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The ‘Let the Elderly Die’ Chorus

Some conservatives—including supposed ‘pro-lifers’—say we should quit social distancing. Is it the economy they want to help? Or the president?
by Jim Swift
March 26, 2020
The ‘Let the Elderly Die’ Chorus
(Hannah Yoest / Shutterstock)

A crisis can reveal hidden aspects of people’s character, bringing to light decisiveness, patience, calm, and grit—or their opposites. The things people actually believe, the commitments they hold most dear, the things they really care about, can be exposed.

And what the coronavirus crisis has revealed about many Republicans and conservative commentators—and what they care about most—has not been pretty.

Let’s set aside for now the reflexive Republican defenses of President Trump’s handling of the crisis—sadly, a Trump-can-do-no-wrong attitude is just baked into the price of participating in Republican politics nowadays—and focus instead on the fight that arose over the last week about whether stay-at-home, social-distancing practices should be stopped sooner than medical experts recommend. This is an urgent policy matter that touches on some profound moral questions.

It wasn’t that long ago that Republicans used to mock Democrats for routinely saying that, when it came to government inaction, “people will die.” Reason’s libertarian video star Remy Munasifi once released a hilarious video about Elizabeth Warren making such an argument. And that’s a fair point: Government can’t solve every problem or save every life. Conservatives generally believe in individual responsibility, so if people don’t take their health seriously or if they make risky financial decisions, they shouldn’t always expect government to step in to save them.

In the case of the coronavirus pandemic, however, some Republicans and conservative commentators have begun to make an argument more radical than “people will die.”

It’s this: People should die.

Here’s the lieutenant governor of Texas, Dan Patrick, Monday night on Fox News:

Patrick apparently sees a dilemma—two options and no other choices: Either we try to save people now, including the elderly, and risk immense damage to the economy, or we get back to work immediately and get the economy moving again by letting the elderly die, perhaps even encouraging them to welcome death for the greater good.

I know it’s been 32,272 media cycles since we on the right were outraged about the ad showing a fictional Paul Ryan pushing a grandma over a cliff, but we shouldn’t forget it. Because if President Trump defies the health experts in his administration and exacerbates the coronavirus pandemic by advising people to go back to work in an attempt to goose the economy? That ad will look like child’s play.

Especially troubling is that some of the people who are making the case that we should intentionally concede lives to the coronavirus—especially the lives of the elderly, the disabled, the vulnerable, the infirm—are prominent figures in the pro-life movement. Even floating as a trial balloon the idea of giving up on the elderly will do damage to the credibility of the pro-life cause. Is that what pro-life leaders and pundits want?

To put it another way, COVID-19 has served as a helpful barometer of who is capable of logical thought and who has allowed their brains to be broken by President Trump. Because a number of people who have built their careers on being pro-life have abandoned that, converting to prosperity gospel by way of Bishop Trump.

Consider the argument posed by Rusty Reno in the pages of the magazine he edits, the largely conservative Catholic First Things. Reno criticizes New York governor Andrew Cuomo for saying “I did everything we could do. And if everything we do saves just one life, I’ll be happy.” To Reno, Cuomo’s statement represents a “disastrous sentimentalism” because “there are many things more precious than life.”

Yes, there are causes worth laying down one’s life for. But to think of today’s social-isolation practices in those terms is a bizarre and extreme misjudgment. In his topsy-turvy interpretation, Reno believes the temporary stay-at-home measures that New York has put in place to protect lives are actually allowing a fear of death to displace other things we should care about. Claiming that the news media and public-health officials are “conspir[ing] to heighten the atmosphere of crisis,” Reno says that Satan would approve and that “the mass shutdown of society to fight the spread of COVID-19 creates a perverse, even demonic atmosphere.”

Asking people to stay at home during a time of crisis is demonic?

This is the same First Things that was once one of the leading magazines for pro-life intellectual writing?

The same First Things whose writers railed against the “death panels” in Obamacare?

The same First Things that not long ago pushed a manifesto whose signatories said, “We stand with the American citizen. We reject attempts to compromise on human dignity.”

What happened?

Responding to Reno’s article, Erick Erickson writes:

It is sad to see a religious publication try to cast the extraordinary effort of stopping a global pandemic [as] “demonic.” But that is what it does. It cheapens the effort to save lives as sentimental and essentially advances a materialistic approach of wanting to make money and let people die because people are always going to die. Now, of course, the writer knows he is doing this so he chooses to denounce materialism while essentially advocating for it.

And in the liberal Catholic magazine Commonweal, Jared Lucky powerfully rebuts Reno’s argument, pointing out that “today’s quarantine restrictions complement centuries of Christian response to epidemics.” His whole article—especially his devastating rejection of Reno’s invocation of Solzhenitsyn—is worth reading, but here’s just a taste from the conclusion:

Few Christians would ask for this cup, but we must drink it—to serve God by serving our neighbors, and to grow closer to God through the contemplation of death. . . . Quarantine is . . . a costly act of service that meets the urgent human needs of our neighbors. That service may involve going to work—at a hospital or a testing center—or staying home. But make no mistake: these sacrifices are not a surrender to death. They are a sacrifice to the God who gives life.

While some of the criticism of social distancing from Republicans and conservative commentators surely is motivated by real fears about the economy, you need not be a cynic to wonder whether it is mostly driven by a desire to protect the president.

Certainly the medical and economic stakes are, in Trump’s own mind, jumbled together with the political calculus for his re-election, as he made clear in a typically paranoid, anti-media tweet on Wednesday:

The economy has been a solid talking point for Trump for months. Take it away, and, well, he likely won’t be the president after January 20, 2021. It’s basic politics meets basic economics: If the unemployment rate goes up even slightly between now and Election Day, he’s in big trouble. And it’s about to go up—way up, through the roof, to levels unseen in recent history. So Trump’s usual defenders are increasingly coming out in favor of getting people out of their homes and back on the job.

Here’s Mollie Hemingway making the case that a reporter from Politico is an activist. The reporter is suggesting—wait for it—that experts have a model that says people should stay at home during COVID-19. Shocker. (The irony is that Ms. Hemingway, formerly a media critic, is, herself, an activist.)

And here’s failed congressional candidate and Jesse Kelly, a host on The First which appears on the Pluto TV platform:

Yes, ignore your government, sheeple. People like Kelly would “happily die” to forestall economic decline. Good to know.

And here’s Glenn Beck, saying people age 50 and older should go back to work:

And here’s conservative commentator Buck Sexton, in a since-deleted tweet:

You can understand why Mr. Sexton, whose radio-show audience probably skews old, deleted the tweet.

Before you start thinking that President Trump and his defenders are just getting antsy, the president already has a date in mind for when we’ll all get back to work: Easter Sunday. As one Twitter user acidly put it:

Thankfully, not everyone in the Republican leadership and conservative punditry has adopted the view that we should sacrifice the vulnerable by prematurely ending social distancing and getting back to work. Here, for example, is Wyoming representative Liz Cheney:

And you know what? Brian Kilmeade from Fox & Friends actually spoke up, too:

Good for them.

We can only hope that President Trump hears the reasonable voices and doesn’t try to help his re-election prospects by ignoring the advice of health experts—and that the anti-social-distancing chorus goes unheeded by the president and the public alike.


Jim Swift

Jim Swift is a senior editor at The Bulwark.