The reality of the novel coronavirus pandemic is sinking in as our infections continue to rise. Still, a number of people insist that alarm about the pandemic is political, whipped up by the media to weaken the president. When New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez begged people under 40 to stay out of bars, restaurants, and public spaces to keep from spreading Covid-19, Katie Williams, a former Ms. Nevada who was stripped of her title for putting pro-Trump postings on the non-political Ms. America social media accounts, responded “I just went to a crowded Red Robin and I’m 30. It was delicious, and I took my sweet time eating my meal. Because this is America. And I’ll do what I want.”
As Americans either settled into self-isolation or ignored expert advice and hit bars and beaches, the administration’s travel restrictions from Europe, which went into effect today, created chaos in the 13 airports assigned to handle American passengers returning from 26 countries. Those airports were understaffed, leaving passengers at Chicago’s O’Hare to wait for up to six hours for their bags, and then another 2-4 to get through a health screening and customs, all the while packed together. Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker, a Democrat, finally took to twitter to get Trump’s attention, prompting Pritzker’s political opponents to tell him to fix his own state.
But customs is under federal, not state, jurisdiction. There was nothing Pritzker could do except tweet: “The federal government needs to get its s@#t together. NOW.”
The fight over whether to take the coronavirus pandemic seriously, as well as the administration’s inept handling of it, is the outcome of forty years of assault on the American government. Since 1980, when Ronald Reagan ran for office on the warning that “government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem,” Republicans have made war on the idea of an expert bureaucracy in charge of our government.
It was a huge shift for the party, which had come out of World War Two with a deep commitment to a conservatism that focused on using the government to promote stability at home and across the globe by fostering equality of opportunity and rising standards of living for all. Those commitments required extending the government regulations, social safety net, and infrastructure development pioneered in the 1930s by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the Democrats. Republican President Dwight Eisenhower did just that, regulating business to protect labor, expanding civil rights, and passing what was at the time the largest public works program in American history: the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956, which created our interstate highway system.
But a small group of reactionaries who hated business regulation, civil rights, and the taxes that public works programs require, insisted that the growing government infringed on their liberty. They got little traction because Americans liked the new, active government that enabled people to get educations, make a decent wage, and stop worrying they would have to live off their children or root through garbage cans for food when they got too old to work.
But when the Supreme Court, overseen by former Republican governor of California Earl Warren, unanimously agreed that segregated schools were unconstitutional, and Eisenhower enforced that decision in 1957 with federal troops at Little Rock Central High School, these reactionaries tied racism to their hatred of federal bureaucracy. The growing government of “experts,” they said, was taking tax dollars from hardworking white people and using them to give benefits to people of color. They were redistributing wealth. They were snaking communism or socialism into America and would destroy the very individualism that made America great.
That formulation—that an active government run by bureaucrats trying to regulate business, promote social welfare, and develop our infrastructure is socialism that will destroy us—gradually took over the Republican Party. In 1980, Reagan, who used this rhetoric but in fact governed far more moderately than he sounded, brought this ideology into the White House. He began the Republican addiction to tax cuts. When it became clear the cuts were not, in fact, expanding growth and paying for themselves as promised, but rather were cutting programs voters liked, the Reagan team shored up their support by courting evangelicals, marrying religious dislike of secularism to Republican pro-business individualism.
Over the years since, Republican leaders have continued to cut taxes, regulations, social safety nets, and infrastructure, all in the service of shunning socialism and promoting individualism. Whatever needs to be done, businessmen can do it best, they say. Government bureaucrats are inefficient and wasteful.
As this ideology has increasingly degraded our society, more and more voters have turned against it. So Republican leaders have stayed in power first by suppressing opposition voters, and then by gerrymandering districts so that Republicans have a systemic advantage. In 2012, for example, after states drew new districts after the 2010 census, Democratic candidates for seats in the House of Representatives won 1.4 million more votes than their Republican counterparts, and yet Republicans came away with a 33-seat majority.
Republican leaders have worked to pack the courts. too. As Reagan’s attorney general Edwin Meese put it, the idea was “to institutionalize the Reagan revolution so it can’t be set aside no matter what happens in future elections.” Reagan appointed more judges than any other president before him, including three Supreme Court justices and one chief justice. The rightward swing of the court continued when George W. Bush (who lost the popular vote) appointed two Supreme Court justices, including a chief justice.
That swing has gone on steroids under Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY). He held up the judicial appointments of Democratic President Barack Obama and finally refused even to consider Obama’s moderate nominee for the Supreme Court. Another Republican elected with a minority of the popular vote, Trump filled that seat and another. McConnell has been rushing through Trump’s judges at an unprecedented pace—almost as many as Obama appointed in his entire 8 years-- and vowed this week that the pandemic will not slow down judicial appointments.
So extreme has the court become in the service of the Republican agenda that on Wednesday, former Judge James Dannenberg resigned his membership in the Supreme Court Bar—lawyers admitted to practice before the high court-- of which he has been a member since 1972. Dannenberg’s resignation charges that the court is practicing “radical ‘legal activism,’ at its worst.” It is an “extension of the right wing of the Republican Party, he wrote, subverting or ignoring the law “to achieve transparently political goals.”
He accused the court of taking us back to the first Gilded Age and warned, “The only constitutional freedoms ultimately recognized may soon be limited to those useful to wealthy, Republican, White, straight, Christian, and armed males— and the corporations they control. This is wrong. Period. This is not America.”
And so, it seems the reactionaries of the 1950s got what they wanted. We have decimated our government bureaucracy and expertise, slashed taxes and the social safety net, and crippled our infrastructure, all in the name of promoting American business and the individualism that, in theory, encourages economic growth. The president, along with his enablers in the Senate, have tried to cement this ideology onto the country through the courts.
And now, the coronavirus pandemic is putting their system to the test. So far, it is failing miserably.