The conservative response to COVID-19 has been defined by its heterogeneity: a blur of contradictory recriminations, confirmation biases, and conspiracy peddling.
This essay is part of a special section on the pandemic in the Summer 2020 issue.
As I write this, armed protesters have occupied the Michigan statehouse to protest the state’s stay-at-home orders. Men in fatigues and MAGA hats, some wielding assault-style long guns, filled the lobby outside the house floor, where lawmakers debated a twenty-eight-day extension to Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s state of emergency. Whitmer, a Democrat, has become a target of particular bile, thanks in part to President Trump’s tendency to single her out (“that woman from Michigan,” he called her, and later, “Gretchen ‘Half’ Whitmer”). Protesters have taken to calling her “Governor Hitler.”
The images were chilling but familiar. Open-carrying firearms has become a mainstay of conservative protests in recent years. Some Michigan lawmakers donned bulletproof vests on the floor, from which gun-toting protesters could be seen in the rafters above. But the protest concluded peacefully. And the Republican-controlled legislature denied Whitmer’s request to extend her emergency powers.
When this essay appears in print, this moment will either represent a passing exhibition of the inchoate ire of a small segment of conservatives, egged on by the president and funded by partisan libertarian groups, or else the first glimmers of a genuine cohering of dangerous social forces. I hope for the former, but I have learned to entertain ever darker premonitions of the future’s shape.
Thus far, the conservative response to COVID-19 has been defined by its heterogeneity: a blur of contradictory recriminations, confirmation biases, and conspiracy peddling.
There are those, like Missouri Senator Josh Hawley and Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton, who have treated the crisis as an opportunity to hammer away at their ideological hobbyhorses, summoning the menace of China and blaming globalized supply chains for shortages of medical supplies. Some fringier but no less popular figures, like Candace Owens, have continued to take their cues from Trump and Fox News circa late February, when the party line on coronavirus was that it was no more dangerous than the flu, that those panicking about it were doing so with the intent of harming the economy and thereby the president’s reelection prospects. Tucker Carlson, who personally beseeched Trump to take the virus more seriously in early March, has reversed course, joining the chorus of doubters. Ever the chameleon, Carlson now says the pandemic “just isn’t nearly as deadly as we thought it was” and dismisses the role of state lockdowns in preventing healthcare systems from becoming overwhelmed.
Meanwhile, conservatives of a more bookish and spiritual self-concept have taken quarantine as an opportunity for rumination on their preferred themes. R. R. Reno, the wily anti-anti-Trump editor of the religious magazine First Things, calls the stay-at-home measures “an ill-conceived crusade against human finitude and the dolorous reality of death.” Patrick Deneen, tribune of Catholic illiberal conservatives, marshaled the late iconoclastic cultural critic Christopher Lasch to distinguish the liberal “elites” who favor the lockdowns from the “masses” protesting them. The latter, Deneen suggested, quoting Lasch, appreciate the “inherent limits on human control over social development, over nature and the body, over the tragic elements in human life and history.” Where denizens of the liberal cosmopolis do daily battle with the entropic forces of earthly existence—aging, clutter, unhappiness, inequality—the wizened common-folk accept the inevitability of decay. They will get sick and die at their warehouse jobs while Deneen and his ilk continue to tweet at a safe distance. So it goes.
As my friend and podcast cohost Matthew Sitman has observed, the central aim of Trumpism’s academic ventriloquists is to muddy the waters, providing spacious intellectual scaffolding for whatever form of “willful, reckless cruelty” Trump might inflict on the poor and vulnerable.
All told, there has been no coherent response to the COVID crisis from the right. But when it comes to conservative ideology, incoherence is a feature, not a bug. Where liberals fantasize that precedent and logic are binding forces in our political life—that there exists some epistemological authority that will arbitrate facts and fiction, punish those who’ve contradicted themselves, and reward those who have not—conservatives have long since abandoned such notions. Reactionary thought, as Corey Robin has argued, is dynamic and mutable by nature, responsive to minute changes in the political weather, sensitive to every threat to order and hierarchy, primed to spring into action to meet the discursive necessities of the moment.
Like many, I experienced acute frustration at Trump’s tweets in support of protests to “liberate” states from the onerous lockdowns he and his medical advisers have counseled. But it doesn’t matter. Contradiction is no obstacle. There is no New York Times bombshell or Mueller indictment or impeachment article coming to right the wrongs of Trump’s hypocrisy, no scorekeeper, no manager. There is only power, those who wield it, and those who are subject to it. This, at least, our gun-toting libertarian friends in Michigan understand. It will take wielding our own sort of power to escape this crisis with our communities intact and safe. What form that power could take, I don’t yet know.
My mother recently texted me a poem from a November issue of the New Yorker—published the month before coronavirus began its morbid sweep through Wuhan—by Rachel Hadas called “Love and Dread.” It could’ve been written yesterday. The poem is a willowy gloss on an old theme: the perpetual comingling of pleasure and pain, hope and despair, birth and death—juxtapositions whose coincidence is the defining feature of life lived. “Dark clouds are roiling in the sky. / The daily drumbeat of the lie, / steady—no, crescendoing. / This premature deceptive spring. . . .”
Repeatedly, Hadas declares, “we must marry love and dread.” I can’t get that refrain out of my head. I suppose a left politics suited to this moment will have to marry love and dread: find the place where fear and solidarity meet—and start there. The worst, I’ve come to believe, is more likely than the best. But neither is inevitable.
Sam Adler-Bell is a freelance writer in New York City and co-host of Know Your Enemy, a podcast sponsored by Dissent.