Not too long ago, there was a time when Republicans insisted that they were against Big Government and wanted to push it down as much as possible to local control. They extolled the virtues of town councils, school boards and community commissions for being close to the people and, therefore, more responsive to the needs of their constituents. Government officials were neighbors and co-workers and friends so they had a better chance of truly understanding the issues people care about.
But it was always a bit of a con since there were plenty of things they wanted the much-hated “Big Government” to do, such as dictate others’ personal behaviors and impose their religious beliefs on them. And they have been positively giddy about supporting a gigantic military even as they have lately pretended to be isolationists only interested in fortress America, which certainly doesn’t require the bloated military budget they rubber stamp without question. Nonetheless, the anti-tax activist Grover Norquist’s old saying that conservatives wanted to make the federal government small enough to “drown in the bathtub” was generally understood to mean that the national government should devolve to allow as much local control as possible.
And then came the pandemic.
From the beginning, governors of Republican states have done everything they could to undermine local leaders in their states, from public health officials to school boards to mayors, as they tried to battle this deadly virus by putting in place mitigation strategies to keep their constituents from dying. And it continues to this day. It started with former President Donald Trump, of course, when he turned the pandemic response into another ideological war back in the spring of 2020 to try to salvage his presidency. His only concern was that the economy would be roaring when it came time to vote in the fall so he sent a strong signal to his GOP allies that this would be the priority. They were happy to oblige.
GOP governors quickly took up Trump’s negative message about masks and public health warnings about super-spreader events were boldly disregarded. Some quickly filed lawsuits, later upheld by the Supreme Court, which said there could be no restrictions on religious gatherings. With some exceptions, the GOP leadership opportunistically reacted to the pandemic as if it were a liberal plot to deprive them of their freedoms as a political strategy.
Trump eventually left office presiding over the third surge of the virus and it was the worst by far. Obsessed as he was with The Big Lie and having survived COVID himself, he was no longer interested despite the fact that the vaccines were coming online and had the potential to end the pandemic in America in a matter of months. He made some flaccid attempts to claim credit for the development of the vaccines but didn’t even bother to make it public that he and his family had received their shots until months later. Trump’s legacy on the pandemic is solid: he was a massive failure.
President Biden, on the other hand, assumed office and focused immediately on the vaccine rollout, getting hundreds of millions of people vaccinated in record time, sending FEMA and the military around the country to help out, and pushing the states in every way possible to make the vaccines accessible. For a few months, it looked as if we might have gotten through the worst of it and could all go back to living our lives as before. Unfortunately, all that Republican caterwauling about the mitigation strategies had been extended to the vaccines and tens of millions of GOP voters have refused to save their own lives and the lives of those around them out of a determination to believe conspiracy theories, misinformation and the not so subtle signals from the GOP elite.
Now we are in what President Biden has called “the pandemic of the unvaccinated” with the Delta variant having swept the country and hospitalizing thousands of people just as we are confronting the prospect of sending kids back to school. Children under 12, who are unable to be vaccinated are at the mercy of these ideologically indoctrinated zealots who refuse to protect their own children and the children of others from this strain that is making many of them sick.
The “mask wars” are back, this time with angry parents demanding that their kids not be required to protect themselves and others in crowded classrooms and defiant customers refusing to adhere to local mandates for masks inside public places. And while vaccinations have picked up in the last couple of weeks, there remain at least 70-80 million eligible people who are still not protected. According to a recent poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation, Republicans make up the vast majority of people who refuse to get vaccinated, wear masks or otherwise accept the reality that we are dealing with a deadly virus. And they are acting out all over the country.
And once again, GOP governors are coddling them by banning mask requirements in schools, vaccine mandates for employers and any other means of getting enough people vaccinated to stop the progress of this virus. Right-wing media is pushing snake oil cures like an anti-parasite treatment for horses and cows, as Tucker Carlson did last week on his highly-rated Fox News broadcast. (The FDA had to send out a warning that humans should not take this drug after numerous reports from poison control centers around the country.) The results are shocking.
In Republican states, hospitals are filling up with unvaccinated COVID patients, many of them younger than 50. In Mississippi, they are putting patients in parking garages, and in Texas, they have to medevac aortic dissection victims to other states because they don’t have any ICU beds. Hundreds of patients are unable to find hospital beds. And local officials are having to battle their state governments in Texas, Florida and South Carolina to allow them to do something about it while in Arkansas and Tennessee, the Republican governors are fighting with their own GOP legislatures to allow local officials to enact life-saving regulations.
This is just one more example of the rot at the heart of what we once called the conservative movement. They never cared about small government and local control. They just pretended to. When push comes to shove they are always ready to squash anyone who disagrees with them using any means necessary, all the while calling it “freedom.” If people die because of it, well, that’s just politics.