F or weeks now, the US has been the world’s deadliest hotspot for Covid-19. Total cases in the US exceed 750,000 as of this writing, and deaths just passed 40,000. But this once-in-a-century plague presents a unique experience for each race, class, and political party.
SARS-CoV-2 is twice as deadly to non-white Americans. Middle and upper class people are likelier to be sheltering or working at home, safe from infection (with the exception of doctors, nurses and first responders). Gig and service workers have to risk exposure to keep hustling in essential businesses.
Republicans are far more likely to see social-distancing efforts as invasive to their freedoms, and downplay the severity of the disease. Some of them falsely believe it’s a liberal conspiracy, a hoax, or Chinese bio-warfare.
Countless Republican lawmakers, including President Trump, and media personalities either resisted quarantine in the first place, or want to rush to reopen the economy — even if it results in an enormous number of additional Americans losing their lives.
But it shouldn’t be that kind of false choice. Jon Allsop of the Columbia Journalism review, quoted in Reason, said there’s “no choice to be made between public health and a healthy economy — because public health is an essential prerequisite of a healthy economy.”
Ethicist Peter Singer made the necessary argument that human life does not have infinite value. Nor can we ignore the risk to human life that increases every day lockdowns continue. If the economy stays locked down, eventually food won’t be distributed, packages won’t be delivered, products we need to sustain life won’t be produced. And there’s a growing risk that some people will get violent, as they protest what they continue to see as a violation of their Constitutional rights.
So we can’t lock down forever, but neither should we open too soon. A vaccine or treatment could be 18 months away. People are going to need to venture out to work and school again, long before that. Even in the Great Depression, unemployment peaked at only 25%. We can’t afford to sit at home for a year and a half with 30-50% unemployment. If we did, there wouldn’t be an economy left to return to.
Going back to work before we have a vaccine requires three things:
1) Universal (and free) testing to know who’s infected.
2) Antibody testing to find out who’s immune because they already recovered from the disease.
3) Case tracking, to see if someone’s been exposed by being close to an infected person.
If you’re a smart Republican, and you disagree with the inexplicable stance of your party about premature ending of lockdowns, then you have an absolute obligation as a patriotic American to call your Congressperson or Senator or governor and express your displeasure. Loudly. Also call the White House, or send a postcard to President Trump.
Because a reckless national astroturfing effort called “Operation Gridlock” kicked off last week in multiple states. The far-right activism has ties to right-wing billionaire and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, and was also supported from the White House. Trump sent insurrectionist tweets to “Liberate Michigan,” “Liberate Minnesota,” and “Liberate Virginia.” These tweets cynically targeted states with Democratic governors who’ve imposed lockdown orders. Michigan in particular has been dealing with a huge outbreak, having over 31,000 cases and nearly 2,400 deaths as of April 19, 2020.
Protesters on foot (who were decidedly not social distancing from each other) carried Nazi flags, Confederate flags and guns to the Michigan statehouse, with calls to “lock up” Governor Gretchen Whitmer (D). Vehicle protesters blocked roads near hospitals in Lansing, Michigan, causing critical delays for ambulances.
It’s an entirely unwelcome morphing of the Covid-19 crisis in America into yet another noisy battle in the culture war. And it will absolutely cost lives. If this Republican pressure results in premature opening of states despite lack of testing, (which it already has) that blood will be on the hands of not just the right-wing billionaires, but also Republican governors who rolled the dice with the lives of their citizens.
It doesn’t seem politically smart, to say the least. If Democrats are supporting social-distancing to maintain public health, then the GOP finds itself making the awful argument that “freedom” and “Constitutional rights” should be used to spread disease. In an election year? Come on. But that’s the death-cult strategy to save Trump from taking the blame. Trump is banking on making Democratic governors less popular, and boosting Republican turnout in states he needs to win the election — lives be damned.
Dead people don’t buy products. And their dying process sucks tremendous value out of the economy. Furthermore, dead people don’t pick, process, or deliver food. And that’s really bad for the rest of us, even if we don’t get sick.
How did a political party turn into this kind of a death cult, willing to cynically sacrifice American citizens in the name of “principle?” To save its — ahem — brand? Because it became the party of wealth and whiteness and “owning the libruls.” Still, how could it be that people who profess to want to “Keep America Great” could make decisions that every medical professional has told them would not just kill liberals, but also kill a lot of their own base? Because Republicans at the same time have become the party of science-denial and magical thinking. They somehow must really not believe (can’t believe, can they?) that they are putting themselves or others in danger (would they?). To understand how they got where they are, we must go back over half a century.
In May of 1954, in Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled against an appeal brought by the district court of Kansas. In a rare unanimous decision, the Warren court held that states must racially integrate their public school systems. And that maintaining “separate but equal” facilities was no longer legal. So began the impetus for the 60-year journey of the party of Lincoln and Eisenhower to its current death-cult status, under President Donald J. Trump.
Even after his botched Covid-19 response, Republican voters still support President Trump by wide margins. Ninety-three percent approve of his performance, according to Gallup (April 1–14, 2020). A few are starting to break ranks. But the silence from the rest must be read as consent. And we know that GOP consent for Trump’s norm (and law) breaking is nothing short of enthusiastic — particularly in light of the January 2020 impeachment trial, in which Republican Senators refused to allow evidence or testimony, and voted to acquit him of both articles of impeachment, along party lines.
During that spectacular lapse of the public trust, the SARS-CoV-2 virus had already made its way into the United States. February 3, 2020 was the day Trump was acquitted by the Senate. It was also a full month after CDC director Robert Redfield was first warned by colleagues in China about the pandemic on January 3, 2020. The warnings were quickly passed on to President Trump, who ignored them — or expressed more concern about what pandemic reports might do to the stock market, than to American citizens. By acquitting him on February 3rd, our nation squandered its last chance to remove an incompetent and corrupt chief executive, before he could further bungle the historic crisis.
How does this relate to Brown vs. Board of Education? Through the lens of white supremacy. If Barack Obama was America’s first black president, then as Ta-Nahesi Coates wrote in 2017, Donald Trump was its “first white president.” That is to say, Trump is the first US president in a century or more, for whom openly racist, sexist, and xenophobic comments and policies were not considered disqualifying by his voter base. According to Coates, Trump was elected with a mandate for the “negation of Barack Obama’s legacy.”
Part of Barack Obama’s legacy was the CDC’s excellent Pandemic Response Team, which Trump disbanded in 2018, later stating “I don’t like having thousands of people around when you don’t need them. When we need them, we can get them back very quickly.”
From Foreign Policy:
In May 2018, Trump ordered the [National Security Council’s] entire global health security unit shut down, calling for reassignment of Rear Adm. Timothy Ziemer and dissolution of his team inside the agency. The month before, then-White House National Security Advisor John Bolton pressured Ziemer’s DHS counterpart, Tom Bossert, to resign along with his team. Neither the NSC nor DHS epidemic teams have been replaced. The global health section of the CDC was so drastically cut in 2018 that much of its staff was laid off and the number of countries it was working in was reduced from 49 to merely 10. Meanwhile, throughout 2018, the U.S. Agency for International Development and its director, Mark Green, came repeatedly under fire from both the White House and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. And though Congress has so far managed to block Trump administration plans to cut the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps by 40 percent, the disease-fighting cadres have steadily eroded as retiring officers go unreplaced.
Trump was also the first American president in living memory to waffle after a white-supremacist murder. James Field Jr., 23, committed a modern-day lynching in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017, ramming his Dodge Challenger into a crowd. Instead of condemning the murder unequivocally, Trump lamely opined that there were “good people on both sides.”
The 1954 desegregation decision had marked a turning point in America, reinforced a decade later by the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964. Those twin seismic events began the deep polarization of the country between those who favored equality for all, and those who clung to what they saw as white privilege under siege. It was the Southern Democrats led by Harry F. Byrd, not Republicans, who mounted the massive resistance campaign to school desegregation. Rather than desegregate, Virginia closed much of its public school system to all students for more than a year in 1958 and 1959.
Why would the good citizens of the State of Virginia have closed their schools to their own children? Didn’t they understand their own kids (referred to later as the “lost generation”) would never get those years back? Of course they did. White supremacy in the US can be characterized primarily as the willingness to suffer grievous injury to the white race, so long as other races are perceived to be hurt worse. This was the beginning of America’s death culture, driven not just by white supremacy, but also its twin scourge, white extinction anxiety.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed Congress with strong Republican support (as mandated in their 1960 platform). When Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson’s signed the act, he worried that Democrats would lose support in the segregationist South. Indeed, Republicans immediately nominated Barry Goldwater, who’d been opposed to the Civil Rights Act, to stand against Johnson in the 1964 election. Goldwater lost all but six states to Johnson — a landslide defeat. From that day forward, the Republican party gradually took up the mantle of white supremacy. Four years later in 1968, Richard Nixon finished implementing the “Southern Strategy” Goldwater had started. And it’s been downhill for equality and justice ever since.
Many Republicans to this day still try to deflect accusations of racism from their party, onto Democrats. But that’s disingenuous, since the parties switched places on race, following passage of the Civil Rights Act. And they did it at first with rhetorical sleight-of-hand. Reagan strategist Lee Atwater is on tape in a 1981 interview in the White House identifying exactly what the code words were. They were: states’ rights, forced busing, and tax cuts. Here’s the entire quote:
You start out in 1954 by saying, “N___, n___, n___.” By 1968 you can’t say “n___” — that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “N___, n___.”
True to the Atwater strategy, President Reagan pushed through his disguised economic racism in the form of massive tax and service cuts in 1982. The $43 billion (2020 dollars) in cuts to public services slammed the poor, removing 400,000 households from food-stamp rolls, and made massive housing program cuts (which typically hit blacks worse than whites), cut Medicaid, and gutted education, infrastructure, unemployment, and foreign-aid budgets.
The massive tax cuts for the wealthy contained within Reaganomics represented the abandonment by the Republican party of fiscal conservatism in favor of what has now become four decades of ever-increasing structural deficits, and almost obligatory giveaways to the wealthy and corporations. Raising taxes where they need to be to balance the budget, and provide adequate public services, has been off the table ever since. As a result, the US national debt has grown from 30% of GDP in 1980 to over 100% in 2020. Naturally, the worse the structural deficit, the louder the calls for service cuts, especially to what the Republicans have pejoratively labeled “entitlements.”
No “entitlement” generates more outrage among the republican base than health care. The signature achievement of the Obama Administration was its healthcare law, the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare. The backlash to providing all Americans with health care was so intense that it led to the launching of the Tea Party in 2010, a national astroturf movement nearly identical to 2020s “Operation Gridlock,” paid for with generous funding from wealthy donors.
What was the goal of the Tea Party movement? Literally it was rich people (Charles and David Koch), paying to encourage middle class people, to protest against healthcare for poor people. The people most in need of healthcare also happened to be people of color. Poor whites lacked health care, too, but many of them considered it to be a point of pride to refuse government-funded care. This was once again, the demonstration of the central tenet of economic racism: that poor whites will support policies that hurt themselves, so long as people of color are hurt worse.
Republicans, specifically Sarah Palin, in a stunning fit of projection, had the gall to attack Obamacare at that time for its so-called “death panels,” (which was really patients discuss their living wills with their doctor and making their desires known for end-of-life care). The phrase “death panels” was awarded lie of the year by Politifact in 2009.
In part because of the “death panel” lie, many poor whites died because they wouldn’t sign up for Obamacare. This is a major step the Republican Party took on its way to becoming the death-cult it is today. And it demonstrates the intellectual consistency the party has shown over the past decade — in valuing both profits and tax cuts, over the lives of its voters specifically, or American citizens in general.
Just remember the next time you see a person of color working through this pandemic as a bus driver, first responder, nurse or doctor, or delivery worker bringing you packages at home — that person is twice as likely to die from Covid-19 as a white person, all other factors being equal.
Republicans, if you don’t like the look of this economic racism, then change your party. Choose to protect the lives of all American citizens, regardless of income or color. Support good public health policy, including some form of Medicare-for-all.
It’s the right thing to do.