covid-19 protests

The Right Wing Wants You to Die

Powerful people prefer mass death to adopting the social welfare policies of a civilized nation.
April 24, 2020, 5:01pm
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A protestor in Harrisburg, PA. Photo by NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP via Getty Images

Earlier this week, someone showed up at a protest in Nashville, Tennessee with a sign reading "Sacrifice the weak." Real Housewives of Orange County star Kelly Dodd offered a similar message when she called the novel coronavirus "God's way of thinning the herd." Texas lieutenant governor Dan Patrick has said, "There are more important things than living." President Donald Trump goes on television every night to say effectively the same thing. What was different about the person who made the sign was that they were an ordinary person, not a politician or celebrity or pundit. That was the point.

The protest was fake in the way all the recent protests against social-distancing policies and the closure of the U.S. economy have been: Organized and supported by right-wing activists and politicians, and presenting the iconography of a populist uprising while expressing a position unpopular even within the Republican Party, these sham protests' purpose is to draw attention to their own existence. They're a function of an attention economy in which the willingness to say the most outrageous thing you can think of is a kind of power that can be effortlessly weaponized.

The protest was also real, though: An ordinary person actually did make the sign and carry it out into the world, achieving their ends, and those of others. The purpose of calling for the weak to be sacrificed is to let people know that you've done so; the purpose of ginning up a protest at which someone will do so is to amass power. The only question is the use to which that power will be put. We already know the answer: It will be used by those who want people to go back to work and make their employers richer even if it kills tens of thousands or more, because they would rather have that happen than adopt the social welfare policies of a civilized nation.

In Philadelphia, where I live and which has been, in comparison to other places in the Northeast, mercifully lightly hit by the pandemic, dead bodies were recently seen being delivered to the medical examiner's office in a pickup truck. Across the United States, around 2,000 people are dying of COVID-19 every day, and that's with much of the country having been locked down for multiple incubation cycles; the numbers don't even make headlines anymore. Due to the exhaustively reported-on failures of the federal government to do anything useful as public health authorities warned of what was coming or to use the time during which Americans have been in quarantine to do so, there's no obvious way out of the current situation. With social and economic life frozen—tens of millions can't work because the government has banned it while offering them next to nothing in support—thousands die every day. If the unsustainable status quo is changed, it seems likely even more will.

Other rich, advanced countries like South Korea and Germany have arrived at a solution. By using state power to do what scientists and economists say is necessary—testing the population, isolating the infected, and tracing their contacts, while financially supporting citizens who have lost income—they've reduced death and the spread of the virus without imposing mass suffering, offering the possibility of a return to something like normal life. The United States hasn't seriously prepared or planned to do any of these things. Instead of organizing a response, federal leaders are engaged in piracy. The Senate's majority leader wants states to declare bankruptcy. Trump has suggested injecting bleach into patients' lungs.

A situation that can't persist will have to. Most people accept that. Some don't. Some imagine mass death to be either necessary or actively good, the product of a higher power—God, the planet, the economy—working its will. Some of the latter are in power; some in power simply find them useful.

The phrase "death cult" has been used to describe the Republican Party enough lately that it's probably lost any real meaning, but it's not far off as a descriptor. Ohio congressman Jim Jordan, head of the House Freedom Caucus, supports the protests and doesn't understand why the economy shouldn't have been opened yesterday. Pennsylvania lawmaker Mike Jones participated in a protest in Harrisburg this week, calling it "the best of America." A protest in Michigan was organized by the vice-chair of Trump's state campaign and the grassroots vice-chair of the state Republican Party. Government is organizing protests of itself to rally support for policies that would result in mass death.

There are reasons to think that these protests will go nowhere, mainly the overwhelming public support for continuing social-distancing policies and the fact that most people don't want to die. There are very good reasons, though, to think they'll grow.

Politics are a matter of social identity; research suggests that most people aren't affiliated with a party because of what they believe, but believe what they do because they're affiliated with a party. The Republican Party is, from its leadership on down, committed to the idea that shutting down social and economic life was a massive overreaction, that it's unacceptable to provide social benefits on the scale required to ameliorate the devastation this shutdown has caused, that it's time for Americans to get back to work, and that any consequent deaths are an acceptable price to pay. These aren't popular ideas among ordinary voters, but they're becoming more so. They'll presumably continue to do so as leaders stress that to be a Republican is to believe either that people won't die if social distancing is ended or that if they do it's alright, and as party-affiliated propaganda outlets present images of thousands of ordinary people protesting for the right to make the ultimate sacrifice and die or kill for the American economy. This is how the fake becomes real.

Why anyone would make such extraordinary efforts to make people think that mass death is acceptable rather than simply preventing it is obvious. The Republican-controlled federal government didn't accept the seriousness of the problem when it first surfaced, and to take the steps necessary to correct that mistake would require acknowledging that it had made one; it's not clear that a government run like a family money-laundering operation would be capable of taking those steps if it decided to; and because the disease is disproportionately killing Black and brown people in cities, Republican powerbrokers simply don't care about it as much as they would if it were disproportionately killing their supporters.

Why anyone could be convinced to accept this is just as obvious. The Republican Party has, dating back to Ronald Reagan, attacked the very ideas of the common good and mutual obligation, equating the idea of success with violent, personal sacrifice; the Democratic Party has abandoned any pretense that it will do anything meaningful to help the tens of millions of people who don't have enough money to pay for food or housing, instead congratulating itself for wringing such concessions from Republicans as paying to test people; and, above all, there is the lure of magical thinking, of the belief that by wanting something badly enough you can change reality. There is no surer way to prove how badly you want the return of normalcy than to be ready to die for it—or kill. Few people are there yet. There's no reason to think more won't join them soon.

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