Support The Bulwark and subscribe today.
  Join Now

Remember Who The Enemy Is

April 22, 2020
Remember Who The Enemy Is
Alec Overmann, a supporter of the stay-at-home order, demonstrates at a protest against the order at the Country Club Plaza on April 20, 2020 in Kansas City, Missouri. The protest was part of a growing national movement against stay-at-home orders designed to slow the spread of the coronavirus. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

Everyone knows that a drama is often most compelling when it has an identifiable villain. But in real life, it’s not always easy to know who the bad guy is. Modern-day struggles often involve an evil that is invisible—carbon dioxide, pathogens, existential dread, etc.

This is the conundrum for the politically-minded in America right nowthe COVID-19 virus doesn’t have a face. It doesn’t laugh maniacally. It doesn’t tie you up, deliver an extended soliloquy about what its plans are, then leave you hanging over a pool of sharks while you wriggle to freedom. And there are consequences for using metaphors for medical circumstances. 

Unable to vilify a microscopic organism, society’s aspiring dramatists have turned against other humans as the cause of their woes. 

The bad guys in MAGA-world are now America’s governors, all of whom in some fashion have shut down schools, businesses, and socializing in the wake of what has now become America’s leading cause of death—in little over a month.

Viruses don’t have motives, so right-wingers have been happy to ascribe them to both Republican and Democratic governors. According to these self-appointed true patriots, governors are delighting in flexing their authoritarian muscles, robbing freedom-lovers of their constitutional rights. Had James Madison only known the joys of Outback Steakhouse, they argue, the nation’s founding document would have protected an individual’s right not to have to get a Bloomin’ Onion via takeout.

Under this theory, governors across America are huddled with their staffs, calculating that the best way for them to achieve re-election is to shut down economic activity in their state, costing thousands of people jobs, and leaving schoolchildren uneducated. Naturally, this makes for a suboptimal yard sign come November.

“Aha!” Team Red Hat yells through their unmasked mouths in between coughs. “They are purposely trying to destroy the economy that President Donald Trump built in order to make him look bad during the election!” This is not an exaggeration: 

This theory, however, would be news to Republican governors like Maryland’s Larry Hogan and Ohio’s Mike DeWine, both of whom took swift action to close their states down when the true threat of the coronavirus was known. Again, Republican and Democratic governors alike have taken strict actions to mandate social distancing; even the GOP-led states like Arkansas and South Dakota, while not issuing strict stay-at-home orders, have closed schools and requested businesses institute social distancing measures.

Partisan motives aside, it is insane to believe governors are exercising this authority because of a political agenda or that they “don’t care” that their small businesses are suffering. Governors are keeping a close eye on their states’ jobless claims—but they are paying more acute attention to their states’ health statistics.

Governors care very much about their bars, restaurants, and salons—but they also care very much about their constituents dying. Hopefully, we will soon see states enact more aid programs to help stem the tragic loss of jobs we have seen—but a job can return. A human being, with one notable exception, cannot.

Sure, there are some governors who appear to be melting under the COVID-19 heat lamps. Michigan’s Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has been issuing orders that reach way too far and make little sense, leaving the people of her state confused and angry.

The real tragedy of the overreaches by Whitmer and others is that they give the “open America now” crowd a straw to grasp. Now people in Ohio and Minnesota and Wisconsin are acting like their governors are one step away from instituting martial law. 

Over the weekend, thousands of Americans gathered in public to protest the actions taken by their individual states. The same erstwhile Tea Partiers who once advocated for more local control rallied against federalism when Donald Trump is at the controls of the national government.

For more than a month, well-meaning Americans have voluntarily sacrificed and stayed indoors—but aspiring hot spot-based protesters are now trying to make sure all that effort is for naught. Protesting measures to prevent sickness by doing the thing most likely to get you sick is like protesting gun control by letting people shoot at you.

It’s almost as if America is playing into the comic book trope where every superhero trying to save lives is vilified as a bad guy. 

Just imagine if there were a governor who just reopened his or her state’s elementary schools, college campuses, and restaurants by snapping their fingers, letting “herd immunity” run wild. They would over-night be the new darling of the MAGA Right—guaranteed to be named America’s Awesomest Governor, holding concerts and baseball games and doorknob-licking contests.

But there’s a reason nobody from the reddest to the bluest state has done it. 

“Herd immunity,” of course, has traditionally been known as “vaccination.” But in the absence of a vaccine, it is best known as “let’s let everyone get sick, and even though millions of people might die unnecessarily and our medical systems will be overwhelmed, at least we’ll get it over with sooner.”

And if you’re looking for a governor’s true motivation, it is to prevent exactly this from happening. Purposely killing grandmothers has traditionally been an unsuccessful election platform.

As John Barth wrote, “Everyone is necessarily the hero of their own story.” And in order to be heroes, the “I need a haircut” crowd has made enemies of politicians that deserve a lot more credence.

The “hidden ulterior motive” for these executives is to keep Americans alive. Every governor in America is aware that these orders to stay home are going to anger their residents and ultimately might cost them their jobs.

But they will ultimately keep more people alive. Remember, body bags don’t vote.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly spelled martial law.

Christian Schneider

Christian Schneider is a member of the USA Today board of contributors and author of 1916: The Blog. Twitter: @Schneider_CM.