The crowd gathered under a tent at the water’s edge, their tables decorated with the Stars and Stripes and checked tablecloths. In their midst in Austin county, Texas, last Saturday was the state’s governor, Greg Abbott, laughing with delight and playing the fiddle.
With the coronavirus roaring through the state and hospitals near breaking point, comparisons with Nero fiddling while Rome burned were irresistible, although journalist Alisha Grauso pointed out on Twitter: “Nero actually enacted sweeping relief efforts to try to quell the fire and also offer his people aid in the aftermath, particularly the lower class, so Abbott is somehow worse than a Roman emperor known today as being a psychotic tyrant.”
But Abbott, who has banned mask requirements, is far from an outlier in a Republican party which, having long sought to downplay the climate crisis, is now offering a confusing, incoherent and anti-scientific response to the biggest public health crisis for a century.
Some Republican leaders are seeking to support Joe Biden’s efforts to beat the pandemic by encouraging the public to get vaccinated as soon as possible. But others are actively trying to undermine the president’s offensive by embracing what critics regard as lethal mix of ignorance, irrationality and nihilism.
These Republicans seem intent on scoring political points by appealing to a pandemic-weary’s public yearning to get back to something like normal life. Still in thrall to former president Donald Trump, they fiercely oppose mask or vaccine mandates by invoking traditional party tenets of individual freedom, personal responsibility and resisting state interference.
But with America now averaging about 113,000 cases a day, an increase of nearly 24% from the previous week, and hospitalizations up 31% from the week before, Republicans stand accused of causing the deaths of their own voters as the highly contagious Delta variant scythes through red states where vaccination rates are low.
Elaine Kamarck, a Democrat who served in the Bill Clinton administration, said bluntly: “They’ve gone out of their minds. There’s just no other way to describe this. This is about the dumbest thing you could imagine because the only people listening to them are their voters. So this is the first time I’ve ever seen a political party advocating things that would harm their voters, maybe even kill their voters.”
For six months the vaccine program was an example of American ingenuity, energy and can-do spirit, but more recently it has become yet another case study in the self-inflicted wounds of polarization, reviving a sense of anxiety, uncertainty and pessimism. In the past week Florida and Texas, states whose leaders take pride in riling the Biden administration, have accounted for nearly 40% of new hospitalizations across the country.
Abbott banned mask mandates yet pledged to bring in extra healthcare workers from out of state and ask hospitals to postpone elective surgeries. The Austin and Dallas independent school districts have said they will defy Abbott’s ban and require masks.
Ron DeSantis, the governor of Florida, has also outlawed mask requirements in the state and threatened to withhold the salaries of superintendents and county school board members who issue them for students. As infections soar among children, some of the state’s biggest school districts vowed to flout the governor’s order.
Kristi Noem, the governor of South Dakota, welcomed hundreds of thousands of people to the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally where no masks or vaccines are required, while Henry McMaster, the governor of South Carolina, declared: “Mandating masks is not the answer. Personal responsibility is the answer, common sense is the answer. And we have an abundance of both in South Carolina.”
At the White House on Thursday, Biden expressed frustration with governors prolonging the pandemic. “I know there are lot of people out there trying to turn a public safety measure – that is, children wearing masks in school so they can be safe – into a political dispute,” he said. “And this isn’t about politics. This is about keeping our children safe.”
Critics say the governors have abandoned the conservative principle that decisions should be made at a local level but they have support from prominent Republican senators such as Ted Cruz of Texas and Rand Paul of Kentucky.
Paul, a licensed physician and senator for Kentucky, urged civil disobedience against coronavirus restrictions, saying in a video: “It’s time for us to resist. They can’t arrest all of us.” He has been banned from YouTube for a week over a post that questioned the efficacy of masks.
Biden’s effort is also being undercut by prominent conservative media figures including the Fox News hosts Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham, who have challenged the safety and questioned the effectiveness of the vaccine, as well as online conspiracy theories that falsely suggest that it harms fertility, contains microchips or even creates vampires.
Democrats are dismayed by such willingness to turn even a matter of life and death into a partisan issue. They note that a minority of the population is hampering the entire nation’s recovery and needlessly endangering more lives, including children.
Bob Shrum, a Democratic strategist, said: “They share a profound irresponsibility. What they’re doing will sicken people and some people will die. In my view DeSantis and Abbott are both doing it for political purposes to satisfy the base. DeSantis, at least, is too smart to not know what he’s doing or not know what he should be doing but that’s what we’ve come to in this country.”
The resurgent pandemic has also exposed fault lines in the Trump-era Republican party, a contradiction embodied by the former president himself. He continues to trumpet his success in developing the vaccines, and quietly received one in January, yet often seems reluctant to encourage his supporters to follow suit.
Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader frequently at odds with Trump, has paid for ads in Kentucky urging his constituents to get vaccinated, citing his own childhood struggle with polio and the decades it took to develop a polio vaccine.
Kay Ivey, the governor of Alabama, has spoken out about her frustrations with the unvaccinated. “Folks supposed to have common sense, but it’s time to start blaming the unvaccinated folks, not the regular folks,” she said last month. “It’s the unvaccinated folks that are letting us down.”
Asa Hutchinson, the governor of Arkansas, has admitted that he regretted signing a ban on mask mandates in schools and asked the state legislature to reverse the decision. “I signed it for those reasons that our cases were at a low point,” he said. “Everything has changed now. And yes, in hindsight I wish that had not become law.”
Sarah Sanders, a former White House press secretary who is running for Arkansas governor, published an opinion column about why she decided to get vaccinated, citing Trump and his family’s own shots as one reason – “If getting vaccinated was safe enough for them, I felt it was safe enough for me” – but stopped short of telling others to do likewise, advising: “Pray about it, discuss it with your family and your doctor.”
DeSantis and Abbott are both facing re-election contests in 2022, and seen as potential presidential contenders in 2024, which might help explain why their responses are targeted at the Trump base while Hutchinson and Ivey are more pragmatic. Other Republicans have an eye on next year’s congressional midterm elections, which they hope to turn into a protest vote against Biden.
Joe Walsh, a former Republican congressman turned Trump critic and radio host, said: “It’s where their voters are. I interact with the Republican base every day. They are still highly skeptical or resistant to vaccines. They’re up in arms against any sort of mask wearing and mask mandates. So I hear that every day from the base. If I’m hearing that, then you know these Republican officeholders are hearing that as well, so they’re just going to cater to that.”
Asked why voters feel this way, Walsh added: “They’re predisposed to believe a lot of this shit, but it’s also said to them every day by people like Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham and talk radio – the world I come from. Like Republican elected officials, they know where their audience is so they fuel this every day and they feed it every day. So they bounce back off of each other.
“Look, typically midterm elections are all about turnout and if Republican elected officials go squishy on masks and even vaccines people are not going to come out and vote. So they can’t do that.”
But Michael Steele, former chairman of the Republican National Committee, argues that such a strategy will prove counterproductive in the long term.
“Never before in the history of our country where we’ve had to confront national crises have elected officials behaved so badly, so disingenuously and with so much disregard for the safety and security of the American people,” he said.
Steele added: “Individuals like Rand Paul, Ted Cruz and others are out here selfishly proclaiming that somehow I’m more free if I don’t wear a mask. Well, that’s just bullshit and the only freedom you get from not wearing a mask is death.”