Rick Santelli is at it again. Speaking from the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange on Thursday, the stock trader and frequent CNBC commentator shared his views about the best way to handle the coronavirus. Dismissing the possibility of containing it through quarantines, he suggested that “maybe we’d be just better off if we gave it to everybody, and then in a month it would be over.” He went on to make the questionable claim that “the mortality rate of this probably isn’t going to be any different if we did it that way than the long-term picture.”
The extreme optimism of Santelli’s armchair epidemiology notwithstanding, it’s clear that his real concern isn’t public health at all. Compared to his brutally efficient plan of mass infection, his seeming problem with the more drawn-out containment attempts was that they “[wreak] havoc on global and domestic economies.” So, whoever is going to die from coronavirus had better get it over with as quickly as possible—for the sake of capitalism.
It would be too easy to dismiss this unforeseen outburst as the ranting of a sociopath, or even a sick attempt at humor. Santelli’s ravings reflect a coherent worldview, one that has previously demonstrated its appeal by kicking off an entire social movement. I am speaking, of course, of the Tea Party, which Santelli summoned into existence in an infamous 2009 harangue that found an enthusiastic reception among conservative commentators.
Raging against what he saw as the Obama administration’s excessive generosity, and claiming that government largesse was “promoting bad behavior,” Santelli called for the tech-savvy administration to “put up a website to have people vote on the internet as a referendum to see if we really want to subsidize the losers’ mortgages; or, would we like to at least buy cars and buy houses in foreclosure and give ’em to people that might have a chance to actually prosper down the road?” Exclaiming, “This is America!” he built to a crescendo, ultimately calling for a “Chicago Tea Party” to head off the nation’s decline into Cuban-style collectivism.
In his Tea Party rant, Santelli’s “get it over with” philosophy is not stated quite so baldly as it is in his more recent statement on the coronavirus. Santelli nevertheless makes it clear that he would prefer the undeserving to be kicked out of their homes as quickly as possible, so that they will stop draining resources that others could use more productively. Such an approach, he contended, would “reward people that could carry the water instead of drink the water.”
What would happen to the thirsty people deprived of water? In typical fashion, Santelli didn’t care enough to make it explicit. Instead, he turned his attention to the “silent majority” represented by the stock traders who stood in the background of CNBC’s live coverage, cheering his Tea Party oration. Those colleagues, he averred, are “a pretty good statistical cross-section of America,” showing the same fast-and-loose approach to statistics as in his claims that intentionally infecting all Americans with coronavirus would lead to a similar death rate as attempting to contain it. Still, we should resist our impulse to dismiss Santelli as ignorant here. This is not a simple error, but a statement about who really counts—namely, people like him and his fellow stewards of the market, who are never going to be underwater on their mortgage, just as they will presumably never be among the unwashed masses dying of coronavirus.
Capitalism has always created winners and losers, of course, and capitalist ideology has always aimed to portray those outcomes as legitimate and just. Hence we should not be surprised that a privileged person like Santelli views himself and his colleagues as uniquely deserving. What is surprising, indeed disturbing, is the element of malice toward the losers. Santelli travels far beyond the more conventional view that acknowledges the destruction wrought by the market—the job losses, the failed businesses, the bad bets—as a necessary evil that is outweighed by the benefits of economic growth overall. Within such a framework, even ardent pro-market theorists like Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman concede that society owes something to those left behind. For Santelli, by contrast, the fact that some people are harmed by the market is a positive good, to the point where offering aid and comfort to the losers can appear as an injustice worthy of the condemnation of an enraged overclass.
Back in 2009, many Americans among the hoi polloi were willing to be drafted into Santelli’s aristocratic revolution, dressing up in Founding Fathers drag for their contemporary Tea Party. There were serious questions about the extent to which the Tea Party was an authentic grassroots movement or a corporate-sponsored “astroturf” campaign, but it is undeniable that it was, at the time, the most effective American protest movement in this young century. The Tea Party tipped the balance of power in Congress and within the Republican Party itself, putting Obama on the defensive for the rest of his presidency. More than that, with its anti-intellectualism and its vulgar provocations (most notably on the topic of rape), it cleared the way for Trump, who has shown just as much malice toward society’s “losers.” It may not represent a numerical majority, but enough Americans are on board with a program of vengeance against society’s most vulnerable to allow the anti-democratic aspects of our system to stymie any movement toward a less punitive society.
How could such a cruel and seemingly irrational view gain such purchase? Once more, we need to resist purely individualistic explanations—such as the idea that Tea Party or Trump supporters are simply bad people whose negative urges have finally found an outlet. Santelli’s remarks do not reflect the universal facts of human nature, but a very specific historical situation: the aftermath of the global financial crisis, which produced a permanent ratcheting down of incomes and life chances for entire populations. The usual bromides about hard work and individual virtue could not make sense of such a system-wide shock. And to add insult to injury, many of the victims got into trouble by pursuing homeownership, which is supposed to be the ultimate sign of personal responsibility and prosperity.
All of this had the potential to call the legitimacy of the system as a whole into question. In that context, Santelli’s rant and its subsequent embrace by conservatives represents a desperate attempt to harness this populist rage and declare that the suffering the crisis inflicted was a feature, not a bug. We realize in retrospect that Santelli’s fears were groundless, because no shift toward collectivism was on the Democrats’ agenda under Obama. We are living in the aftermath of the right’s cruel preemptive assault against a program of radical reform that never came.
Thankfully, Santelli’s novel idea of infecting the populace with the coronavirus was greeted with the opprobrium it deserved, compelling him to apologize for his suggestion Friday morning. Nevertheless, we should not let that distract us from the fact that the conservative movement has successfully taken his earlier vision to stratospheric heights. We may be spared a forced pandemic, but they will keep on doubling down and doubling down, until we do what Santelli feared the most: make the choice to improve the lives of others, whether they “deserve” it or not. Until that day comes, we cannot be surprised that, with no prospect of any positive change, a vocal plurality of our fellow citizens will continue to be seduced by the consolations of sadism.