The modern conservative movement is not traditional conservatism at all, but rather what has come to be labeled populist libertarianism. It is for all intents and purposes an “anti” movement: anti-government, anti-science, anti-experts, anti-intellectuals, etc. It thrives in a fever swamp of “anti” movements and conspiracy theories often amplified in the mainstream conservative media. This poses a serious problem for civil governance, and poses a public health threat to Americans in a time of pandemic.
John Harris at Politico suggests The Shutdown Backlash Is Coming Soon—With a Vengeance (excerpt):
Now that Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) has recovered from the coronavirus—he says he felt fine and symptom-free the whole time—it is a good time to ask: Are we sure that the pandemic joke will ultimately be on him?
What if the opposite is true? Far from rendering Paul’s brand of politics irrelevant, it seems possible, even probable, that the wake of the coronavirus will be a powerful boost to the animating spirt of libertarianism: Leave me alone.
Among the questions looming over American politics is about the nature of what promise to be multiple backlashes over different dimensions of the coronavirus crisis. Most obvious is what price Trump pays for his administration’s tardiness in responding to the contagion in its early stages. Less obvious is what price supporters of activist government pay for the most astounding and disruptive intervention in the everyday life of the nation since World War II.
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We will learn over the course of 2020 what relevance these familiar ideological dynamics have to the politics of pandemic. Do you trust Trump and the way his impulsive, personality-driven style is the more flamboyant question. Do you trust interventionist government — supported by nearly all governors of both parties, following the dictates of health professionals—is the more fundamental question.
The pandemic response arguably could represent liberal values at their best. Government, guided by scientific expertise, protected vulnerable people through a noble exercise of shared sacrifice for shared benefit.
The pandemic response arguably could represent a caricature of what critics disdain about liberalism. Government, responding in a panicky way to headlines and hysteria, ran roughshod over individual freedom and the private sector, a problem whose only remedy was even more remorseless expansion of government.
The fact that even tough-minded Republican governors like Larry Hogan of Maryland or Mike DeWine of Ohio ordered shutdowns to curb coronavirus weakens the intellectual case for the second argument. But what matters politically is the emotional case, which looks to be strong. There were protestors in Ohio, Michigan and elsewhere this week demanding faster action to lift stay-at-home orders and reopen the economy.
In states like Michigan, North Carolina and Kentucky, people protested against rules aimed at slowing the spread of the coronavirus. Future protests of stay-at-home limits have been announced in other states, including Texas and Oregon, as the economic and health effects of the coronavirus mount in the United States. Opponents of Stay-at-Home Orders Organize Protests at State Capitols:
[I]n Austin, Texas, a host of Infowars, a website that frequently shares conspiracy theories, announced a rally on Saturday at the State Capitol that he has called the ‘You Can’t Close America Rally.’”
The rally in Michigan on Wednesday, Operation Gridlock, drew the largest crowd of any protest so far. Chanting ‘lock her up,’ Michigan protesters waving Trump flags mass against Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s coronavirus restrictions (excerpts):
Coming on the heels of similar protests in Ohio and North Carolina, it was probably the largest showing to date of conservative pushback against social distancing restrictions — and perhaps a preview of what’s to come.
On Wednesday, Rush Limbaugh, a conservative talk-show host and Trump favorite, applauded the protesters, saying Democrats like Whitmer are “being coached by Nancy Pelosi and [Charles E.] Schumer to push this harder than they might normally feel is appropriate.”
As The Washington Post reported earlier this week, conservative groups such as the Heritage Foundation and American Legislative Exchange Council [i.e., the usual suspects] are urging GOP lawmakers and the White House to push back against public health experts in a bid to reopen the economy as quickly as possible.
“A lot of Republicans and conservatives feel there might be an overreaction to all of this,” tea party organizer Richard Viguerie told The Post’s Jeff Stein and Robert Costa. “We’re all anxious to get back. Conservatives feel the government has overreacted, and it’s got to end.”
The Daily Beast reports that “the calls are coming from inside the house,” so to speak, for these civil disobedience protests. Trumpists Urging People to Leave Their Homes to Own the Libs:
On Monday, Richard Grenell, acting director of the Office of National Intelligence and the U.S. ambassador to Germany, posted a photo of the Bill of Rights on Instagram with a title “Signed Permission Slip to Leave Your House.” Below the post, in the caption, Grenell wrote, “Love this!” A reporter tweeted the post after its publishing saying, “Seems the top US intelligence chief ADNI @RichardGrenell isn’t a fan of the stay at home orders.” Grenell responded, “‘Seems’ Grenell is a fan of the Constitution to me.”
Grenell’s post foreshadows a major political battle line on the horizon. Republican operatives say the burgeoning movement against coronavirus restrictions could end up stressing an already heavily stressed body politic even further, with conservative activists challenging their governors in increasingly dramatic fashion.
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The open acts of defiance aren’t just being embraced by fringe activists mobilized through social media posts. Elected officials have called for pushing aside public safety experts in the name of remedying “societal fallout.” In Texas, the House Freedom Caucus has called on the governor to lift the state’s stay-at-home order. Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) scoffed at restrictions other states had placed on activities such as going to beaches and church—while leaving the suggestion that others should do the same. And a top aide to Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) said it was “time to not comply” with the commonwealth’s governor, Andy Beshear, over a plan to record and quarantine churchgoers during Easter Sunday.
Conservative pundit Charlie Sykes at The Bulwark warns of The Coming Populist Libertarian Rebellion:
And so on the umpteenth day of the Great Lockdown, the masses finally rose up. Or something [Operation Gridlock in Michigan, above].
It’s easy to dunk on this sort of thing as just another vector of wingnuttery. But it’s important to recognize that populist libertarianism is a thing and that it is also completely compatible with Trump’s proto-authoritarianism.
In Trumpian politics there is no tension between outrage over the Nanny State and slavish devotion to the Orange God King. Although as a matter of political philosophy or logic you would think that those two things would be incompatible, as a matter of psychology they’re not. Trump knows this. And you can be sure he’s paying attention.
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The Michigan protest had a sort of Zombie Tea Party vibe, a grassroots-like movement complete with a full-throated Don’t Tread On Me ethos.
And that ethos has deep roots, not just in conservative politics, but also in the national character. Dismissing it out of hand would be dangerous. Because if you want to suppress the virus in a liberal democracy you need the consent of the governed. All things being rational, the public will do the right thing—unless the things they’re being told to do are obviously stupid.
Even in the midst of a pandemic, people have to feel that the rules make sense and have not devolved into arbitrary diktats that seem more about signaling and theater than real public safety.
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So far, polls suggests that most Americans are wiling to be patient because they worry about the pandemic more than their finances. But that may not last if officials give in to their inner autocrats.
The other danger is that these protests will play to Trump’s id. These are his people and he must lead them. As he faces slumping poll numbers, Trump may grasp at the populist cred offered by the protests, especially if they take place in swing states. We know what we reads and what he watches, and those corners of the right media are loving the images out of Michigan.
Citing Richard Grenell, acting director of the Office of National Intelligence and the U.S. ambassador to Germany (see above), Sykes asks “How long before Trump himself starts to tweet encouragement?”
Hint: On the same day he announces that he is reopening the economy. This is all pre-planned and coordinated, don’t kid yourself.
Right-wing propagandist Rich Lowry surprisingly writes at Politico, The Absurd Case Against the Coronavirus Lockdown (excerpt):
An irony of the coronavirus debate is that the more successful lockdowns are in squelching the disease, the more vulnerable they will be to attack as unnecessary in the first place.
A growing chorus on the right—from conservative talk radio hosts to Republican lawmakers like Reps. Andy Biggs of Arizona and Ken Buck of Colorado—is slamming the shutdowns as a panicked overreaction and agitating to end them, hoping to drive a wedge between President Donald Trump and his more cautious advisers.
While there’s no doubt there have been absurd lockdown excesses and we should want to return to normal as soon as plausible, the case against the initial shutdowns is unpersuasive—contradictory and based, even now, on denying the seriousness of Covid-19.
A good example of the genre is an op-ed co-authored by former Education Secretary William Bennett and talk radio host and author Seth Leibsohn. It is titled, tendentiously and not very accurately, “Coronavirus Lessons: Fact and Reason vs. Paranoia and Fear.” Bennett and Leibsohn are intelligent and public-spirited men whom I’ve known for years, but they’ve got this wrong, and in rather elementary ways.
They cite the latest estimate of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation in Washington state that the current outbreak will kill 68,000 Americans. Then, they note that about 60,000 people died of the flu in 2017-18. For this, they thunder, we’ve scared Americans and imposed huge economic and social costs on the country.
This is such an obviously flawed way of looking at the question, it’s hard to believe that Bennett and Leibsohn don’t realize it.
If we are going to have 60,000 deaths with people not leaving their homes for more than a month, the number of deaths obviously would have been higher—much higher—if everyone had gone about business as usual. We didn’t lock down the country to try to prevent 60,000 deaths; we locked down the country to limit deaths to 60,000 (or whatever the ultimate toll is) from what would have been a number multiples larger.
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Of course, it was precisely the actions we took that caused those welcome outcomes.
Consider the perversity of their line of reasoning a different way. If we had shut down the country a month sooner and there had been, say, only 2,000 deaths, then on their terms they’d have even a stronger argument, i.e., “We did all this and there were only a couple of thousand fatalities?”
In other words, the more effective a lockdown would have been, the more opposed Bennett and Leibsohn would be to it.
As for the flu comparison, it isn’t as telling as Bennett and Leibsohn believe. The flu season stretches as long as from October to April, although it usually peaks between December and February. The 2017-18 season, with 60,000 flu-related deaths, was particularly bad. But the coronavirus might kill a similar number of people—with the country on lockdown.
In the 2011-12 season, 12,000 people died of the flu in the entire country. New York alone has eclipsed that in a little more than a month, and recorded roughly 9,000 deaths the first 15 days of April (again, while on lockdown). In 2018-19, there were 34,000 flu-related deaths in the United States. We are going to surpass that number nationally sometime soon (yet again, while on lockdown).
Why have people reacted so dramatically to this virus, despite the fact that is supposedly comparable to the run-of-the-mill flu? Bennett and Leibsohn have a theory: “New York City is where the epidemic has struck the hardest. The media is centered in New York City.”
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Bennett and Leibsohn ignore the key fact that the economy began to shut down before there were widespread official shutdown orders. People voted with their feet, because they were fearful of a highly transmissible, virulent disease. Bennett and Leibsohn may want to portray Americans as lemmings of the media, “cowering” in their homes, but they acted rationally. If everything had gone on as normal, the outbreak would have been much worse, and we would have shutdowns anyway, just with even worse health outcomes.
The most objectionable part of the Bennett and Leibsohn posture is its sneering attitude toward “frenzied, panicked” ordinary Americans who have sacrificed so much during this crisis to protect their families and their neighbors.
By all means, let’s open up the economy as soon as we can, but it will require more careful thought than the most fervent critics of the shutdowns have demonstrated during the peak of this epidemic.
Donald Trump got his political start in the fever swamps of the Obama Birtherism movement. He uses conspiracy theories to manipulate and motivate the right-wing crazy base. The emergence of the Coronavirus Denier movement is yet another attempt to manipulate and motivate the right-wing crazy base in an election year.
When Mad King Donald tries to reopen the economy over the bipartisan objection of governors in coming weeks, things are going to get crazy when he unleashes these Coronavirus Deniers on America. Republican politicians and the conservative media entertainment complex are going to support this craziness. A second wave of coronavirus infections and more death is certain to follow.
The personality cult of Donald trump is a death cult.