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Why America Can’t Stop COVID-19

President Donald Trump talks to reporters before boarding Air Force One for a trip to Phoenix to visit a Honeywell plant that manufactures protective equipment, Tuesday, May 5, 2020, in Andrews Air Force Base, Md. (Evan Vucci/AP)
President Donald Trump talks to reporters before boarding Air Force One for a trip to Phoenix to visit a Honeywell plant that manufactures protective equipment, Tuesday, May 5, 2020, in Andrews Air Force Base, Md. (Evan Vucci/AP)

Donald Trump’s public surrender to the coronavirus pandemic has proceeded in three distinct and horrifying phases.

First came blithe denial. Having already disbanded the global health security team charged with fighting pandemics, ditched the 69-page playbook left to him by the Obama administration, and disregarded more than a dozen warnings in his own daily briefings, the president claimed the virus was no threat, and that it would miraculously disappear. The central goal was to keep the stock market from crashing.

When it became clear that coronavirus was immune to happy talk, Trump moved on to phase two: distract and divide.

Rather than mobilizing the federal government to provide widespread testing and contact tracing, ordering a national lockdown, and coordinating aide to desperate states, Trump peddled quack cures, spouted conspiracy theories, and attacked anyone with the temerity to note his ineptitude.

We have now entered phase three: normalizing mass death. With the help of his loyal propagandists, Trump is pushing businesses to open, even as the virus continues its rampage through America.

[Trump] was elected to secure tax cuts, slash regulation and appoint conservative judges. Saving Americans from dying in a pandemic wasn’t in his portfolio.

The result is that nearly 1.5 million Americans have gotten COVID, and more than 80,000 deaths have been recorded; experts think the actual number could be five times higher. South Korea, which recorded its first case on the same day as the U.S. and instituted wide-scale testing, has endured less than 300 deaths.

In a mature, functioning democracy, Trump would have been impeached again and removed from office for the high crime of negligent homicide.

But the seeds of this regime’s failure were planted long before Vladimir Putin’s dream candidate came along. Back in 1964, the GOP rejected moderate presidential candidates in favor of a conservative outlier named Barry Goldwater, whose rallying cry was that “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.”

Goldwater lost the general election, but the ideology he championed — a libertarian contempt for government, the worship of private industry and a virulent appeal to white victimization — quickly came to dominate the party.

These values formed the central tenets of the Reagan Revolution, whose leader summed up his philosophy with an oft-cited joke: “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are, ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.’”

This basic mistrust of government has been the GOP’s rhetorical cudgel, wielded over and over, to cut taxes on the wealthy, to deregulate industry and to shred the public safety net. It’s a worldview that doesn’t just tolerate government incompetence; it selects for incompetence.

And it’s enforced by “populist” movements such as the Tea Party — incited by right-wing media and underwritten by billionaires — that portray governance itself as illegitimate.

A protester holds a sign outside the Thompson Center in downtown Chicago, Friday, May 1, 2020. The Friday demonstration is the latest in a series of protests around the country against stay-at-home orders designed to slow the spread of the coronavirus. (Nam Y. Huh/AP)
A protester holds a sign outside the Thompson Center in downtown Chicago, Friday, May 1, 2020. The Friday demonstration is the latest in a series of protests around the country against stay-at-home orders designed to slow the spread of the coronavirus. (Nam Y. Huh/AP)

The GOP’s base now represents a radical white conception of personal liberty, one in which any effort to govern — even common-sense rules to safeguard human life — is disfigured into a form of tyranny.

The government is always the boogie man, eager to take away “our” earnings (through taxation), our guns (through gun control), our God (through rampant secularism) and our hamburgers (through the climate change hoax). Oh, and the government also wants to kill our grannies (through death panels) and our kids (through vaccination).

If you’re wondering how a reality TV star with a long history of fraud and failure became the GOP nominee, it’s because he knew how to speak this language of white grievance. Trump thumped his rivals not in spite of promoting a racist conspiracy against our first African-American president, but because of it.

His presidency, by its very design, has been dedicated to destroying government from the inside. This is the stated goal of his sponsors, from Putin to libertarian hedge-fund billionaires such as Robert Mercer.

This is why Trump’s response to the COVID pandemic was destined to fail. He was elected to secure tax cuts, slash regulation and appoint conservative judges. Saving Americans from dying in a pandemic wasn’t in his portfolio.

In fact, his most ardent supporters don’t see this pandemic as a public health crisis at all. To them, the idea that white people should have to stay at home to stop the spread of a highly infectious disease is yet another instance of government tyranny. We live in a society, in other words, where white militia men are allowed to carry assault rifles into a state capital, and to speak openly of assassinating public officials, while the president hails them as liberators.

If we continue down this path, the death toll will be in the millions. And it will include American democracy itself.

This conception of liberty, of course, doesn’t extend to African-American men who are gunned down while jogging. Nor to the hundreds of laborers — most of them people of color — that Trump has ordered back to work in virus-ridden meat-packing plants. As COVID continues to ravage minority populations, the GOP’s inaction has come to look like something closer to eugenics by default. If the disease were killing whites disproportionately, you can be sure the federal response would be far more vigorous.

This is the America foretold by Goldwater and Reagan, one in which “government” is a cynical joke told among white people. The punchline used to be decaying schools, a decimated middle class, a diseased health care system and a dying planet. It is now a plague that is killing thousands of people every day.

If we continue down this path, the death toll will be in the millions. And it will include American democracy itself.

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Related:

Steve Almond Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Steve Almond's new book, "Bad Stories: What the Hell Just Happened to Our Country," is now available. He hosts the Dear Sugars podcast with Cheryl Strayed.

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