If you’re like me, you came of age during the “Reagan Revolution,” and have not seen a day go by without some “conservative” lecturing you on the true meaning of freedom. Granted, freedom meant something different then. There really was a Cold War, and there really was dread of global nuclear annihilation, and there really was fear that if American liberal democracy did not triumph, then some kind of totalitarianism would.
The president’s and the people’s freedoms are inversely proportional. The more for him, the less for everyone else.
I’m overstating a bit (tensions had eased somewhat before a Reagan ramped them up again), but only to make point. There was heft behind the rhetoric. Even if you tired of them hectoring you about liberty—and believe me, Gen X is nothing if not tired—you believed at least they were sincere about it, even if you suspected them of being daffy.
Today, the “Evil Empire” is an ancient ruin. The US has not faced an existential menace since 1989 and the fall of the Berlin Wall. Yet “conservatives” continue to rail against the threat of “government tyranny” as if air quality controls, gun safety laws or Title IX lawsuits signal black helicopters coming to ferry them off to the gulag. Moreover, the president believes that peaceful trade and respectful cooperation with foreign nations equals ceding American independence. What used to be a serious high-stakes debate over the meaning of freedom has turned into something else.
Last week and this, so-called patriots held demonstrations in swing states necessary to Donald Trump’s reelection in order to protest state-based stay-at-home orders that have held the national death toll from the coronavirus pandemic to just over 43,000. (The original prediction was deaths numbering close to 300,000.) These state orders are literally saving individual’s lives by keeping them apart. The majority of Americans obeying them, as David Perry wrote, are practicing patriotic love. Yet pretend patriots behave as if governing in everyone’s interests is a violation of their “liberty.”
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I don’t doubt they hope to succeed in forcing governors into lifting entirely their respective stay-at-home orders, and if they do, they will have succeeded in turning conservatism around so that instead of resisting totalitarianism, it powers it. A nation that controls its population through gross negligence amid a pandemic is the moral equivalent of a nation that controls its population with threats of forced labor.
We understand what’s at stake in terms of politics and public health. The president is rushing headlong into “reopening” the economy in order to stave off an economic collapse, and therefore better position himself for November. GOP governors stand ready to comply. As the experts keep warning, however, the faster we “reopen,” the faster a second wave of the pandemic will crest, killing more people than the first.
But we do not understand what’s a stake in terms of freedom, an ideal that “conservatives” have historically held in the highest regard. What is individual liberty in a context in which the president of the United States, first of all, refuses to govern in everyone’s name, and second of all, as a consequence, wedges millions between two impossible poles: their health or their wealth? Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, author of The Gulag Archipelago, never saw the new coronavirus. But I’m sure the Soviet defector and conservative icon would recognize our feelings of paralysis and imprisonment.
A nation that controls its population through negligence in the thick of a pandemic is the moral equivalent of a nation that controls its population with imminent threats of forced labor.
Years from now, it might be clear what happened.
The president committed treason when he extorted a foreign nation into a conspiracy to sabotage the 2020 election, but his party refused to hold him accountable, thus clearing him of all charges against him. Liberated from constitutional responsibility, including his oath, Trump failed to take necessary steps toward preventing, or minimizing, a pandemic from killing more Americans than all those who died on September 11, 2001, and in the wars in Vietnam and Korea combined. Trump’s and the people’s freedoms are inversely proportional. More for him, less for everyone else.
It makes sense. Trump built his real estate empire by perfecting corruption. He is cheating the people by stealing their liberty—their freedom of action, even their right to choose—then encouraging confederates into goading state governments into playing along in a scheme resulting in millions being forced to make an impossible choice.
The old conservative meaning of freedom appeared to stand in contrast to totalitarianism. This new confederate meaning of freedom, however, does not.