I felt some pangs of regret after saying Thursday that a third of America would cheer, or shrug, if the other two-thirds were wiped out by Covid-19. My point was that we should vote like our lives depend on it (they do!), but no one likes hearing such ugliness about other Americans. An outraged subscriber alleged I was being “deeply cynical.” “Instead of talking about the work that needs to be done, you are sabotaging us.”
As I was thinking this through, Vanity Fair published an investigation by Katherine Eban establishing a timeline of the Trump administration’s pandemic response. In the early stages, the White House task force, led by the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, decided a national approach was best. “Simply working together as a nation on it ‘would have put us in a fundamentally different place,’” said Eban’s source.
By early April, things changed. Donald Trump, fearing its effect on the economy and Wall Street, minimized the reality of the virus while accusing his enemies and the press corps of hyping its dangers to wound him. Kushner’s team, along with GOP leaders and their media allies, followed suit. “Against that background, the prospect of launching a large-scale national plan was losing favor, said one public health expert.”
Over time, Kushner’s team convinced itself that the pandemic was not affecting Republican voters. A national approach, therefore, wasn’t needed. Trump downplayed the body count even as he accused Democratic governors of failing to stop its rise. (Ohio and Massachusetts, among the early pandemic states, have GOP governors, but I digress.) “Because the virus had hit blue states hardest, a national plan was unnecessary and would not make sense politically. ‘The political folks believed that because it was going to be relegated to Democratic states, that they could blame those governors, and that would be an effective political strategy,’ said the expert” (emphasis is mine).
During this period, it bears remembering, the president pushed the US Congress to stabilize the economy by shoving billions into it. While GOP allies got preferential access to $2.2 trillion in stimulus, cities and states run by Democrats got nothing—despite being on the front lines of a national pandemic. Democrats in the US House have since passed a bill to replace lost revenues, and then some, but the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, maintains there will be no “blue-state bailout.” The Senate’s latest proposal, which is standing idle while senators are away for August recess, has no appropriations for cities and states, even deep-red Republican ones.
What does this mean? While the president chose to let Americans who live in blue states get sick and die, Congressional Republicans chose to starve those same cities and states of resources amid their struggle to save lives. Given that elected officials, from the president on down, tend to reflect the will of their supporters, it’s safe to say, in light of Trump’s 91 percent approval rating among Republicans (per Gallup), that about a third of America approves of the GOP’s informal policy of negligent homicide. It may sound cynical, but truth is, the pleasure other people’s pain often drives politics.
Paying so much attention to sadism runs the risk of ignoring its opposite: masochism. Some Republican voters are willing to hurt themselves, with exquisite pleasure, if hurting themselves exquisitely hurts their enemies. (A textbook example is Republican governors rejecting Obamacare’s health-insurance subsidies in order to undermine a Black president.) Even as the pandemic is rampaging through Republican-controlled states, setting records in Florida and Texas, many Republicans will never blame Trump, because if he’s wrong, the enemy is right, and the enemy can never be right.
Not all Republicans feel that way though. As small numbers defect due to Trump’s failed leadership, they leave behind individuals still taking immense pleasure in losing themselves to the “collective power structure,” as an EB subscriber described it to me. “All they want is to continue feeling the way being part of a collective power structure makes them feel. The way Trump makes them feel.” As the group shrinks, so does that pleasure, until one day, however Trump leaves office, MAGA addicts will “crash, many with their entire senses of self having been stripped away. It’s not their ‘evil’ that worries me most. It’s their anguish, and how they will respond to that anguish.”
The collective trauma that’s coming from millions being forced to go cold turkey? And the fact that nearly every one of us on Team Blue is out of empathy for anyone who supported him? That is what should scare the shit out of everyone.
John Stoehr is the editor and publisher of the Editorial Board, a newsletter about politics in plain English for normal people and the common good. He’s a visiting assistant professor of public policy at Wesleyan University, a fellow at the Yale Journalism Initiative, a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly, and a contributing editor for Religion Dispatches.