Since the 2016 presidential primary campaign, Chapo Trap House has been one of the most influential podcasts in a growing network of often humorous, but strongly leftist media. Matt Christman, one of the five co-hosts and the host with the most interest in political history, posited in early 2019 that “owning the libs” had become an influential component of consumption patterns and the United States economy in general.
Though this obviously connects to the rise of Donald Trump and “Make American Great Again” from 2015 to the present, the origins of decisions made primarily to outrage political opponents goes back at least a couple of decades. The modification of diesel trucks to produce plumes of dark smoke, called “rolling coal”, is often done at least in part to anger environmentalists. With the rise of right-wing talk radio after media deregulation during the Reagan administration, a confrontational political culture emerged that not only blamed “liberals” for the failings of the American political and economic system, but sought actively to antagonize them. What also emerges from this is the polarization of everyday consumption and decisions on political lines- the anti-LGBTQ activity of the leaders of Chick-fil-A spawned both protests and support-by-consumption by conservatives. The strongly reactionary nature of Barack Obama-era right-wing politics, embodied by the Tea Party, was rooted in opposition to everything that “liberals” (often centrist neoliberals like Obama and Hillary Clinton, in reality) wanted, and that liberal support of an issue was reason in itself to rally resources and people against it.
Now, in 2020, a pandemic with all the deadly potential of climate change with a much more compressed timeline has arisen. The Trump administration has been marked by a permanent mobilization of the electorate and an end to off-peak electioneering. The President’s decision to file for re-election on the day of his inauguration, and holding mass rallies years before the 2020 election, fits with this new reality. Much like with climate change, there is a desperate attempt for the scientific establishment to get the whole of the population to heed its warnings. But defiance of social distancing and flattening the curve has emerged as about spurning liberal politicians (or public health officials who are seen as being such) than anything else.
A Tampa megachurch continued to hold mass services, even as social distancing was becoming a universal recommendation (or order). The pastor was subsequently arrested and charged with unlawful assembly and violating a public health order. It’s easy to see this person becoming a martyr in the way Kim Davis was for refusing to issue same-sex marriage licenses. A California megachurch gathering is now associated with at least 70 COVID-19 cases. Tate Reeves, Republican governor of Mississippi, rejected a shelter-in-place order well after many other states had implemented them. Quoting from the linked piece in the Jackson Free Press, emphasis added:
One Mississippian asked the governor why the state was not emulating China, the first country to detect COVID-19 and the first to control the spread of the virus. “Mississippi’s never going to be China. Mississippi’s never going to be North Korea,” Reeves responded. He added that “when looking at the numbers China’s putting out, claiming that they have no new cases over a period of time—I’m not entirely sure we can trust that data.”
Reeves’ skepticism of China’s control of the COVID-19 pandemic is incorrect, however. In areas across China most heavily affected by the novel coronavirus, the extensive lockdown, testing and case isolation protocols have eliminated the spread of the virus to the degree that the imminent danger for these areas is not community spread, but reinfection from travelers returning from abroad. Dr. Bruce Aylward, World Health Organization senior advisor, explains the dedication of the Chinese model. “They’re mobilized, like in a war, and it’s fear of the virus that was driving them. They really saw themselves as on the front lines of protecting the rest of China. And the world,” he said.
Reeves ultimately did issue a shelter-in-place order over a week later, but ultimately wasted valuable time at a political level (and not admonishing individuals for risky behavior).
At least in some places (including Fox News) have been ratcheting down the refrain that the United States needs to “restart the economy” and lift public health restrictions. However, even as more recommendations come in, the President gives them a political dimension. Upon announcing today that everyone should wear a face covering in public, he immediately pointed out that he himself would not be doing it. For the 40% of the country in lockstep with the President, such public statements dramatically undermine the efficacy of public health measures that require near-universal adherence to work within the confines and limits of the health system.
We are less than a month into any kind of response to the coronavirus and COVID-19. Pre-print academic research on the UK indicates a need for periodic lockdowns (far stricter than shelter-in-place, which is a broad term that may or may not be sufficient) well into 2021. Lockdowns are the only measure that has a chance of reducing R0 (the rate of infection) below 1, which was critical in keeping the Wuhan crisis from continuing to spiral further out of control.
Both right-wing elites and their base will become increasingly restive the longer this goes on, especially as the recession and unemployment deepens, and the calls for increased social spending increase. Asymptomatic or mildly symptomatic people continuing to move in public and not taking sanitary precautions due to the discourse of conservative media figures and politicians is a real concern. Also, the need for shelter-in-place or lockdown measures will straddle a presidential election. Joe Biden has been reluctant to criticize Trump’s coronavirus response (to me, this underlines what a political relic he is, basing his instincts on a pre-1994 vision of what Congress was like), but coronavirus is clearly going to be a major election issue. Debates about policy, like economic stimulus and bailouts, may merge into debates about public health practices, with political divisions emerging as some governors and mayors move unilaterally relative to the federal policy, for or against. While “owning the libs” acts with regard to climate change, like not recycling or “rolling coal” only have long-term, aggregate impact, even a small sliver of people who want to enrage whatever they think liberals look like could mean thousands more dead.