The Heedless Horseman Republicans and their COVID denial

Amid a deadly pandemic, GOP lawmakers seem determined to play Russian roulette

Sen. Ron Johnson spoke (without a mask) at a GOP dinner back home in Wisconsin last week, while awaiting the results of a COVID-19 test. Such behavior is baffling in light of the high stakes for the GOP’s Supreme Court push, Shapiro writes.   (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Sen. Ron Johnson spoke (without a mask) at a GOP dinner back home in Wisconsin last week, while awaiting the results of a COVID-19 test. Such behavior is baffling in light of the high stakes for the GOP’s Supreme Court push, Shapiro writes. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Posted October 6, 2020 at 6:00am

Until now, if you squinted hard enough and ignored any sense of higher principle, you could usually find a dollop of political realism in the cowardly response of congressional Republicans to Donald Trump.

Thus was born a race of GOP legislators who never followed the news about the president. If there was a tweet, they never heard about it. If there was an investigative story, they never read it.

Questioning Republicans in the halls of Congress about Trump’s latest outrage was the equivalent of conducting an interview in Urdu while wearing a mask inside a Hazmat suit.

Their rationale for four years of silence — aside from a few brave figures like former Sen. Jeff Flake and (usually) Mitt Romney — was unreasoning terror. That is, crippling fear of a primary challenge from a Trumpian true believer.

But there is no justification for the self-destructive behavior of many congressional Republicans in the face of COVID-19. It is hard to imagine a 2022 primary challenge against Republicans solely for wearing a mask on an airplane or staying home when they feared they would test positive for the coronavirus.

Then what explains these incidents of heedless behavior by Republicans who presumably should know better?

Rather than staying home Friday night as he awaited the result of a COVID-19 test after being exposed, Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson defied the recommendations of the CDC and spoke (without a mask) at a GOP Oktoberfest dinner in Mequon.

Johnson, who does indeed have COVID-19, is not even running for reelection until 2022, so the Republicans of Mequon could have survived without the oratorical skills of their infected senator until next year’s Oktoberfest. Now Johnson is raising the ante by saying that he would show up in the Senate to vote on Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation even if he still tested positive.

Three House Republicans from Minnesota, who traveled to Duluth and back on Air Force One with Trump on Wednesday, knowingly violated Delta Air Lines rules by flying home from Washington on Friday night.

What matters is not that Reps. Pete Stauber, Tom Emmer and Jim Hagedorn tested negative after their exposure to the president. Delta bans flying for 14 days after exposure for a reason — tests can miss cases of COVID-19 that have not yet manifested themselves. Extra caution is especially warranted in the close confines of an airline flight.

Tell that to Mississippi Sen. Roger Wicker.

On a Delta flight Thursday, Wicker was repeatedly photographed with a blue medical mask safeguarding his chin from all virus attacks on his lower jaw. Wicker’s nose and mouth were mask-free.

These GOP legislators can’t blame Trump for their pandemic pigheadedness. It wasn’t until Monday that Trump — who broke out of Walter Reed thanks to his timorous medical team — tweeted, in a quote for the ages, “Don’t be afraid of Covid. Don’t let it dominate your life.”

The 210,000 dead Americans (roughly the population of Des Moines) might have a different take on the president’s upbeat advice.

What matters most

Forget, for the moment, about other people like Wicker’s fellow passengers on the Delta flight or the more than 200 Trump donors who were exposed to more than presidential charisma at Thursday’s fundraiser at his New Jersey golf resort.

Instead, look at life in the narrowest, most self-interested terms, like Mitch McConnell. Focus every ounce of energy on getting Barrett on the Supreme Court before the voters (based on current polls) elect Joe Biden and a Democratic Senate majority.

McConnell has almost no margin of error in terms of either preelection timing or the Senate vote tally. Especially now that three Republican senators (Johnson, Thom Tillis of North Carolina and Mike Lee of Utah) have tested positive for COVID-19.

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Until recently, the greatest superspreader event in American history was a Sept. 28, 1918, Liberty Loan parade in Philadelphia as the influenza epidemic raged. World War I patriotic feeling was high among the 200,000 people who filled the city’s streets. Within 72 hours, every hospital bed in Philadelphia was filled with the dying.

The White House celebration of Barrett’s nomination on Sept. 26 looks like it may be the 2020 version of the Liberty Loan parade. Senators, including Lee and Tillis, not only were in the Rose Garden for the formal remarks, but they also joined Trump for a VIP reception inside the White House where no one appeared to wear a mask.

What were senators such as Missouri’s Josh Hawley and Nebraska’s Ben Sasse thinking? Both have Ivy League pedigrees — and presumably took a few science courses along the way. They should know the dangers of not wearing masks during indoor events, especially at close quarters.

Already the White House staff has been ravaged in the last week by the virus. Presumably, Trump staffers were too intimidated by the president to practice safe behavior. Reuters reported that Matt Pottinger, the deputy national security adviser, was frequently mocked by his colleagues for being a rare White House aide who wore a mask.

But were Hawley and Sasse — both senators who may run for president someday — that intimidated by peer pressure? What were they afraid of? That Trump might make a 10-second joke at their expense?

Monday afternoon, McConnell declared that it was “full steam ahead” on the Barrett nomination. But at the rate the Republicans are going, the Barrett confirmation train will need its own hospital car and quarantine facilities.

Trump is a con man who has convinced himself that only losers are threatened by COVID-19. That’s Trump’s personal delusion. But what remains baffling in the midst of a pandemic is the way that GOP legislators seemed so determined to play their own daily games of Russian roulette.

Walter Shapiro is covering his 11th presidential campaign. He is also a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU and a lecturer in political science at Yale. Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.