As the pandemic enters its most deadly phase in the United States, responses on the right have for the most part also shifted to accommodate what can no longer be denied about its catastrophic effects.
Two weeks ago, New York Times columnist Bret Stephens warned that “overreaction” to the virus through suppression measures might itself destroy the economy and the American political system along with it. The Wall Street Editorial Board negatively juxtaposed public health to market imperatives. That same day the editor of conservative religious magazine First Things, the paleo-right Catholic theologian R.R. Reno, issued a fevered rant against impending shutdowns. “Everything for the sake of physical life? What about justice, beauty, and honor? There are many things more precious than life.” The shutdowns, he said “create a perverse, even demonic atmosphere.” That night, Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick went on “Tucker Carlson Tonight” to call for a martyrdom of the elderly. By Tuesday, Trump was echoing the growing chorus, saying at his daily press conference that he wanted suppression measures over by Easter, in a strategic appeal to evangelicals in his base.
All that has changed now. While Trump refuses to wear a mask, he has now pivoted to issuing grave warnings about the unfolding calamity, while his Surgeon General calls it Pearl Harbor and 9/11 all rolled into one. A majority of Republicans now support strong quarantine measures. And most evangelical ministers, it turns out, don’t really want to their flocks to be lambs to the slaughter.
There are exceptions here, as Jason Wilson reported in The Guardian yesterday. And on the far-right, militia leader Ammon Bundy is calling to supporters for “physical resistance” against shutdown orders. Like COVID 19 itself, Bundy knows that his movement must continually seek new opportunities to spread to fresh hosts, or risk dying out. And those who still fully deny the advent of the novel coronavirus are increasingly hard to categorize. They range from the Infowars and QAnon faithful to increasingly active conspiracy theorists who appear to be burning down cell towers in the belief that the pandemic is merely a ruse to allow the development of 5G infrastructure.
The main political divide now reflects what was present before the virus made a global appearance: one marked by class, race, and gender. Elites will continue to try to use federal funds to shore up Wall Street, and restrict the kind of funding that would cease to compel frontline workers across the supply chain and in “essential” services to stay on the job – work that is disproportionately done by women and people of color. And as working-class and poor people continue to be the most vulnerable to the virus, we should expect a more intensified surveillance, control, and demonization of bodies marked by race and class.
But the sharpening of this divide may also clarify the terms of struggle on the other side as well, where increasing militancy by frontline workers such as healthcare workers has begun to develop, and new expressions of resistance and demand emerge.