Brian Kemp is probably going to get a lot of Georgians killed. He can accept this because he thinks he doesn’t answer to them. He’s right.
Georgia’s governor announced on Monday his plan to “reopen” the state for business. It entails letting certain establishments — barbershops, nail salons, gyms, tattoo parlors — start operating again on Friday, with plans to add theaters and dine-in restaurants on April 27. The public-health costs of this decision won’t be evident for another couple of weeks, but here’s what we know: More than 700 people in Georgia have already died from COVID-19 and almost 20,000 have tested positive for the novel coronavirus. For weeks, a model from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation projected that Georgia wouldn’t see the worst of the pandemic — its highest death rate, health-care facilities at their most overwhelmed — until the end of April, and possibly early May; the Institute revised this projection last week to say the peak might’ve passed already, on April 7. Some researchers remain skeptical of the revision, and have warned that — worse than being too rosy — it’s being read as a tacit license for Georgians to drop their guard when widespread testing remains a fantasy and the infected are still walking the streets and dying in hospitals every day.
Also bad: There’s no reason to believe that Kemp is up to the challenge of protecting his constituents from the potential outbreak he’s inviting. He spent weeks resisting a shutdown of the state to prevent the spread of infection, only to claim, once he finally issued a stay-at-home order on April 1, that he hadn’t known asymptomatic carriers of the virus were contagious. Reports of asymptomatic transmission date back to at least January; they were, it’s fair to say, common knowledge among people who were keeping tabs on the pandemic, as an American governor might reasonably be expected to do, for several weeks before Kemp says he was alerted. One might be curious as to how Georgia wound up with a governor so incompetent and unworried by possible fallout. One answer: He spent eight years doing all he could to keep people who don’t like him from being able to vote, and once they didn’t or couldn’t vote for him, and he won election, his power became only marginally contingent on whether bad things happened to them.
The point of voter suppression is to insulate those who deploy it from democratic will. In Kemp’s case, it was probably redundant: Georgia has been solidly red for years, and its demographics play to his advantage — he’s a white Republican in a state where most people are white, and most white people are Republicans. But for as many years, the GOP has shored up its dominance in the South and Midwest by winnowing electorates so that people who probably aren’t going to vote for them have a harder time voting. The methods they use prey on racial vulnerabilities: Black people, who vote for Democrats upward of 90 percent of the time, are more likely to be poor, have transient or inconsistent housing situations, work low-wage jobs with limited scheduling flexibility, and live in neighborhoods marked by infrastructural neglect and unreliable public transportation. GOP suppression laws have been devised accordingly: voter ID requirements, voter roll purges, polling-site closures or relocations, and cuts to early voting have conspired to make voting the province of those with stable housing, flexible schedules, and easy access to transportation. As Georgia’s secretary of State from 2010 to 2018, including when he ran for governor, in an election that he oversaw, Kemp used these tactics and others to an extent that was nationally aberrant — the most comprehensive array of voter-suppression measures in the U.S., as a 2019 American Public Media investigation characterized it.
Efforts to stifle voter turnout, especially of nonwhite people, to benefit Republicans aren’t a matter of conjecture — they’re a stated principle, articulated by proponents ranging from President Trump and the late GOP strategist Thomas B. Hofeller, whose work guided Trump’s push to add a citizenship question to the 2020 Census, to Georgia’s own House Speaker David Ralston. Kemp has outwardly relished their evasive cunning: Emails from 2017 between the then-gubernatorial candidate and top staffers document him mocking the media’s attempts to alert the public to his schemes. It’s his glee that’s most illustrative. It indicates how far beyond the reach of accountability Kemp and his surrogates believed themselves to be, and with good reason — their ability to ensure, to a large extent, that Georgians probably wouldn’t be able to vote in large enough numbers to defeat him meant that, effectively, they were.
The genesis of these practices alone is enough to provoke Jim Crow comparisons. Most of them emerged in response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2013 Shelby County v. Holder decision, which gutted the Voting Rights Act of 1965 — the very legislation that stripped legal legitimacy from Jim Crow’s most flagrant abuses of the franchise. But a more foundational principle is just as edifying, especially in the context of the pandemic. Jim Crow laws were always aimed at disempowering black Southerners so that white Southerners could run riot on their ability to self-preserve, and face no consequences for doing so. To the best of Kemp’s capabilities — which are vast, and largely unchecked — he has the system engineered so that he doesn’t answer, in any meaningful way, to the minority of Georgians who cast their ballots against him in 2018. He can gamble accordingly. Already, there are signs that pressure urging local economies to reopen, in the absence of any rigorous notion that coronavirus outbreaks won’t keep flaring up when they do, is a new expression of old urban/non-urban divides; in particular, the sense that the pandemic is, lopsidedly, a problem in large cities (blacker and friendlier Democratic territory, in Georgia as elsewhere) that’s driving unwarranted economic ruin in whiter suburbs and rural areas that are more favorable to Republicans, as my colleague Ed Kilgore notes.
An accounting is in order. The infected dead in Georgia are disproportionately black — 52 percent, where they make up 33 percent of the population. White, non-urban Georgians are getting sick and dying too, but their median political persuasion and more proportional infection rates suggest they’ll see anti-pandemic measures as part of a partisan culture war, where supporting President Trump means flouting precautions; that they’ll retain their conservative fervor, even as the bodies of their statesmen pile up around them, becomes a worthwhile bet. One might be tempted to grasp at longstanding presumptions about the solemnity of higher office, the weight of responsibility it’s said to inspire in its occupants, to argue that the governor couldn’t be so callous, even toward people who won’t help him retain power. That would be wrong. This is a man whose campaign ads had him pointing a rifle at his daughter’s boyfriend and showcasing the truck he uses to “round up illegals,” like some deranged Minuteman. Kemp has been, from the outset of his 2018 gubernatorial run, a pupil in the school of Trump, acolyte to a politics that valorizes glib contempt for decorum and regulations alike — and that, most notably, casts people who challenge its primacy as illegitimate. The mask wasn’t off early; there was no mask to begin with. His unifying theory of election integrity has long meant the control of elections by him. When people highlight this, Kemp claims they’re in favor of voter fraud, a phenomenon that almost never occurs. When Georgia’s glitchy digital voting machines, which he championed, were exposed as vulnerable to cyberattacks, he embraced a conspiracy theory to keep change at bay, rejecting federal offers to shore up the system by claiming it was a big government plot to wrest control away from him.
Kemp was elected governor after these tendencies were known. He went on to sign one of the country’s most restrictive abortion bills, in a state with the country’s second-highest maternal mortality rate, and is now on the verge of transforming Georgia — especially black, urban Georgia — into a test lab for whether “reopening” is a recipe for mass death. Even absent certainty that cataclysm will occur, Kemp’s calculus is simplified by the fact that he doesn’t answer to those who’d suffer the most. That was always the point. Whatever happens to them, odds are that he’ll be fine.