The reaction of some on the right has been predictably absurd: This was their plan all along.
It’s more than just the tendency of political hacks to say that everything bad that happens is the other side’s fault. In fact, it gets to the heart of what has made politics in America so toxic.
One reasonable response to the CDC’s changed guidance would be to say that further mask-wearing in high-transmission areas would be of only limited utility and might cause more social conflict than it’s worth (especially since many of those high-transmission areas are precisely where resistance to public health measures has become a badge of conservative identity). I don’t necessarily agree, but that’s not a crazy position to take, and we could debate it.
But that’s not the go-to argument from Republicans. This is:
This is becoming a common claim: that President Biden doesn’t actually want the pandemic to end. As Tucker Carlson says, “the administration has decided to use the virus to cement its political control of the country.” It’s all part of liberals’ plan: fool us into thinking that we’re in danger, then use the phony threat as an excuse to drag us into a nightmare of statist oppression.
But perhaps conservatives can try to wrap their minds around this: What if Biden actually wants a country pandemic-free and economically thriving? Even if you want to impute to him only the most cynical motives, isn’t that what would give him the greatest political benefit?
Yet Republicans twist themselves in knots of illogic to argue that what Biden actually wants is for America to be mired in misery and discontent.
We hear some version of it whenever there’s a Democratic president: There’s always a covert plan to bring America to its knees. Barack Obama, many Republicans believed, was not just a secret Muslim, hiding the fact that he was literally not an American — but all his deception was in the service of a plan to destroy the country.
In reality, Obama turned out to be a mainstream Democrat who appointed other mainstream Democrats to positions in his administration and pursued a variety of center-left policies. Republicans were never going to like those policies, of course — they prefer limits on abortion rights, a lighter regulatory touch on the environment, less government-run health insurance, and so on — but after eight years it was clear Obama had no hidden agenda. Rather than trying to leave the United States a smoldering pile of rubble, he did what he thought would make the country better.
Yet despite that obvious fact, even in 2016 Republicans were still insisting that Obama was actively seeking America’s destruction. You may recall the primary debate in February of that year in which Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) kept repeating, “Let’s dispel [sic] once and for all with this fiction that Barack Obama doesn’t know what he’s doing. He knows exactly what he’s doing.” Like most of what Rubio said in that campaign, it was naked pandering disguised as brave truth-telling; his point was that what Republicans saw as the destruction Obama had wrought was actually his plan all along. If by their lights he had failed, it was only because he was trying to fail so America would be crushed.
That’s not to say Democrats aren’t prone to their own rhetoric of catastrophe, saying that if the other side wins then all will be lost. They are; just as then-President Donald Trump said over and over that if Democrats won, “We won’t have a country” anymore, many Democrats believed that a second Trump victory would mean the end of U.S. democracy.
Nor does it mean that the parties don’t have profoundly different visions of what success is: what constitutes a just society, what prosperity entails, which problems demand addressing and which are less important. When the side you oppose is in charge, the policies that come out of government are almost inevitably a parade of horrors that makes you fear for all you hold dear.
But no president, not even one as divisive and corrupt as Donald Trump, comes into office saying to themselves, “My plan is to make everyone miserable and destroy America.” They may all have their secrets, but their basic goals are right there for everyone to see.
Even the most committed conservative ought to be able to grant that however much you disagree with the particular policy choices this administration makes as it tries to handle the pandemic, we all want it to be over. Why should that be so hard to admit?