You likely know people who believe at this late hour that Covid is a hoax. Their voices are loud online. They diminish the seriousness of the virus by claiming it’s the flu. They diminish or deny the deaths of over 300,000 Americans and believe that the projections of half a million deaths are made up. Some of this is coming from economic desperation because our government, for ideological reasons, has refused to support people when they need it.
Let me make this clear. The Republican Senate has done all it can to block the even minimum relief the American people need to survive this pandemic. They are opposed to direct payments on ideological grounds and now that a Democrat will take over the presidency, they will preach austerity and will oppose all on the grounds of the deficit. It is predictable because they do it every time. They blow the national debt when they hold power sky high and then insist on austerity, meaning cutting the safety net as far as they can. Democrats play the game and surrender to many of their demands because we must be clear, many center-right democrats subscribe to the same ideological belief. They are just less open about it, or less radical. After all, a belief that the state role should be limited is not limited to Republicans. Libertarians are part of both parties. It’s been with us from the beginning of the republic in some forms, since John Locke is part of a view of the state that started with the Enlightenment, and so is John Hobbes. This is a conflict about the nature and role of the state and the individual.
What we are experiencing is not the rational Lockean principle, though the pursuit of property and a belief that private property is sacred is part of who we are. But the way people are behaving regarding lockdowns is more the selfish single members of society that need to work on self-interests. This is Hobbesian in the extreme and was made worse with Ayn Rand’s objectivism. This is an attitude where the only thing that matters is the individual and individual action. This is toxic, and it is killing us.
Of course, then there is the president who threatened to veto the government funding bill, which has the COVID relief package attached to it. In the end he signed it, but he got the media attention he wanted. He vetoed the National Defense Authorization Act, which also prevents a wage increase for the troops. The House did override it, and this is expected in the Senate. I know, he claims he is the person who has done the most of the troops while attacking them and not confronting Vladimir Putin’s bounties over their heads. This is on-brand for the president, and the rest of his party is behaving on-brand as well. They may say one thing, but they do exactly the opposite. This is also significant since it reveals a toxic personality. What is puzzling, until you look at his followers carefully, is why they follow? It is a cult.
The problem is that this extremely bad behavior has spread online and more damaging, offline. We have extensive cult-like behavior, claiming that COVID is not real, or that it is a way to impose tyranny over the nation. Masks are seen as an affront, and something is done to get people used to the coming communist state. Let’s be crystal clear, communism and socialism are a big bogeyman for these people, not that they know what those words mean. They are even complaining that our lockdowns are draconian when in reality they are amongst the mildest in the world. We have yet to see regular fines or the prevention of travel from hot spots to the rest of the country. This propaganda started with the John Birch Society that took over from other fringe movements earlier in the 20th century. Socialism has been a boogeyman in American politics since at least the mid 19th century. It is a favorite of the political right, and these days a focus for extremists and conspiracy inclined Americans. These are people who hate any social programs and the safety net. Why we have not seen the kind of support we need for people to survive lockdowns, One reason I suspect ours have been so mild.
The United States is a caste society, even if we do not openly admit it. Socialism, including things like Social Security, the fire department, the police, roads, and the Veterans Administration are socialist programs at their core. So is labor organizing, and the minimum wage.. All of them have been fought by republicans because they allow some economic independence to the least among us. This is also why Mitch McConnell and others in his party, as well as Conservadems, are not too happy with the necessary relief to support the American people during a health emergency. This is why they have not considered doing universal basic income and why they fight even paltry direct payments. Never mind that they will help to support people and the larger economy.
What do you do when the president lies all the time? What happens when national and state leaders refuse to wear masks and encourage people to ignore experts? Nine months ago this could have been a premise for maybe a comedy. These days it is our reality. The president has lied so much about COVID, together with some Governors and other officials, that the American people are confused. Some simply refuse to listen to actual experts. This is part of our anti-intellectual moment, which is hardly unprecedented. It comes from deep distrust, and the growth of QAnon and other conspiracies. To be specific, some of this predates Q, but have subsumed themselves into the conspiracy. This is why you have people from all political stripes that have joined this anti-intellectual cult. This is how granola-eating, mostly liberal well-educated anti-vaxxers are now joined at the hip with racists and fascists.
The president reflects this toxic selfishness that has infected the nation. He is also, embracing conspiracy and even creating some of his own. He is part of an anti-intellectual moment in American history where understanding data and science is essential to save lives. This stems from decades when education has been under attack, as well as expertise, This means the country is now divided between rational people and what has to be described as a cult.
The latter is taking its cues from the cult leader and cult-like refuse to do the few things that will save lives. Why? Because of a cultish, stupid, adherence to a definition of freedom that is individualistic and devoid of civil responsibility. This is a dangerous trait of the modern American psyche. A toxic attitude that posits that we do not need society. This is libertarianism at the heart of it, and it can be somewhat of a good trait in normal times. During disasters (and a pandemic is a long haul one,) this is dangerous.
The cult believes that there is a deep state that prevents the president from doing anything of what he wanted to do. This of course includes the idea that the pandemic is not real. This includes draining the swamp. So they were already predisposed to believe anything Trump said. So when he said, wear a mask, but they are not for me, this set the environment for the current moment of defiance to simple health orders.
Many of his fans are now convinced that masks will kill them and that they don’t work. It does not matter what data is shown to them that is contrary to their beliefs. It is bizarre, but this is why we are where we are, at the edge of the medical system collapse and triage. Yet they still refuse to take responsibility for their actions, even when they call themselves the personal responsibility party.
There is also a conviction that health orders and lockdowns do not work partially Americans do not understand math or long term data. Most Americans are really bad at estimating personal risk. So for example, we have had about ten cases of allergies to the Pfizer vaccine. We have also had over two million people who have received the vaccine. Your risk of getting a reaction is really, really low. Your odds of finding somebody with an active case of COVID is far greater. Here, this is a useful online tool.
This will let you know what your risks are, ranging from a ten-person meeting all the way to 5,000. Let's just say that at this point, it is a near certainty that you will be in contact with somebody who is COVID positive across the nation. And incidentally, one in a thousand Americans has died from the disease already. This is a far higher number than ten reactions in two million. As a society, we need to banish this toxic individuality because this selfishness will kill us. We also need to promote the kind of civil society that promotes sacrifice for the well being of society. This is how societies work in emergencies, such as World War Two. It was all of us together. That sense of sacrifice is absent from a large group of the population and has been replaced by narcissism, on the edge of extreme antisocial behavior.
These people need to be reminded of their selfishness. But at some point, we will need to isolate them, for the well being of society. As the planet warms up, COVID will prove to be a dress rehearsal of the sacrifices to come.