On March 29, President Donald Trump extended his administration’s federal social-distancing guidelines until the end of April.
In doing so, Trump urged the American people to continue adhering to practices designed to slow the spread of the deadly COVID-19 pandemic: staying home as much as possible, avoiding non-essential travel and refraining from gathering in groups of more than 10 people.
“Nothing would be worse than declaring victory before the victory is won,” Trump declared. “That would be the greatest loss of all.”
Last Friday, however, as the United States was in the middle of a horrific stretch in which coronavirus casualties doubled from roughly 20,000 to around 40,000 in a span of eight days, Trump was ready to throw out his own guidelines.
In response to growing protest movements against various statewide stay-at-home policies, Trump basically declared his allegiance to those rebelling against his own administration’s guidelines.
“LIBERATE VIRGINIA, and save your great 2nd Amendment. It is under siege,” Trump tweeted. “LIBERATE MICHIGAN! LIBERATE MINNESOTA!”
In any other presidency, this would be regarded as a bizarre contradiction, but for Trump it’s a common device: critique the policies of your own administration as though you’re a private citizen with no say in the matter.
That allows you to take credit for the benefits of the policies (in this case, flattening the curve of virus infection), while distancing yourself from the unpopular aspects of those policies (businesses shutting down, workers losing jobs and people quarantining themselves at home). It enables you to play the populist outsider while, as president, you’re the ultimate insider.
From the beginning of this pandemic response, social distancing was a fragile compact. It required all of us to accept the concept of making individual sacrifices to benefit the common good.
It’s both to our country’s credit and to its detriment that this kind of all-in-it-together ethos doesn’t come naturally to us. We’ve always been about celebrating the freedom of the individual, rather than elevating the needs of the collective.
The one big exception is wartime, and, truthfully, we should think of the fight against COVID-19 as wartime. But many of us don’t and that’s why our social-distancing compact is unraveling.
In recent days, we’ve seen demonstrations in Michigan, Pennsylvania, Arizona and Texas, among other states, and the hostility has been palpable.
In Austin, protesters made Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, the scapegoat for their grievances, despite the fact that Fauci has no real power to make policy and no agenda other than keeping the coronavirus death count as low as possible.
“Fire Fauci! Fire Fauci!” they chanted. They reserved their love and applause for Alex Jones, the Austin demagogue best known for peddling the theory that the 2012 Sandy Hook school shooting was a hoax.
In Arizona, protesters taunted Republican Gov. Doug Ducey for implementing a stay-at-home directive that aligned with Trump’s federal guidelines, even while many of them carried pro-Trump signs. Some demonstrators referred to the Arizona governor as “Douchebag Ducey” and one man snarled that Ducey needed to “change his diaper” before he’d be willing to face the crowd.
That jab gets to the heart of these protests: the sense that stay-at-home advocates are gutless wimps willing to let a virus boss us around.
There also has been some suggestion that politicians love this kind of opportunity to control us. Does anyone really think San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg came to office hoping for a pandemic so he could force us all to wear masks?
It doesn’t take much to see that this protest coalition is the latest iteration of the tea-party movement that emerged in 2009 only four weeks after Barack Obama took the oath of office as president.
This movement, like that one, is driven by a distrust/hatred of all the old trusted institutions: career public servants, the press, the scientific community and subject-matter expertise.
Protesters have a right to be agitated. Right now, the lucky ones in this country are those who are merely frustrated and bored. For millions of others, social distancing has brought unimaginable economic devastation.
And the demonstrators are right when they point out that peaceful protest is a fundamental right in this country. But not when gathering in a large group means defying emergency public-health mandates and undermining all the work that’s been done to halt the spread of this virus.
We all want to see our communities open up again. But politics has to follow the science — and not the other way around.
Gilbert Garcia is a columnist covering the San Antonio and Bexar County area. To read more from Gilbert, become a subscriber. firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter: @gilgamesh470