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Trump's coronavirus quarantine rhetoric fuels a dangerously politicized pandemic

Trump knows he can count on an army of loyalists like Jerry Falwell who are willing to ignore the warnings of medical experts and shift their morality to serve the president's agenda.
Image: President Donald Trump and Liberty University President Jerry Falwell, Jr., at the university's commencement ceremony in Lynchburg, Va., on May 13, 2017.
President Donald Trump and Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. at the university's commencement ceremony in Lynchburg, Va., on May 13, 2017.Brendan Smialowski / AFP via Getty Images

Jerry Falwell Jr. is nothing if not loyal to President Donald Trump.

This past week, a few thousand students and professors returned to Liberty University’s main campus in Virginia despite the widening coronavirus pandemic. Even though many of the classes will be held online, students have been invited to come back to their residential halls and the faculty has been told to report to work on campus.

Falwell, who is the president of the conservative Christian school, defended his decision by insisting that "99 percent of [students] are not at the age to be at risk and they don't have conditions that put them at risk."

Falwell defended his decision by insisting that "99 percent of [students] are not at the age to be at risk and they don't have conditions that put them at risk." That is factually untrue.

That, of course, is factually untrue: young people are not immune. Indeed, last week the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said more than a third of U.S. patients ill enough to be hospitalized were ages 20 to 54. And of course, even young people who do not become seriously sick can pass the disease to others.

But the science isn’t the point. The public show of loyalty is, and there are few supporters who are more fervently and reflexively loyal to Trump than Falwell. It is a revealing and dangerous moment: What could have been an opportunity for national unity has instead become an occasion to open new political schisms and deepen old ones. Decisions that would normally be made on the basis on apolitical scientific fact are increasingly driven by tribal loyalties.

None of this is strictly new, because much of Trump’s base has cultivated a contempt for expertise, combined with a disdain for the media and the warnings of the scientific community. But this time, our political divisions could be deadly.

Earlier this month, Falwell appeared on "Fox & Friends" to suggest that the coronavirus was a plot designed to hurt Trump and floated the notion that it might actually be a Chinese or North Korean bioweapon attack.

At the same time (and somewhat contradictorily), he accused the media of overhyping the threat.

“And it makes you wonder if there’s a political reason for that,” said. “It’s, you know, impeachment didn’t work and the Mueller report didn’t work and Article 25 [sic] didn’t work, and so maybe now this is their next attempt to get Trump.”

Trump’s attitude on the pandemic — and especially the need for quarantines — has swung wildly from downplaying it to taking it seriously and back to downplaying it. Most recently, he has pivoted again to suggest that it’s time to restart the economy as early as Easter Sunday.

And Falwell has shifted right along with him, providing a preview of what may be in store for us.

Some Republicans, at least, seem to grasp the stakes. Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney warned: "There will be no normally functioning economy if our hospitals are overwhelmed and thousands of Americans of all ages, including our doctors and nurses, lay dying because we have failed to do what’s necessary to stop the virus.”

But polls suggest that there is already a deep partisan division over how seriously we should take the coronavirus outbreak and that divide could widen if Trump signals a retreat from the restrictions that have kept most of us (hopefully safe) at home.

While the president cannot unilaterally restart the economy (many of the orders to shelter in place were issued by state and local governments), he can send a powerful signal. And, like Falwell, many on the right will take their cue from the president.

Within weeks, any semblance of a unified front against the disease could be shattered as “social distancing” is seen as virtue signaling for the left, while defiance of the bans becomes a political and cultural statement for the right. As the Atlantic’s McKay Coppins notes, social distancing will soon “be treated by many primarily as a political act — a way of signaling which ‘side’ you’re on.”

One side will be accused of wanting to destroy the nation’s economy, the other of trying to murder millions of grandmas. And caught in the middle will be the medical experts and professionals who will be forced to cope with the fallout.

Meanwhile, the virus will spread and the infection and death toll will rise.

The Trumpworld’s response will be a predictable combination of denial, blame and cultism.

As long as possible, much of the Trump-friendly media will continue to downplay the severity of the pandemic, but when that is no longer possible, they will easily pivot to blaming others, especially the Chinese. Trump, after all, became president by blaming the nation’s woes on “others” – immigrants and foreigners. He can also rely on the fierce loyalty of followers for whom protecting Trump no-matter-what is the prime directive.

Perhaps the most extraordinary shift, however, has been the change in conservatives’ attitude toward human life.

Perhaps the most extraordinary shift, however, has been the change in conservatives’ attitude toward human life. As he has backed away from the shutdown, Trump warned that “cure” of the shutdown may be worse than the “disease.” In the worst case scenarios, though, the disease could kill 2.2 million Americans.

This poses an obvious challenge for a party that has long prided itself on being pro-life. As they have scurried to keep up with Trump, many Republicans now seem ready to embrace the idea that hundreds of thousands of lives may have to be sacrificed to revive the gross domestic product.

In a remarkable twist for a party that once lost its mind over the possibility of “death panels” in Obamacare, Trump-friendly media outlets have become filled with paeans to the virtues of pragmatic deaths. Some of it is cast as self-sacrifice.

Trumpist writer Jesse Kelly declared on Twitter: “If given the choice between dying and plunging the country I love into a Great Depression, I’d happily die.”

Glenn Beck agreed, insisting that “all of us who are over 50 go in [to work] and keep this economy going and working, even if we all get sick, I would rather die than kill the country.”

But as Beck surely knows, this is disingenuous: sending millions back to work before we control the pandemic isn’t about his own willingness to die. It’s about his willingness to support steps that will result in thousands of others dying, many in great agony.

The deaths of even 1 percent of the population would run into the millions, but some conservatives have picked up on Trump’s suggestion that preventing those deaths might be worse than saving them.

“Is it right for the nation to require our children’s futures be destroyed to keep alive less than 1 percent of our population until the next flu season?” asked writer Joy Pullman in The Federalist. “My point here is not that I like people dying,” Pullman wrote. “It’s that very often our society chooses to allow deaths because the alternative is worse.” (The Federalist also published a story that suggested holding “chickenpox parties” to deliberately spread the disease to boost immunity to the disease. The advice was so medically unsound it resulted in the site’s Twitter account being temporarily suspended.)

Radio host Dennis Prager (who also runs Prager University), argued that idea that “the only value is saving a life… leads to appeasement...No one can die? Then it's not a war."

Of course, if we are at war, the enemy is the virus, not patients in hospitals. But you can find a similar argument in the Trump-obsessive website, American Greatness, where writers warn that social distancing “must not be allowed to destroy American Greatness” — where “greatness” can be read as a euphemism for Trump’s re-election.

Stephen Presser, a professor emeritus at Northwestern University’s Pritzker School of Law, warns against the “tyranny of specialized experts” and the “loss of faith in life eternal, earthly existence,” which leads to a desire to prolong temporal life. Indeed, life is overrated compared to other imperatives. But excessive concern about life, Presser writes, “is what happens when faith erodes, and the preservation of fragile lives, and, indeed, lives on respirators, becomes the most important goal.”

The conservative Catholic magazine, First Things, lashed out at New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo for saying that “if everything we do saves just one life, I’ll be happy.”

In an article headlined, “Say No to Death’s Dominion,” R.R. Reno, the magazine’s publisher, derides what he calls Cuomo’s “disastrous sentimentalism.”

“There are many things more precious than life,” he writes.

So the “party of life” becomes a sort of death cult.

And unfortunately these are not outliers. These are the voices that Trump knows he can count on: an army of Falwell-like loyalists who are not only willing to ignore the warnings of medical experts but also to shift their morality to serve his political agenda.

Brave new world, indeed.