The conservative victimhood complex has made America impossible to govern

It's an obstacle to fighting coronavirus or any other crisis

An elephant dragging America off a cliff.
(Image credit: Illustrated | iStock)

The United States has had the worst national response to the coronavirus pandemic among rich nations largely because President Trump is an incompetent leader whose narcissism means he can focus on little beyond his own approval ratings. From the start of the crisis to today, he has completely failed to take the virus seriously, and refused to do anything meaningful to stop it. It was his job to protect America, and he can't do the job.

But Trump's appalling failure is only the most visible part of a vast ocean of right-wing dysfunction. For conservative zealots and media figures, the pandemic is quickly becoming just another culture war battleground — an axis of postmodern symbolic conflict, another vent for bottomless grievance, and fuel for a screeching victimhood complex. The practical effect will be to fuel infection and hamstring economic recovery. It's a stark obstacle before fixing this or any other crisis.

Let's take mask-wearing. As research about the coronavirus has developed, the effectiveness of masks in slowing the spread of the disease has become clear, above all in confined indoor spaces. Studies have found that being outdoors is relatively low-risk, and most infections happen when people are in proximity to each other indoors for a long time — but also that masks can drastically reduce the possibility of infecting others if you happen to be contagious. Offices, public transportation, stores, restaurants, church services, and especially homes are where most transmission happens. Wearing a mask whenever one is indoors around strangers is a cheap and no-consequence way of protecting one's community — even if it only helps a little, it's a minuscule inconvenience.

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Yet a developing narrative on the right holds that masks are a sign of weakness and cowardice. Trump refuses to wear one even to set an example, reportedly because he thinks it will make him look bad. Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) refuses to wear one even though it is not clear he is permanently immune after recovering from the disease. Vice President Pence refused to wear one even while visiting COVID-19 patients. On Fox News, Laura Ingraham defended Pence from critics, saying "They'll say this whole mask thing is settled science just like they do with climate change. Of course, it's not and they know it," despite having previously endorsed wearing them. (Naturally, after two cases of coronavirus cropped up in the White House last week, all staffers are now required to wear masks when in the building.)

Further down the conservative food chain, anti-mask fulmination has gotten more extreme and much weirder. First Things editor R.R. Reno claimed on Twitter that "Masks=enforced cowardice." A city order in Stillwater, Oklahoma requiring masks in businesses was quickly reversed when conservative lunatics threatened violence against workers trying to enforce the rule. The conservative base is taking the elite cue — in a recent poll, just 47 percent of Republicans report wearing masks in public, against 69 percent of Democrats. At New York, Ed Kilgore reports that in a suburban Georgia grocery store, conservatives glared daggers at him for wearing a mask.

Something similar is holding true with pandemic control measures like business closures. Smallish groups of mask-less protesters have swarmed state capitols across the country, demanding the economy be somehow reopened. When one Dallas salon owner refused to obey business closure rules and was locked up for a week, Texas Governor Greg Abbott quickly reversed his own action. "Throwing Texans in jail who have had their businesses shut down through no fault of their own is nonsensical, and I will not allow it to happen," he said. The salon owner, of course, successfully claimed victimhood and collected over half a million dollars from a crowdfunding campaign (which very well might have been the entire point).

It shouldn't be surprising that the reality of masks and other pandemic control measures is the precise opposite of the conservative agitprop line. Most masks and lockdown orders are primarily a way to protect others, not just yourself — which you would think would be exactly in line with purported conservative values of traditional masculinity. But facts have never stood in the way of the conservative persecution complex. Nothing gets their blood flowing like playing martyr before imaginary liberal tyranny. Casting oneself as Anne Frank for having to wear a two-dollar cloth mask at Walmart during the worst pandemic in a century would be a stretch for most people in the world, but not American movement conservatives.

This instinct is strengthened by how badly Trump has botched the crisis. He is the hero-president, the man before whom all Republicans must bow five times per day. His gargantuan, world-historical failure cannot be admitted, but neither can it be avoided. Therefore scapegoats and distractions must be found to relieve the cognitive dissonance. The virus is fake, or it only kills worthless old people, or it's a Chinese conspiracy. Measures to fight it are howling liberal tyranny, even if it's Republican governors enacting them.

Conservative media probably just can't help itself. The entire "perpetual misinformation machine," as Alex Pareene calls it, runs on whipping elderly white conservatives into a frothing rage over whatever is happening. Plus today, the president and half of the Republican congressional caucus are themselves eager right-wing propaganda addicts, forming a perfectly-sealed loop of insanity. It was likely inevitable that the pandemic would get sucked into the hysteria industrial complex, because that's what right-wing media does with everything.

Already this has created an ideal coronavirus transmission pool — a critical mass of right-wing extremists who are unwilling to obey government pandemic control measures and are convinced personal measures to do so are beta male cowardice. Many will become sick as a result, and some will die — but not only conservatives, as the virus will infect any available host. This will keep the pandemic raging, and hence further delay the restoration of the economy.

A different president who wasn't an addle-brained dolt would certainly have done something to fight the pandemic. But he or she still would have run directly into the conservative lunacy problem. It's hard to see how America can be governed when much of the country has taken leave of its senses.

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