On April 3, as the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic raged through the country, a Federalist columnist named David Marcus wrote an article titled “we cannot destroy the country for the sake of New York City.” A New Yorker himself, Marcus argued that the lockdown restrictions like the ones imposed on his home city were devastating the rest of the country, where, he wrote, “an economic hammer is falling faster than the virus can spread.” Even though Marcus himself was scared of the virus (“I open the door to my bodega in Brooklyn with my elbow”), he feared for those in rural America who would lose their jobs to an unnecessary shutdown. “Err on the side of caution, many say, but is it cautious to destroy entire communities through economic collapse?”
Eight months later, as the virus surged through rural states like South Dakota, claiming as many as 2,500 lives a day, Marcus had turned to a new topic: “Is Fortnite Live The Future Of Television?” The other organs of the conservative media, nearly all of whom had joined him in beating the but-the-economy drum, were similarly silent about the rising death toll.* During the first 10 days of December, The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board, which in March had decried “the extreme state lockdowns,” published no articles about the virus’s latest surge; National Review’s senior political correspondent, Jim Geraghty, who in April had peddled the conspiracy theory that the virus may have come from a Chinese lab, today spills as much ink trying to convince his fellow Republicans that Trump did indeed lose the election.
Their silence might seem to indicate that pundits on the right have ceded the debate over containing the virus—after all, New York’s sustained shutdown has helped tamp down the spread, while more conservative areas have seen months of uncontrolled contagion. But the more strident sections of the conservative commentariat had merely shifted from an economic argument against shutdowns to a cultural one. As the holidays approached, Breitbart’s John Nolte warned his readers that they should “Be Prepared for Democrats to Cancel Christmas,” fretting that “fascist governors” would “use a virus with a 996 out of 1000 survival rate” as an excuse to snuff out the holiday. And Tucker Carlson speculated that politicians had “figured out that Christmas is bigger than they are and therefore it’s a threat to them.”
This hastily adapted war-on-Christmas rhetoric offers a preview of the right-wing media’s response to the pandemic’s next phase. As vaccines roll out and the market rebounds, the economic argument against lockdowns will seem even sillier than it already does, forcing conservatives to double down on cultural federalism. If Biden follows through on his plan to jack up the federal government’s involvement in containing the pandemic, expect pundits like Carlson and Marcus to shift their ire from blue-state governors to the federal bureaucracy, casting national intervention as authoritarian overreach. The threat to individual liberty is illusory, of course, but that has never stopped them before.
* The article has been updated to clarify the author’s point.