Politics

Why the Party of 9/11 Couldn’t Handle COVID-19

Republicans don’t know how to deal with this new kind of enemy.

Left: Bush speaking through a megaphone, surrounded by WTC wreckage and emergency responders. Right: Trump pumping his fist, with a crowd in the background.
Left, President George W. Bush speaks at the World Trade Center site on Sept. 14, 2001. Right, President Donald Trump during a campaign rally on Oct. 17 in Michigan. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Paul J. Richards/AFP via Getty Images and Rey Del Rio/Getty Images.

Republicans are peddling a story about the two decades between Sept. 11, 2001, and last month’s withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan. The story is that terrorists struck the United States on 9/11, that a Republican president boldly struck back, and that 20 years later, a Democratic president surrendered to the Taliban. It’s a heavily doctored, self-serving account, designed to make Democrats look weak and Republicans look strong. But the real story of those 20 years is how the Republican Party changed. It used to stand for national security. Now it disregards and sabotages public safety, at the expense of hundreds of thousands of lives.

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When al-Qaida struck America on 9/11, Republicans completely reoriented our government to confront terrorism. The attack had been conceived abroad, but it had been seeded and executed in the United States. So Republicans instituted new measures to track and halt the spread of terrorism at home. They upgraded domestic surveillance and tightened screening at airports and other public places. President George W. Bush urged citizens to rise above their differences and focus on the good of the community.

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Today, in the face of a far more deadly enemy, Republicans have done the opposite. They’ve belittled the coronavirus pandemic, scorned vigilance, defended reckless individualism, and obstructed efforts to protect the public. For more than a year, they stood by as President Donald Trump helped the virus kill Americans. He collaborated with China’s president to conceal the threat. He told Americans it was a hoax. He silenced officials who sought to warn the public. He opposed testing to track the virus. He ridiculed masks. He launched political attacks on Democratic governors who tried to save lives.

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But Trump wasn’t alone. Officials in his White House—men who are now positioning themselves to advise and direct the next generation of Republican leaders—collaborated in the deadly work of playing down the virus, hiding its spread, and discouraging the use of masks. Republican governors rushed to reopen bars, restaurants, and other indoor gathering places, triggering a second wave of carnage in the summer of 2020. And even after a horrific third wave, Republican lawmakers and state officials are standing in the way of efforts to keep Americans safe.

In recent months, Republican governors have prohibited local mask mandates and vaccine requirements. Some, led by Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida and Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas, have even barred private companies from imposing such rules. In Arizona, Gov. Doug Ducey has threatened to cut off federal funds to schools that require masks. In South Carolina, Gov. Henry McMaster has ordered his health department to block door-to-door promotion of vaccines. In Congress, Republicans have filed legislation to prohibit anyone, including private entities, from requiring employees to be vaccinated. They’ve also fomented defiance of public health measures. The top two Republican leaders in the House of Representatives, Reps. Kevin McCarthy and Steve Scalise, have told the public that mask mandates and even mask advisories are a calculatedplan” to establish “government control.” Republican senators have urged Americans to spurn masks and distrust the Food and Drug Administration’s approval of vaccines.

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This campaign of obstruction and propaganda has contributed to millions of infections. In an Economist/YouGov poll taken last week, fewer than half of Republicans, compared to about 80 percent of Democrats, said they had been fully vaccinated. Thirty-five percent of Republicans, compared to 8 percent of Democrats, said they would refuse to accept a COVID shot. More than 40 percent of Republicans, compared to 4 percent of Democrats, said they hadn’t worn masks at all when going out during the preceding week. Rank-and-file Republicans, egged on by Republican politicians, have become COVID vectors.

And they’re killing one another. Since the beginning of May, the rate of COVID deaths is more than 50 percent higher in red states than in blue states. When you break down the numbers by county, the gap is even worse. Death rates are nearly twice as high in red counties as in blue counties, and there’s a direct correlation between COVID fatalities and support for Trump. In counties where Trump got 60 percent to 80 percent of the vote, the death rate is twice as high as in counties where he got less than 40 percent. In counties where he got more than 80 percent of the vote, the death rate is three times as high.

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This catastrophe dwarfs any terror attack. So far, COVID-19 has killed 650,000 Americans. That’s more than 200 times the death toll of 9/11. It’s nearly 100 times the combined number of U.S. military casualties in Afghanistan and Iraq over the past 20 years. In August alone, the virus killed 30,000 Americans. That’s a 9/11 attack every three days.

You can argue that the extraordinary measures we took after 9/11—the wars, the surveillance, the curtailments of civil liberties—were unwise or unnecessary. You could make similar arguments today against mask mandates or vaccine mandates to fight COVID. But there’s no rational justification for what Republicans have done: sacrificing civil liberties and waging decades-long wars over an attack that took 3,000 lives, and then ignoring—and exacerbating, in the name of civil liberties—an attack that’s killing 1,000 Americans a day.

The simple truth is that Republicans don’t know how to deal with this kind of enemy. It doesn’t speak Arabic, Farsi, or Chinese. It doesn’t invoke the name of Allah. Politicians can’t rile up crowds or raise money by uniting Americans against it, as they did by railing against “radical Islamic terrorism.” In this respect, COVID has been a test of character. It challenged Republicans to decide whether they’re a party of national security, or just a party of grievance and animosity. That question has now been answered.

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