Photos of the small “reopen America” protests, which have made the rounds on social media over the past week, have revealed a spectacle as cartoonish as it is macabre: a rogue’s gallery of right-wing groups coming together to share in the spirit of defiance and, presumably, tiny droplets of mucus and saliva. The protests (and their backing by deep-pocketed funders) invited many comparisons to the Tea Party movement of a decade ago. Unlike that movement, these small protests are likely to die out soon. Nevertheless, they have captured something vitally important about how the right is responding to this fraught moment in our recent history.
As jobless claims have soared past an astonishing 26 million with no end in sight, the Covid-19 pandemic may well push the United States into a profound and long-lasting economic crisis. The countless indices of human misery will put enormous pressure on political institutions that are ill-equipped to respond adequately. The onset of this immiseration has begun to propel bold ideas and movements from the left to demand a reorganization of the economy and a fundamental shift in political power. But the right is swiftly establishing its own morbid template for how to interpret and respond to both the pandemic and its economic effects.
Republican politicians and right-wing pundits endlessly echo a central claim: “The cure is worse than the disease.” In other words, you can either risk dying from the virus or face certain economic ruin, as if there are no other choices. Their hope is that people already conditioned by an ideology centered on the marketplace, the individual, and the nation will be more likely to believe that their lives and livelihoods are under greater threat from state-ordered economic shutdowns and coercive social measures than they are from the disease. For them, the idea that Covid-19 could ultimately be overcome–even if at great human cost–by working and shopping is more appealing, and even more imaginable, than a new politics of mutuality that might redistribute power and resources in an egalitarian way.
The Covid-19 pandemic amplifies political feelings around health care, race, and class that have been growing on the right over the last decade. Recall the Tea Party’s origins during the Great Recession. The movement emerged and quickly grew in response to first the election of a black president and then that president’s proposed health care plan, as protesters mobbed town halls across the summer of 2009, loudly declaiming against any form of socialized medical coverage. Those two animating features of the movement—anti-black racism and opposition to the Affordable Care Act—defined a movement that in essence chose investments in whiteness over the assurance of at least some semblance of health care.
This was followed in the 2016 election by a Republican candidate who surged among voters who had high levels of racial resentment, strong feelings of political powerlessness, and growing economic anxiety (regardless of income level). Donald Trump, who titled his campaign memoir Crippled America, reveled in such terms as “disgust,” “weakness,” “losing,” and “pathetic” to describe the country. He poked at the vulnerability of whites like a finger in a wound all while demonizing Latinos, immigrants, Muslims, black protesters, and foreign rivals. All of this set the stage for how the right would come to respond to the current pandemic.
The rhetorical oppositions of work to welfare, self-reliance to dependence, individual to state, citizen to foreigner—oppositions animated by race, gender, and class—run deep in American political culture. All are reflected in the politics of the pandemic right now, making for a grim political vision of American freedom.
In a basic way, this vision of freedom is conveyed by the defiance of guidelines to stop the spread of the virus. It isn’t just the protesters. The dozen or so Republicans in the House of Representatives refusing to wear masks when called to vote on the latest coronavirus relief bill performed precisely that kind of political theater for their constituents. It is meant as a tough-guy taunt, to show their own robustness and the weakness of their opponents. But it also reveals something more pathological. The risky behavior demonstrates vitality precisely because it tempts fate, suggestive of Freud’s death drive, which he described as a force “whose function is to assure that the organism shall follow its own path to death.”
There is now a well-documented relationship between whiteness, status, and morbidity. As Princeton economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton have demonstrated in their research over the last few years, there have been long-term increases in “deaths of despair”—overdoses, suicides, alcohol-related fatalities—among middle-aged whites without college degrees. There is much yet to be understood about reasons for this phenomenon, but a sense of the declining status of whiteness appears tightly connected to collective self-harm. It is difficult not to think about this while watching mostly middle-aged white protesters demand the right to sacrifice their lives instead of joining others to demand greater protections for frontline workers, increased payments to keep workers at home, rent and mortgage moratoria, debt cancellation, federal money for states and municipalities, and more.
Demands to reopen states provide great cover for the Trump administration, the Republican Party in Congress, red state governors, and the Federal Reserve, who are working to keep current wealth stratifications in place and protect the rich from economic harm—and doing so without much pushback from Democrats. As conditions become more dire, the right will do all it can to enlist the loyalty of middle- and working-class victims of the crisis. Here, the logics of race and nation will become increasingly important.
Many of the demonstrators at the recent protests, repeating Fox News talking points, focused their ire on urban America, claiming that communities in less densely populated states and regions were being made to suffer for the problems of big cities. This kind of rhetoric maps easily onto the growing political divides between rural and urban America—and beneath it, the racial demonization of black and brown denizens of cities. It is this sentiment that gives cover to Republican resistance to federal spending when couched in language like Mitch McConnell’s opposition to “blue state bailouts.”
Within the Trump administration, the nationalist tide continues to rise. Two weeks ago, Attorney General William Barr told Laura Ingraham that he had “felt for a long time—as much as people talk about global warming—that the real threat to human beings is microbes and being able to control disease, and that starts with controlling your border,” he said. “So, I think people will be attuned to more protective measures.” Not long after, the Trump administration moved from the threat of foreign microbes to the threat of foreign workers by issuing an executive order suspending the issuance of new green cards. Meanwhile, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos set down policy guidelines to exempt undocumented students from Covid-19 relief aid.
Defenders of the current political order will continue to do whatever is necessary to protect wealth and privilege. They understand that to address the enormity of the economic crisis would upend the neoliberal consensus of this second Gilded Age, which has greatly enriched a few while systematically dismantling public goods, disempowering workers, and diminishing democratic rule. Their hope is that enough Americans go along with this resistance, even if it kills them.