During last week’s budget negotiations, and as America prepared for the full-scale arrival of the omicron coronavirus variant, every present Senate Republican voted to “defund” the federal vaccine mandate on businesses, the military and the federal workforce. This indicated a political party now so intimidated by its liberty caucus that senators such as Mitt Romney of Utah and Susan Collins of Maine felt compelled to bend the knee. It was a collective declaration of utter madness.
This is the strangest political cause of my lifetime. In the midst of a public health emergency that has taken more than 1 of every 500 American lives and which has reduced average life expectancy by 1.67 years (reversing about 14 years of life expectancy gains), Republican officials are actively discouraging citizens from taking routine medical precautions for their own welfare. This is not just a disagreement about policy. It is a political movement organized around increasing the risk of death to your neighbors, particularly your ill and elderly ones. And while it is certainly selfish, is not ultimately self-interested. Fatalities have increased especially in Republican-leaning portions of the country. A death cult has adopted a death wish.
For the “don’t tread on me” crowd, this is part of a consistent ethic of death. By some recent measures, almost a third of Republicans say political violence may be necessary to “save” the country. Most of these advocates have spent many years being desensitized to bloodshed; they have been told that a portion of their fellow citizens are the embodiment of evil and bent on their destruction. A philosophy of freedom has been transformed into a means of dehumanization.
This sets up a serious conflict at the heart of Republican ideology — at least for those who still put stock in political consistency. The other visible wing of Trumpism is made up of antiabortion evangelicals, whose support explains much of Donald Trump’s political rise and endurance. But whatever view you take of the antiabortion movement, it is essentially communitarian, not libertarian. There is no rational way to advocate this viewpoint that does not involve the community of the born defending the interests of a voiceless, helpless group of nascent humans.
In fact, this communitarian case is one of the main ways the antiabortion movement remained viable during the decades it was encouraging the selection of conservative judges who find Roe v. Wade an abomination of judicial overreach (which it is). Influenced by Catholic social teaching — and asserting historical continuity with the civil rights movement — many Republican leaders adopted a tone of inclusion in their discourse on abortion. They talked of a “culture of life” in which the unborn were protected by law and by love. They urged a more expansive definition of the human community.
The core of the Trump movement has always been more interested in political conspiracies, White identity politics, persecution fantasies and disdain for elites. Remember that Trump himself was initially supportive of “partial-birth” abortion. As a presidential candidate, however, Trump issued one of U.S. history’s most effective political bribes: He set out a list of conservative judicial nominees for the Supreme Court, promised to pick from among them and then kept his word.
Now, with a conservative legal challenge to Roe nearing fruition, antiabortion advocates are understandably pleased about their political alliance with the anti-government populists. Yet even after the effective overturn of Roe, years of political battles await at both the state and federal levels. And it is hard to see how a GOP increasingly dedicated to needless death can carry an antiabortion message. The effective end of Roe would be an ideal point for responsible pro-lifers to assert their position on abortion as part of a broader culture of life, including the unborn and their mothers, the old and ill, people with intellectual disabilities and refugees fleeing oppression. Instead, in the Trump era, the state of Texas is taking the messaging lead on the topic, ensuring that the antiabortion movement seems as radical, punitive and vicious as possible.
How can the anti-vaccine ideals of “my body, my choice” Republicanism — which refuses even the easiest and safest sacrifices to protect the life of a neighbor — coexist with a “culture of life”? One is a reckless purveyor of needless death. The other, at its best, is a movement of human rights. It is clear enough which is ascendant. The GOP has become the party of death.