Trump and the right share a social Darwinist “herd mentality” — it leads to widespread death

“A version of this article appeared in Salon

Donald Trump’s promising on ABC that he would soon achieve “herd immunity” for the coronavirus, and conflating it with herd mentality, must be explained because he is counting on the latter to rescue his second term. It is otherwise impossible to imagine a campaign whose end game is recovering the lost loyalty of voters over 65 selecting as its closing argument to those voters, “Not enough of you have died yet.”

It’s a safe bet that none of his 2016 Republican primary challengers would have openly embraced the idea that the solution to the pandemic was more American casualties than the Civil War and WWII combined, which is what herd immunity would require. But many of Trump’s other Republican comrades in arms have embraced, often eagerly, a default preference for such herd immunity — harkening back to the harsh Social Darwinism that underlies much of modern conservatism. Early on there were Texas Lt. Governor Dan Patrick, Congressman Trey Hollingsworth, and radio host Glenn Beck, all of whom, argued that the loss of more American lives was preferable to scaling back the economy. Then, when the issue became wearing masks, some opponents argued “if I’m going to get Covid and die from it, then so be it…” They really meant, “if you are going to get Covid and die, so be it..” Wearing masks was framed as a deprivation of freedom — although this argument seems never to have been extended by Republicans to the prohibition on public indecency.

As the pandemic surged again, in October Senator Ron Johnson was referring to “unjustified hysteria” about Covid, and asked, after he was infected, “Why do we think we actually can stop the progression of a contagious disease?” (The obvious answer, that we have been doing so, with increasing success, since the 1854 cholera pump moment, is rejected by many on the right, because stopping pandemics often requires the government to prevent citizens from endangering other citizens.)

Herd immunity — which can sometimes reduce mortality from a disease, but over the centuries failed to end the curse of influenza, tuberculosis, small-pox, polio, rabies, or dengue fever — fits neatly into a Social Darwinist framework. Those who die are the “weak” — poor, young or elderly — or can always be classified as weak and unfit simply because they died. Survival of the fittest requires discarding of the weak. Remember the “let them die” hecklers who populated some of the 2011 Republican debates on health care.

This underlying value distortion — that my personal freedom extends to my right to endanger you — spreads out across a range of other issues. Today’s Republican reluctance to curb pollution even when it is killing a power plant’s neighbors, keep pesticides that poison farm workers out of the fields, or act on global warming, which conservatives have privately conceded for years was real and caused by carbon pollution, are all illustrations of how the toxin of Social Darwinism still contaminates much of the right’s thinking about freedom. And all have contaminated far more of the Republican leadership than its most faithful Trumplings.

So Trump’s response to the Covid crisis — and the willingness of the Republican congressional establishment to enable it — illustrates a deep rooted flaw in the American right. In a world in which we are, like it or not, all bound together, a tolerable conservatism requires a conservatism that is willing to protect me from irresponsible neighbors, whether those are Covid risking teen agers, irresponsible gun owners, or multi-national chemical companies. But the major camps on the American right have been unwilling to admit this — because if we admitted that even the most rugged, competitive individualist cannot protect herself against a fellow restaurant patron carrying an unknown virus, but an effective government can, it would strengthen the case for a government capable of providing community protection, when individual self-reliance isn’t viable.

A veteran leader in the environmental movement, former executive director & chairman Sierra Club and Senior Climate Advisor to Michael Bloomberg

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