Four years ago, some of the nation’s most prominent conservatives urged us to abandon long-held principles in order to make way for Donald Trump. Maintaining American leadership abroad, promoting free trade, and upholding moral standards in public conduct—we were assured these were worth sacrificing so that Trump could secure the health of the nation.
In his notorious 2016 Claremont Review of Books article “The Flight 93 Election,” Michael Anton listed dozens of ways in which America and the conservative establishment were bent, busted, or broken—and then declared Trump a potential savior:
This is the mark of a party, a society, a country, a people, a civilization that wants to die. Trump, alone among candidates for high office in this or in the last seven (at least) cycles, has stood up to say: I want to live. I want my party to live. I want my country to live. I want my people to live. I want to end this insanity.
Anton chastised conservatives for downplaying the extent of America’s turmoil under liberal politicians. “But how great is the crisis?” he wrote, imitating those whom he accused of presiding over a feckless, dying conservatism—one that valued the rule of law, free markets, and individual liberty. “If they are right about the importance of all this to national health and even survival, then they must believe—mustn’t they?—that we are headed off a cliff.”
But now, under Trump’s leadership, America’s “national health”—in the literal sense—is in great danger. Two months after the World Health Organization declared a global health emergency, the United States remains unprepared in many important respects for the pandemic now affecting communities all over the country. We do not have enough tests. We do not have enough face masks. We do not have enough ventilators. We do not have enough hospital beds. We do not have enough slabs in the morgues of New York.
The overarching metaphor of Anton’s article has rightly been criticized for its crudeness, its cruel insensitivity, and its inapplicability. But let’s take it on its own terms. If you believe that 2016 really was “the Flight 93 election”—that the choice was, as Anton wrote, to “charge the cockpit or you die,” and that “you may die anyway”—then we have now surely crashed.
Yet today it is the Trumpists who ask, “But how great is the crisis?”
A few weeks ago, when preventative measures should already have been widely adopted, Trump was tweeting that the flu was more deadly than COVID-19. He then diverted attention from policy questions by insisting on labeling COVID-19 the “Chinese virus.” All the while, he issued praise for China’s response to the epidemic, as if to detract from his own mistakes. When Trump learned that Senator Mitt Romney tested negative for the coronavirus, his response was petty sarcasm. Last week, Trump said that he wanted the country to reopen by Easter—which would mean, according to experts, many more deaths than if social distancing were not ended prematurely. This week Trump admitted that his word is not to be trusted: When asked about COVID-19 disinformation, he said “they do it and we do it . . . every country does it.” The list goes on. Just as you thought things couldn’t get worse, Trump even suggested that the real victim in all of this was him, as Christian Schneider explains.
And what of Trump’s media boosters? Let’s look at just two examples.
In The Federalist, after citing data that the flu kills more people each year than projected deaths from COVID-19 will, executive editor Joy Pullmann asks, “Is it right for the nation to require our children’s futures be destroyed to keep alive less than 1 percent of our population until the next flu season?” In response to this, I’d ask: Is it not in the best interest of a child’s future to have their parents and grandparents alive?
In the Catholic magazine First Things, editor R.R. Reno says plainly that there are some things—such as “justice, beauty, and honor”—that are more important than physical life. But think back: From 2016 onwards, Trump’s media echo chamber told conservatives to set aside materialistic goods, including the free market, and focus instead on what is really at stake: the “health of the nation.” Now that the nation’s health is actually imperiled, we are told that other things, like the economy and beauty, are more important.
Trumpism corrupts. It caused leading conservatives to abandon once-cherished principles. But Trumpism in times of a pandemic is even worse. It has corrupted the most fundamental of values. Conservatism is fundamentally about conserving what is important. What good is a conservatism that defends a massive failure to conserve human life, family, and community?