Replace ‘economy’ with ‘power’ and the Republican death wish makes perfect sense

Photo by Gage Skidmore, via Flickr

Even in a month when discombobulation has become the default emotion, it was genuinely shocking to see Texas lieutenant governor Dan Patrick say openly that Americans should go back to work and let the coronavirus kill who it may.

Of course, he was echoed by Donald Trump, who floated similar plans at the White House on the same night, just with less honesty about the mortal trade-offs associated with an early removal of social isolation measures.

But this is not just a Trumpian thought bubble, nor even an American one. Boris Johnson’s Chief Adviser Dominic Cummings has been accused of arguing in late February for a similar ‘let it rip’ strategy in the UK. His philosophy was paraphrased in the Sunday Times as “herd immunity, protect the economy and if that means some pensioners die, too bad”. Cummings has denied the charge, but the fact that the UK’s approach did change from herd immunity to a suppression strategy suggests that the Times’ description is, at worst, a slightly blunt but broadly accurate one.

Millions of lives quite literally depend on decisions being taken by these governments and others around the world, so the object of this post is to try to quickly translate this conservative instinct into terms that can be understood, interrogated and countered.

The most useful (and generous) way to describe what these guys are saying is that the pandemic is forcing a choice between saving lives or protecting the economy, and they are choosing the economy.

Before I get to the main point, it has to be said that this is a false choice. There is no reason to believe that a country with many more deaths and critically ill people, and an overwhelmed medical system, will perform better economically over any timeframe than an identical country which carefully manages a shutdown and reboot while maintaining critical services. It is daft to think that a sick, terrified and traumatised population would continue to work at anything resembling normal capacity as family, friends and colleagues are hospitalised and, once those are full, left to rot at home.

Many pixels will be spilled explaining all this, a service which is both necessary and beside the point. To truly refute what these guys are saying, you have to refute what they’re truly saying. In this case, to decipher their code, I believe a handy shortcut is to replace the word ‘economy’ with ‘power structure’. Like so:

‘Power structure’ is working hard here. I’m talking wealth, economic systems, political ideology, and social hierarchies. Once you understand that all of these things ARE under threat from an optimal response to Covid-19, the sociopathic rantings of Patrick and co. suddenly take on a much more tangible shape, and the real debate can begin.

To sense check this theory, consider how perfectly this dynamic mirrors the climate change malaise. Once again, certain conservatives frame that conversation as a false choice between the economy or a safe climate, even though a functional economy and a safe climate are obviously contingent on each other. Their conga line of bad faith arguments are easily refuted by scientists and their proponents are endlessly dunked on. But nothing changes. That’s because the underlying motive for the arguments has not been named or confronted. It’s like you’re madly cutting away tentacles which keep growing back, instead of going for the heart.

We need to read between the lines for the real message, which in its most extreme form could be paraphrased as: “we would rather see the world reduced to a pile of rubble, so long as we’re still standing at the top of it”.

The conservative movement in countries like the US and the UK is now a monolith of mostly older and white people with traditional views of gender, sexuality and religion. Their animating principle is that they (or people who think like them) have historically been in charge of everything culturally, financially and politically, and they aren’t ready to let go (more on all that here). Both climate change and the coronavirus pandemic are seismic events which threaten to accelerate a larger trend they rightly fear: the disruption of the existing order of things. Dealing with these crises in a rational way requires the redistribution of power, resources, trust, and dependence to people and institutions who challenge their waning dominance. The scientifically correct responses call for larger government and universal social protections: stuff they hate. Rather than accept that they have been proven wrong ideologically, conservative brains contrive to reject the reality of the problems. The pill is just too bitter to swallow.

Lt. Gov. Patrick has now made it clear that Republicans will literally die on this hill. Tucker Carlson actually gives it away when he clarifies: “this disease could end your life but that’s not the scariest thing to you?”

Tentacles will be slain tomorrow: ‘if you don’t want to “sacrifice” your country, don’t make people leave home, stupid!’, ‘younger people are affected too’, ‘that’s easy for Trump/Patrick/Cummings to say, he’ll be first in line for the best care’. But what really needs to be challenged is that Trump and Patrick and probably millions of Americans would rather run the gauntlet of coronavirus than see cash deposited in the accounts of people who they do not like, or allow the government to be seen as a force for good. No number of lives lost — even though their base is disproportionately vulnerable — could outweigh the cost of seeing their America replaced by one of equality and collective thinking.

In Dying of Whiteness: How the Politics of Racial Resentment is Killing America’s Heartland, psychiatrist and sociologist Jonathan Metzl explored why US life expectancy had dropped for three consecutive years to 2017; the first time since the Spanish flu a century earlier. He found this trend had been self-inflicted by harmful policies on guns, healthcare and social welfare, voted for by white (and mostly male) people who used them to entrench their privilege even though things got worse for everyone. His analysis upends the meme of ‘voting against your own interests’ by redefining those interests: he writes that white people are “dying for a cause”. Some people would rather ride the Titanic in First Class than be on a safe ship where everyone is equal.

Metzl described a slow and painful national descent marked by deaths of despair. But as we’ve all experienced, coronavirus has turned decades into weeks. What should be feared is that this mentality is leading to decisions in this very moment which could lead to millions of avoidable deaths in the near future. I don’t know how to solve this, but taking a lesson from climate, I only want to warn that debunking dumb ideas with facts and science is demonstrably not enough, and we don’t have time to pretend otherwise.

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Australian researcher interested in politics, policy, climate change and culture

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Brett Taylor

Australian researcher interested in politics, policy, climate change and culture