The Social-Distancing Culture War Has Begun - 2020-03-30
For a brief moment earlier this month, it seemed as if social distancing might be the one new part of American life that wasn't polarized along party lines. Schools were closed in red states and blue; people across the political spectrum retreated into their home. Though President Donald Trump had played down the pandemic at first, he was starting to take the threat more seriously—and his media allies followed suit. Reminders to wash your hands and avoid crowds became commonplace on both Fox News and MSNBC. Those who chose to ignore this guidance—the spring-breakers clogging beaches, the revelers on Bourbon Street—appeared to do so for apolitical reasons. For the most part, it seemed, everyone was on the same page.
The consensus didn't last long. Trump, having apparently grown impatient with all the quarantines and lockdowns, began last week to call for a quick return to business as usual. "WE CANNOT LET THE CURE BE WORSE THAN THE PROBLEM ITSELF," he tweeted, in characteristic caps lock. Speaking to Fox News, he added that he would "love" to see businesses and churches reopened by Easter. Though Trump would later walk them back, the comments set off a familiar sequence—a Democratic backlash, a pile-on in the press, and a rush in MAGA-world to defend the president. As the coronavirus now emerges as another front in the culture war, social distancing has come to be viewed in some quarters as a political act—a way to signal which side you're on.
Some of the more brazen departures from public-health consensus have carried a whiff of right-wing performance art. Jerry Falwell Jr., an outspoken Trump ally and president of the evangelical Liberty University, made headlines this week for inviting students back to campus over objections from local officials. The conservative website The Federalist published a trollish piece proposing "chicken-pox parties" as a model for strategically spreading the coronavirus. Throughout the conservative media, calls to reopen the economy—even if it means sacrificing the sick and elderly—are gaining traction.