The Pandemic Brings Out the Authoritarian and the Libertarian in Us All. Can We Meet in the Middle?

It’s a powerful American ambivalence: on one hand, a punitive instinct; on the other, leave-me-alone individualism.

Illustration: Kelsey Wroten for The Intercept

The Irish columnist and astute U.S.-watcher Fintan O’Toole recently wrote that Donald Trump’s two claims, “I have total authority” and “I don’t take responsibility at all,” reveal a man “incapable of coherence.” I think they just reveal a megalomaniac incapable of accountability. In fact, Trump has deployed his declared unitary power to foment chaos, which has fortified that unitary power. #FireFauci. Liberate Michigan! Divide and conquer: Trump takes a classic move one lurch forward, to play both captain and mutineer. Incoherence is the point.

One reason Trump has been invincible so far is that he not only embodies but also exploits a powerful American ambivalence: on one hand, the punitive authoritarian instinct that supports long prison sentences and a strong military; on the other, the leave-me-alone libertarianism embodied in the Bill of Rights, a defense of individuals from the power of the state. 

This ambivalence is not a red-blue split. It is internal to both. On the right, laissez-faire economics chafe against Christian cultural intolerance, isolationism against imperialism. On the left, the Stalinists are still at war with the anarchists, the nanny-statists with the hippies, and a taste for utopian direct democracy, as in the Occupy movement, strains against a hunger for big government.

The coronavirus crisis has brought this ambivalence to the fore. Mistrust of the government emanates from both right and left. In Lansing, Michigan, a heavily astroturfed “movement” of wing-nuts with automatic weapons storms the state Capitol in defense of the liberty to get haircuts, get infected, and infect others. In Los Angeles, the grassroots Stop LAPD Spying Coalition — a network of organizers in low-income communities of color seeking to dismantle “government-sanctioned spying and intelligence gathering, in all its multiple forms” — airs a webinar series to strategize resistance to expansion of the police state in the pandemic.

Such resistance can border on the self-destructive. There’s lively discussion among evangelicals about the pandemic as a left-wing Zionist hoax or, perhaps, a welcome early sign of the end times. But did God mean to decimate denominations of their pastors and sicken their church choirs? Those clamoring to be freed from house arrest seem unconcerned with the motives of their would-be liberators. “The damages of keeping the economy closed as it is could be worse than losing a few more people,” mused Paychex founder and chair Tom Golisano, whose estimated net worth is $3.9 billion. “You have to weigh the pros and cons” — a luxury Paychex’s $11-an-hour data entry clerks will not have when the day comes to clock in.

On a Stop LAPD webinar, a presenter discusses the “National Coronavirus Response: A Road Map to Reopening,” published by the libertarian pro-business think tank American Enterprise Institute. The report stresses new technologies of testing and contact tracing, “real-time” data analysis, and the buildup of “comprehensive COVID-19 surveillance systems.” Representing communities subject to constant policing based on “predictive” algorithms of crime, facial recognition software, and police files of serology, fingerprints, and other personal biodata, Stop LAPD is wary of the whole approach. “We don’t need to police or surveil our way out of” the pandemic, coordinator Hamid Khan tells me. The group isn’t telling people not to get tested, but “our perspective is data abolitionist” — cool it with the stats, just send the resources — even if the data substantiates the racial and economic inequities that leave black and brown bodies vulnerable or the disproportionate rates of Covid-19 infection and death in these communities. “Our folks in Skid Row don’t need someone from the outside to tell them what’s wrong with the conditions on the ground,” Kahn says. Asked if it’s valuable for other people to know in order to act, he, like the coalition, is agnostic.

Different resisters are more or less justified in their fears. The webinar’s title, “Power Not Paranoia,” evinces the tension for marginalized communities between survival in the moment and self-preservation in the long run. But “paranoid” might not be the wrong word for the anti-lockdown crowd. There was one arrest at the Michigan state Capitol action. Were the armed intruders black or brown, it’s doubtful the police would have been so accommodating of their rights to free speech and assembly.

Trump has nearly achieved realization of Ronald Reagan’s adage that “the nine most terrifying words” are “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.’” Bereft of any benign function of an administrative state and suspect of a sinister police state, many citizens see no option but to take care of their own and take their chances. Rather than fight for government action, DIYers are sewing, 3-D printing, or raising money on GoFundMe for masks for hospital workers. Others are turning to violent “self-defense” against perceived government overreach. In Michigan, a security guard was fatally shot after allegedly ejecting a woman related to the shooter from a Family Dollar store for not wearing a mask.

Meanwhile, some of us are privately, anxiously contending with conflicting impulses rising from deep psyche: to chastise the neighbors for standing too close? To touch the hand of the checkout worker, not exactly accidentally, for a moment of contact? As I witness violations of our new social codes, and break them occasionally myself, my political-personal faith in a mutually supportive, mutually protective community begins to wobble. This isn’t working! Where’s the police state when we need it? As if to teach me a lesson, a Lower East Side officer tackles, punches, and kneels on the head of a man for an alleged social distancing infraction. In Philadelphia, cops are videotaped dragging a passenger from a bus for not wearing a mask.

It is easy to write off social distancing opponents or anti-vaxxers as selfish Luddites, and those sticking with the program as rational promoters of public health. But either would be hasty. Because, as University of Michigan historian Alexandra Minna Stern points out, the definitions of “public” and “health” are debatable. For example, the 1905 Supreme Court case that upheld the constitutionality of compulsory vaccination during a smallpox epidemic was reprised as precedent in 1927 to rule that the state of Virginia did not violate the due process rights of an institutionalized “feeble-minded woman” by performing an involuntary tubal ligation on her, to promote, as the law read, the “health of the patient and the welfare of society.” In other words, eugenics was constitutional. Vaccination rational, eugenics criminal? In both cases, the justices found that individual liberty — implying bodily autonomy — could be subordinated to the collective “good.”

To get through the pandemic, we need something between too much and not enough government. Somewhere in the middle lies solidarity: the recognition that an injury to one is an injury to all, and the less injured have a responsibility to the more injured. Fortunately, disasters inspire this spirit. But solidarity is not just banging pots and putting rainbows in our windows to thank the essential workers. Solidarity implies government policies of wealth redistribution and adequate public services and support to those who need it. With Republicans taking advantage of the pandemic to expand authoritarian power and liberate the economy for corporate plunder, America may never have needed its instinctive skepticism of government more. But we also must not let up demanding that the state promote the public good, even as we continue to debate the meaning of that term.

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