many wondered what would happen if the capitol was stormed by armed black men.

But perhaps the most revealing aspect of nihilism in these protests is their self-defeating nature. Nothing describes the culture of self-prescribed death better than the work of Jonathan Metzl in Dying of Whiteness, where he chronicled how the white South and Midwest in the US use their racial anxiety to vote for the very politicians that are responsible for policies that hurt them. The result is not abstract: it is plainly registered in lower life expectancy and worse health outcomes. Tragically, the neoliberal promise of freedom is deadly. As Henry Giroux has aptly argued, the Covid-19 pandemic has exposed the plague of neoliberalism.

All governmental responses and their varied lockdown measures are experimental, because there is always an element of hypothesis in what models project to be the social and economic outcomes. They are also responses to moral dilemmas that we will keep debating long after this virus is under control. But, as Michael Sandel has argued, instead of encouraging callous social Darwinism experiments for the survival of the fittest with unwilling control groups, we could use this as an opportunity to rethink the common good, in a way that embraces both life and freedom.

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 / Donald Trump / Radical Right / Republican Party