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GOP Elites Thought They Could Buy Their Way Out of a Pandemic

The best and the brightest. Photo: Doug Mills/DOUG MILLS/The New York Times/Re

These people aren’t stupid. Not all of them, anyway. The white men in dark jackets and well-coiffed ladies in prim dresses you’ve seen hugging in the White House Rose Garden — or hobnobbing maskless inside the Diplomatic Room — are the American right’s best and brightest. Amy Coney Barrett graduated magna cum laude from Rhodes College. Josh Hawley is a product of Stanford and Yale Law. Few gatherings in the United States this year will boast more prestigious collective credentials than those of the Barrett nomination party. And none will be composed of people who are in a better position to know the very latest information about the novel coronavirus (multiple attendees had high-level security clearances and thus, full access to one of the greatest information-gathering apparatuses in human history). These folks are not ignorant of the germ theory of disease.

And they had no excuse to be ignorant of the fact that the very best rapid COVID-19 tests have an error rate of roughly 10 percent.

And yet: They exposed themselves, their families, and their movement’s standard-bearer to a life-threatening pandemic disease by treating their negative instant tests as absolute proof of their collective immunity.

It is too early to know with certainty that the Barrett nomination party was a superspreader event. But we do know that at least eight of the event’s attendees have now tested positive for COVID-19. And we also know that the White House might as well have hired the novel coronavirus as its party planner, the proceedings were so well-tailored to the bug’s spread (a throng of people speaking indoors, in close proximity, without masks, for an extended period of time). So it seems safe to assume that the event played some role in the cluster of infection that has put Donald Trump and Chris Christie in the hospital, much of Mitch McConnell’s caucus in quarantine, and the broader population of Washington, D.C., at an increased risk of serious illness.

The White House told The Wall Street Journal Sunday that its officials and guests do not generally wear masks or practice social distancing “because they are tested daily.” This appears to confirm that all those serial huggers in the Rose Garden on September 26 did indeed believe their privileged access to rapid tests would exempt them from the hard facts of pandemic life.

All of which invites the question: Why didn’t they know better?

As we’ve already established, these people almost all underwent years of training in the art of critical thinking. Most presumably love their family members. Many were gray-haired, portly, and (by all appearances) devoid of a death wish. So why did they all convince themselves that rapid tests provided a degree of security that they do not? Why, when that information was available to anyone who bothered to read a single article about the technology?

I can’t look inside Mike Lee’s mind and wouldn’t have the stomach to peer into Bill Barr’s even if I could. But I have a theory (one that I first saw articulated by the policy researcher Will Stancil): Elite Republicans have trouble accepting that they cannot purchase a reprieve from this pandemic — in part because a foundational premise of the elite Republican worldview is that the wealthy can always buy immunity from whatever befalls the herd.

This notion isn’t necessarily conscious. Foundational ideas rarely are (it’s probably been a while since you subjected the premise, “the grass is green” to conscious scrutiny). But the conservative movement’s theory of government is not compatible with the concept of human interdependence. Although the movement is eager to circumscribe sexual freedom in the name of the collective good, it demands that (moneyed) individuals enjoy a nigh-absolute degree of liberty in the economic realm. And justifying that laissez-faire philosophy requires ignoring the myriad ways that individual assertions of economic liberty can impinge on the freedom of collectives. For example, it is hard to deride restrictions on the freedom of coal plants to spew sulfur dioxide unless one ignores that such plants share a sky with the communities in their vicinity. Otherwise, one would need to explain why a coal magnate’s right to maximize profits takes precedence over the right of children in Thompsons, Texas, to breathe air that won’t shave years off their life expectancy.

For rank-and-file conservatives, this learned blindness to interdependence is often costly. Their hostility to social insurance has helped to birth a health-care crisis in the U.S., with rentier interests pushing prices ever-higher while millions go without coverage. Many middle-class conservatives will eventually discover that their exemption from this crisis was provisional; that their employment prospects can wither overnight; and that no amount of hard work or individual responsibility will guarantee them a job or the ability to secure chemotherapy without going bankrupt. Similarly, conservatives’ refusal to grapple with the socioeconomic context of drug crime in Black urban communities — and their attendant enthusiasm for combating that problem with incarceration — eventually got many a white, rural conservative’s child locked up for seeking a chemical answer to problems wrought by capital’s abandonment of their communities.

Elite Republicans, by contrast, are typically correct to believe that they are insulated from the collective costs of plutocratic capitalism. Mitch McConnell will not die for want of health insurance. Rush Limbaugh’s drug arrest cost him $30,000 but zero years in prison. Most of these well-heeled senior citizens will succeed in keeping the consequences of climate change quarantined inside their television screens until they pass from this mortal coil.

But even the rich can’t buy themselves entry to an America where COVID-19 does not exist. On the White House lawn, Donald Trump and Co. were safe from the particulates they’d fought to keep in the air above East Texas and the neurotoxins they sought to keep in the lungs of farmworkers. They were safe from the police violence they’d worked to abet and the hunger they’d declined to alleviate; safe from the gangs they’d delivered Central American migrants back to, and the shrill cries of the families they’d helped separate. They were at no risk of having to explain themselves to any of the people whose deprivation their “liberty” demanded.

But no bouncer could stop COVID-19 at the gate. The pandemic that the conservative movement had exacerbated by privileging low taxes over universal health care, austerity over comprehensive income support for nonessential workers and businesses, rapid reopening over crushing the curve, bureaucratic loyalty over expertise, the S&P 500 over honest messaging about public health, “owning the libs” over promoting masks — in a word, their movement’s antisocial conception of freedom above all else — could not be cast aside for the price of 200 rapid COVID-19 tests.

Nevertheless, most of the Barrett party’s attendees escaped unscathed. And those who were sickened will receive some of the best medical care money can buy. Republican elites may not actually be immune to the crises of the Anthropocene. And their grandchildren’s welfare may depend on the implementation of policies that account for humanity’s interdependence on a planet where contagious diseases respect no borders — and one nation’s industrial policy is another climatic menace. But, by all appearances, the GOP’s existing leadership is prepared to sacrifice scores of Herman Cains on the altar of its orthodoxy. The party’s ideological delusions are endemic, and America won’t be safe from them until the conservative movement is quarantined outside the halls of power.

GOP Elites Thought They Could Buy Exemption From a Pandemic