Donald Trump isn’t the only Republican downplaying the seriousness of the coronavirus pandemic. He’s joined in that disregard for human life by many Republican lawmakers—and by many of the Republican candidates who hope to reclaim some ground in the House in 2020. That’s both because this is Trump’s party and because Republicans have long put their version of the economy (the economy of the rich and corporations) above the health and lives of working people.
Missouri’s Rep. Ann Wagner, for instance, went out on March 7 and, insisting on her knowledge of the situation—“We have had multiple, multiple briefings at the federal level for some time”—went on to assure the public, “As I said, this is, it's clear that the risk to our US public is low.”
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Former Democrat Jeff Van Drew, who became a Republican over the impeachment of Donald Trump, also downplayed the threat, insisting that “This is not mass destruction. This is not 9-11. This is a terrible situation that has happened. But at the same time, we know that we deal with the flu every year.” That was on March 11. Van Drew is from New Jersey, which has now lost more than 16,000 people to COVID-19—more than five times the death toll of 9/11 as a whole.
Other congressional Republicans have postured against public health restrictions, like Rep. Chip Roy of Texas, who encouraged a church to hold services despite a police order not to do so. “Hold the services anyway, using common sense spacing, separation, etc. ... encourage elderly to stay home. But this kind of authoritarian nonsense must be challenged. #SicSemperTyrannis,” Roy tweeted. The church was in Virginia, far from Roy’s home state.
Wagner, Van Drew, and Roy are not alone in downplaying the threat or opposing public health restrictions—and if the Republican Party has its way, they’ll get a whole lot more company after November’s elections.
Company like Michelle Steel, challenging Rep. Harley Rouda in California’s 22nd Congressional District, who sounded a lot like Trump on March 22 when she said “hopefully the weather gets better this will all disappear.” At the end of April, she complained that Gov. Gavin Newsom’s order to close crowded beaches was “a clear example of unnecessary government overreach,” unnecessary because “Orange County has been successful in flattening the curve.” At the time, Orange County had reported 2,400 COVID-19 cases. That number has risen to more than 50,000.
In South Carolina, Nancy Mace is challenging Democratic Rep. Joe Cunningham. On June 8, she said “Our health has not been adversely affected in the way we were told it was going to be. We should have opened up sooner.” COVID-19 cases had already started rising in South Carolina at that point, and would be over 1,000 new cases a day for most of the following two months.
In Texas, Sheriff Troy Nehls, who is competing against Democrat Sri Preston Kulkarni for an open seat, has squawked loudly about mask rules, insisting “this government MANDATE from Harris County is unnecessary, unconstitutional, and unAmerican. It’s an unprecedented overreach which looks more like a communist dictatorship than a free Republic.” That was April 22. Texas, of course, went on to have a major spike.
Right now it’s impossible to pick apart how much Republicans downplay coronavirus and rail against restrictions aimed at slowing its spread because that’s what Donald Trump does, and how much it’s because they themselves, independently, think if they clap loud enough it will just go away. Either way, though, Republicans join Trump in owning the United States’ pandemic failures. And they must not get the power to make things even worse.