In March of 2020, when the pandemic was just beginning, I wrote about the strange metaphors that began circulating as Americans—mostly though not exclusively conservative Americans—tried to figure out how to confront the coming threat. These particular metaphors were slapdash and prideful and aspirational and just bafflingly inadequate: They positioned the virus as the enemy and resisting it as continuing, uncowed, to eat at restaurants. Gathering at football games became heroic and dancing in bars patriotic. Fun was war in these language games, and precautions were tantamount to cowardice or, worse, retreat. I condemned that rhetoric at the time. It seemed like an unhelpful model for American resilience, one obviously rooted in a post-9/11 era that equated shopping for stuff you want with patriotically resisting terror. But that moment turned out to be a blip I’m now a little nostalgic for.
Here’s why: By construing the virus as a common enemy—a terrorist enemy that wants us to hide in our homes in fear—those metaphors at least conceded (however gingerly) the possibility of a collective American “us” that could oppose the virus’s sinister “them.” That unifying possibility (never great—we were extremely polarized then too) is gone. I’m struck, looking back, by how completely and quickly the Us and the Them in the metaphor changed, even though the overall frame—of warfare in search of an enemy—remained. At the start, the virus was the bad guy. Now the villain is, depending on the sources you consult, Dr. Anthony Fauci, or Big Pharma, or Democrats, or liberal authoritarians, or Bill Gates. As for the virus, that sometime adversary? If it’s even real, it’s no worse than the flu. Vaccines and their advocates are what kill. There‘s hardly a shred of factual consensus left.
But the shift goes well beyond the slight but definite unifying impulse those early metaphors harbored. Changing the Us and the Them from “Americans” and “the virus” to “anti-maskers” and “public health officials” (or whatever recent combo you prefer) transformed more than those simple substitutions might suggest. Specifically, it eliminated the slim unifying possibility that briefly existed—the one that had, as a shared and difficult goal, some idea of an “us” worth fighting the virus for. For many on the right these days, the very idea of any such goal is suspect; to follow any ideology beyond pure individualism risks succumbing to tyranny or socialism or both. You might even say that for this contingent, somewhere along the way, patriotism got quietly redefined. If it once meant (for example) honoring one’s country and protecting one’s compatriots through personal sacrifice and service, patriotism now means honoring the United States by doing exactly what you want—and rejecting any limits to your personal freedom, even if they’re in the name of the public good.
That’s a long way for a shared set of metaphors to travel. And we could spend a long time exploring how maybe the pandemic is really just another battle in a different war. But it’s interesting—in a bleak sort of way—to time-travel through pandemic discourse (like how a young woman described her experience nursing soldiers through the 1918 pandemic in a letter—when unbeknownst to her it was about to get worse). We may not have a clear view of where we’re going—let’s face it, our ways of talking and thinking about the pandemic are more disorienting now than they’ve ever been—but we can at least see where we’ve been.
March 2020 was a frightening time. That posed a problem for the large part of American culture that cannot bear to be frightened and therefore elevates what William Goldman admiringly called “stupid courage,” that is, the romantic bravado of a Butch Cassidy and a Sundance Kid planning their next quest knowing full well that they were doomed. This is an easy thing to overlook but I think it’s important: Many Americans have a truly phobic relationship to the kind of fear that cannot be dealt with through combat. It’s as if FDR’s famous admonition about fear got taken a mite too literally.
And pandemics are scary. So yes, the chatter was bizarre, a mix of sprightly nostrums about American resilience and admonitions to nobly party on, uncowed. By a virus.
So much was unknown back then, and the psychology of dread isn’t uniform. The project of gearing a population up to face a coming challenge may be central to governance, but the psychic landscape under President Donald Trump was unusual, to say the least. Most glaringly, he was the first modern president to openly and deliberately eschew any attempt to unify the country. He did the opposite. He also said, depending on the day, that the virus would be gone soon, that it was totally under control, that it wasn’t bad, that he’d always known it was a pandemic, that it had been terrible, that it was over, and that he’d fixed it. Without consistent and honest messaging about the virus from the president, American reactions fractured into ideological presets. Pew Research found that “Republicans who turned to Trump for news were more likely to say COVID-19 [was] overblown” and media coverage of it was inaccurate. And there is no question that the liberal emphasis on caution, communal action and mutual protection—coming as they did with warnings about the danger of the virus and heavy and sometimes reactive criticism of Trump—spurred the conservative reaction against both. (That martial partisanship may have since grown even beyond Trump, if the boos he gets when he now praises the vaccines are any sign.)
It was inevitable, perhaps, that these two ingredients—a drumbeat of division, and an enemy too small to make a worthy adversary—would combine to redirect those fears onto a more tangible target. Conservatives swapped out an enemy that was both hard and confusing to villainize—the virus—for one that was more readily available: Fauci. Or Biden. Or evil doctors enriching vaccine manufacturers by requiring jabs for a virus that isn’t even dangerous. (It should be noted that many safety-first Americans—mostly on the liberal side—have also transformed their fear and frustration into tribalized disdain, with the difference being that mass death was actually happening.) Trump was seeding some of this before the U.S. even had its first lockdowns. “So last year 37,000 Americans died from the common Flu. It averages between 27,000 and 70,000 per year. Nothing is shut down, life & the economy go on. At this moment there are 546 confirmed cases of CoronaVirus, with 22 deaths. Think about that!” he tweeted on March 9, 2020, from his now-banned account.
Of course the line hardened—quickly, within weeks of the pandemic starting—from the “us vs. the virus” messaging I found so silly two years ago to the usual intra-American vitriol that boils down to US vs. YOU. It seems in retrospect inevitable that it would congeal, through memes and rehearsals and Trump’s electoral loss, into a freedom fetish among those now primed to see almost any public health measure as an authoritarian affront to personal liberty. Let me pause here, because I don’t want to overstate this: Conservative Americans are hardly alone in resisting lockdowns and objecting to vaccine mandates. Similar things were happening all over the world, because people accustomed to doing what they like naturally resent having to do things differently. But vaccine passports (or passes) are a reality in much of the world and didn’t receive the kind of dire Orwellian warnings they did here. The poisonous battle lines that developed in the United States are, in many sad ways, unique.
The thing about the George Bush approach, which equated individual shopping with collective patriotic action as a response to psychological terror, is that it wasn’t ever really tenable. Shopping isn’t fighting, buying stuff isn’t sacrificing for your country (even if it might help the economy), and even the great lovers of war metaphors can’t maintain for long that eating in restaurants is heroism. It was clear soon enough that the demands for haircuts and maskless shopping were happening because people wanted things that made them feel good, not because they truly believed their haircuts were patriotic. And if we’re tracing how any idea of pursuing the collective good disappeared from those conservative metaphors—even though the basic frame remained—it’s sort of important that the individual shopping piece is what stuck around. And that it’s not actually very satisfying. Let’s face it: There comes a point in the post-9/11 American approach to terrorism where the “live as if the threat isn’t there” mantra fails to satisfy and escalates into a desire for revenge. They want you to be afraid, and defying them becomes an obsession that supersedes everything else—whether it lands you in the longest and most expensive war in American history or causes you to maintain, as you lay dying, that the virus killing you does not exist. Courage may mean shopping, it may mean dining in restaurants, or it may start to mean fighting those who believe in safety measures in the name of freedom. It may, eventually, require entirely redefining the nature of the threat. In 2020, the virus was what we had to unify against. In 2022, the virus was never the problem at all.