Current Affairs

Notes On A Nightmare #3: A Disturbing Turn in Right-Wing Thought

“What if, instead of free healthcare and a guaranteed income, we just let the virus run rampant and kill a lot of people?”

It is strange to think about the disease from where I am sitting, because outside the window everything looks relatively normal. I am still in a quiet residential neighborhood, in an empty vacation house, quarantined for two weeks before going to stay with my parents. From time to time a person goes by the window on a bicycle, or walks by with their dog. But this neighborhood was sleepy before and is sleepy now.

The disease therefore has this strange kind of unreal quality. I know it’s out there, I know it is killing people in gruesome and excruciating ways, that there are hundreds of newly bereaved families dotted around the country. But I neither see nor hear them. Coronavirus seems to live solely in my laptop and phone. If I look at a news site, there is nothing but the disease. But it’s difficult to see the thing as fully real from within a cosy room. Of course, when I go out, the shops are closed. I do not go out, though.

This distance between my own immediate experience and the reality of the disease partly explains, I think, why we have recently seen a dangerous and horrifying turn in conservative opinion. 

* * *

I had assumed that it was a consensus that we needed to keep people home from work until such time as public health officials and the medical community said we could lift the lockdowns, and that the discussion would then turn to the questions of: (1) how to drastically increase our ability to test for the disease, trace down who has it, isolate cases, and ramp up the production of critical medical supplies and the capacities of hospitals to absorb corona patients (2) how to mitigate the economic consequences for all the people who no longer have work. We would need to make sure they’re provided for, need to make sure the parts of the economy that are indispensable to our survival keep humming, and need to figure out how to achieve a dramatic reduction of work while keeping workers afloat and that the businesses that need to be put “on ice” would not go bankrupt in the interim, and would be ready to come back online. The theory of how to get past this disease is: an indefinite lockdown buys us time and hopefully keeps the virus from overwhelming the medical system too badly. We need that time so that we can make sure we’re ready for what happens when the lockdown is lifted. 

But influential conservatives have taken things in a different direction: Instead of asking what the government needs to do to mitigate the economic fallout of the radical social distancing, they have begun to wonder whether we should just ignore the medical community and return to work after an arbitrary short length of time. As Politico reports, public health leaders have been “horrified” as President Trump floats the idea of restarting the economy within 14 days, and filling churches for Easter services. The line adopted by Trump, and many on the right, is that the “cure will be worse than the disease.” “Our country wasn’t built to be shut down,” he said, saying that if the doctors had their way, the country would be shut down for years. The Wall Street Journal editorial board, figures on FOX News, and crackpot economists like Larry Kudlow and Arthur Laffer are all urging Trump to “open the country up.” Adviser Stephen Moore says it is “not a viable option” to “keep the economy shut down for the next seven to 10 weeks.”

It is not clear exactly what Trump intends by “opening America for business again.” We have seen in Italy what happens when the disease gets out of control: Hospitals are quickly overwhelmed. Italy is not talking about ending its lockdown—in fact they are thinking of increasing penalties for violating it. Their priority is not “opening for business again,” but stopping a highly contagious disease from ravaging the population. 

Of course, health experts say that the sooner we end the lockdowns, the greater the risk that the disease will end up killing millions of Americans. But some conservatives have gone so far as to suggest that if allowing the disease to spread kills the elderly in vast numbers, it is worth it, because it would preserve “the country.” (By which they seem to mean the stock market.) 

  • “Even if we all get sick, I would rather die than kill the country” — Glenn Beck 
  • “If given the choice between dying and plunging the country I love into a Great Depression, I’d happily die.” — Jesse Kelly, Federalist contributor 
  • “No one reached out to me and said, ‘As a senior citizen, are you willing to take a chance on your survival in exchange for keeping the America that all America loves for your children and grandchildren?’ And if that is the exchange, I’m all in.” — Texas Lt. Governor Dan Patrick 

Note that these men are almost certainly not the ones who would die. Glenn Beck is not nobly sacrificing himself for the good of the Markets. He’s sacrificing my dad, and perhaps yours too. They are wishing death on other people. Glenn Beck will be safe in his giant house. The least-wealthy nursing homes, homeless populations, prisoners: These people will suffer horribly. And they will not all be old: The young and healthy can suffer too. (And it is worth remembering just how bad dying of coronavirus can be. In many cases we will not just be sentencing them to death, but sentencing them to be tortured to death. And their family will not even get to be near them in their dying moments.) 

Now, I do want to be fair here, because when you point out how monstrous this position is, they have an argument. “Killing the economy” would also kill people, they say. If people suddenly lose their jobs and their health insurance, and cannot afford to pay their rent or their mortgage, they will suffer terribly, and their health will suffer too. First, let’s note that actual economists, rather than right-wing pundits, believe that since you cannot even really have a functional economy with a deadly pandemic raging through the population and destroying the health system, the shutdown is necessary. As economist Justin Wolfers says, social isolation will “save many many more people from COVID-related deaths than the ensuing economic dislocation will cause. We economists actually measure stuff like this, and it’s not even in the neighborhood of being close.” There is a consensus among both economists and public health experts that “lifting the restrictions would impose huge costs in additional lives lost to the virus — and deliver little lasting benefit to the economy.” Even Larry Summers was “appalled,” and if Larry Summers is appalled by the callousness of a cost-benefit argument you know it’s bad. It’s only far right crackpots and New York Times columnists (how thin the line between them so often is) who dispute the public health experts, which is probably why other countries battling COVID-19 have not been having the ludicrous argument we now find ourselves having.

But there is another premise in the Kill The People, Save The Economy theory that needs examining, namely the idea that all of the most extreme economic harms caused by a lockdown are unavoidable. Thomas Friedman, in his column on how to get America “back to work,” says that:

Lost wages and job layoffs are leaving many workers without health insurance and forcing many families to forego health care and medications to pay for food, housing, and other basic needs.

This, of course, is true. But note the false dichotomy here: between letting the disease take its course and depriving millions of workers of their livelihoods. (Friedman, naturally, concludes that we need a moderate approach somewhere in the middle, isolating the most vulnerable while easing up on restrictions on everyone else, perhaps in as little as two weeks.) But what if we stopped to ask why workers are left without health insurance and have to forgo care when they lose their jobs? Or why they can’t pay for food and housing?

Well, the reason is that we do not live in a social democracy, where the government provides the basics to people and makes sure they don’t suffer horribly from material deprivation. Instead of just offering free-at-point-of-use healthcare to all, we tie insurance to employment, so that losing work is scary and devastating because it means losing healthcare. We do not provide a basic income, or paid sick leave, or quality public housing, and are unwilling to consider measures (like pausing rent payments and mortgage payments, and halting evictions) that would hurt rich property-owners. The threat that conservatives are holding over people’s heads (“go back to work or misery will ensue”) is the product of a choice. If we choose not to soften the blow for people during the period they can’t work, then it will be a calamity for them. 

The “economy” is an abstraction, and saying we need to “restart” or “open” it is highly imprecise and unhelpful. There are some activities that are clearly essential (such as making sure everyone can eat, and have healthcare, and that the lights and the internet are on), while others do not need to be done if doing them means increasing the risk of a pandemic spreading further and overwhelming the hospital system. For example, let us take a housekeeper for idle rich people. There is no reason for that housekeeper to have to expose herself needlessly to the virus before it is contained. Her work is hard but ultimately, the rich person can clean their own damn house if necessary. “Ah, but she will be thrown out of work!” Yes, but it’s physically possible that, during the pandemic, she could be paid to stay home rather than to go out and clean. It is not because her task itself must be done, but because even in a pandemic the idea of paying people not to work is unthinkable to conservatives, and therefore that the false choice is supposedly between firing her and having her go to work. 

In fact, I think one reason conservatives are so determined to get back to “business as usual” is that the disease has threatened many of their most cherished dogmas. For example: It’s very clear that coronavirus testing and treatment needs to be free for patients. If patients are getting $9,000 bills for tests, they’re not going to want to get tested. But if coronavirus treatment should be free, it opens up more questions: What about treatment for other diseases that worsen because hospitals are overwhelmed with coronavirus patients? Are we okay with having those people bankrupted by medical expenses? Why shouldn’t we just make healthcare free? If you’re in the Army, you get government-funded and operated Tricare services. You get a lot of free-at-point-of-use services, because the government understands that its Army needs to be fit and healthy. But what about the general population? 

I am not surprised that a libertarian like Richard Epstein insisted coronavirus was overblown and would only cause 500 deaths in this country (he wrote that on the 16th, and we’re already well past that; he’s upped it to 5,000 and says it’s what he meant all along). If the disease is not overblown, it requires massive centralized state action to solve. China has gotten coronavirus under control, but how did they do it? It is a problem the free market will not solve, and the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal are reluctant to admit there are problems the market doesn’t have an answer for.

Economist Dani Rodrik is surprised at Trump’s reluctance to use the authority of the Defense Production Act, which allows the government to give orders to private industry in a national emergency. I am much less surprised, because if this worked, it would force conservatives to concede that there are certain circumstances in which the state directing industry produces good outcomes, which many will never admit. 

The crisis is shattering dogmas left and right. It is showing that outsourcing U.S. manufacturing might have produced horrible consequences when we needed to ramp up domestic manufacturing of a crucial supply as quickly as possible. It is showing that our government could have given us a social safety net all along and chose not to. It is showing that making people pay their debts is not always a good thing. It is showing that we can house the homeless if we try, or lower our prison population. It is showing that there is such a thing as “society,” that there are collective problems requiring collective solutions. No wonder Ron Paul wanted so badly to think coronavirus was a hoax! (His son got coronavirus soon after.) No wonder Trump wants to think it’s just like the flu and we can all go back to business as usual soon! If the crisis can’t be solved with a miracle cure, it might require a dose of FDR-style social democracy. (The Democrats also have this generation’s FDR waiting to take charge (hint: it’s Bernie, not Cuomo), but unfortunately seem to be on the verge of nominating someone whose crisis leadership skills are dubious.)

* * *

I would like to come back, though, to where I started: the unrealness of the virus to me right now. This is not just the case for me as an individual. It’s the case for all of those who do not yet personally know someone who has gotten sick, and to whom the sickness exists as words and images on a screen. This includes Donald Trump. He and others on the right live in a world of image, where they think if they can change the narrative they can change the reality. It is almost like a belief in magic

But how long can this illusion last? The virus is spreading, and it is spreading quickly. I do not think Trump wants to accept this. Neither does Richard Epstein or Ron Paul. I don’t want to believe it myself. Sooner or later, though, we will have little choice. Atlanta’s ICUs are apparently already at capacity. Medical supplies are running low in many places. And there is no reason to think that, at least until the effect of social distancing kicks in, the number of cases will not continue to explode. 

Stay safe, everyone. 

As of 3/24/20

Total confirmed cases in the U.S.: 53,205
Total deaths in the U.S.: 687
New deaths since yesterday: 134

More In: The Virus

Cover of latest issue of print magazine

Announcing Our Newest Issue

Featuring

Spreading Sweetness and Light! Current Affairs takes on hellfire, why teens love socialism, the magic of Motown, and the legacy of Huey Long. Cover art by Aleksandra Waliszewska.

The Latest From Current Affairs