Every day we hear about another rightwing radio host, Republican politician or anti-mask crusader drowning in their own lungs after refusing the vaccine. Republican Governors aren’t merely refusing to help with their COVID-19 outbreaks, they are using their power to block measures that would save lives. Instead of getting vaccinated, which would work, Republicans are promoting a horse paste called Ivermectin, which doesn’t.
Resistance to pandemic containment measures has developed into a tenet of white identity politics. With a vaccine available, this resistance is now suicidal. COVID-19 deaths are soaring again and those exposed are overwhelmingly white and Republican. Republican Governors aren’t just killing off random citizens, they are murdering their own voters. Those voters, at least the ones who survive, are congratulating them for it. Republicans don’t seem to find any of this odd.
Beneath the inevitable outrage lies a curiosity. Why? Wearing a mask seems like a such a simple step. Vaccines are as ordinary as daylight. Measures that might have prevented this disease outbreak from becoming a global pandemic were so well-researched and prepared that they had been reduced to a playbook. On the surface, there was no reason for COVID-19 to come with any political bias. Why are Republicans killing themselves and placing entire communities at risk over masks and vaccines?
Nefarious political motives helped us get here, but don’t explain our position entirely. From hookworm to Medicaid, Southern elites have always feared the threat that public health campaigns pose to their power. Trump, who Republicans worship as God, made an early decision to prioritize his hotel and resort revenue over protecting the country. These two factors inspired a rightwing narrative that COVID-19 was a “hoax” and pandemic containment measures were a liberal plot. But why should that continue? Why aren’t Republicans lining up to get their “Trump Vaccine” and defeat the unseen microbial enemy?
It’s impossible to understand why white evangelicals are poisoning themselves with horse paste without backing up a long way to ask where our opinions come from. How do we decide who and what to trust? How do we behave toward our authority figures when we feel like our communities are threatened?
To better understand this bizarre scenario, we should probably consider some wider public failures we seem unable to remedy.
Why the sudden collapse of trust in experts?
How did we lose the capacity to hold wealthy, powerful people responsible for crimes?
When was the last time you can remember seeing a Wall Street grifter perp-walked off to jail?
Why are we struggling to take the simplest measures, like building more housing, to solve simple crises like housing affordability?
Why are we the only stable nation in their world where health coverage isn’t universal?
Here’s why. We’ve lost our ability to share a reality and build on that reality, because we’ve lost the mythology, the shared narrative, that defined “us.” People will engage in remarkable acts of courage and sacrifice to protect “us.” Likewise, they will commit thoughtless atrocities against a perceived “them.” Building a successful civilization requires more than the negotiation of narrow personal interests. It demands a definition of “us” upon which all else rests. A shared narrative, or mythology if you will, that defines “us” is the foundation on which all successful collective action is built.
Our “us” has been lost. It’s been lost because we wrecked it. We wrecked it because it was cruel, stupid and no longer effective. We find ourselves in this dilemma because the power of white supremacy to act as the glue holding our society together has fallen below critical mass and a new unifying mythology has yet to emerge. Things will get worse before they get better.
Why are white evangelicals killing each other and themselves over COVID-19? They are the most-enthusiastic remaining adherents of our mythology of white supremacy. They cannot conceive of a future for themselves outside a white nationalism founded on white supremacy. Their pandemic suicides have a ritual character. Like Native American Ghost Dancers in the late 19th century, they are performing ad hoc rites that will “bring back the buffalo,” taking them back to the good old days of their supreme power. White Republicans are desperate to Make America Great Again, sacrificing themselves in a futile appeal to their dead gods. If you think their self-immolation is tragic, just imagine what they’ll be willing to do to you.
Why does an “us” matter? Much of our political logic inherited from centuries of Enlightenment thought carries a terrible flaw. Human beings are not rational actors. We can learn to calculate outcomes based on science and logic, but our capabilities are sadly limited. We can’t match the calculation power of a cheap 1970’s wristwatch. The notion that our daily lives are based on detailed calculations of our fine personal interests is laughably false. Rational thought is a product of training, like learning to ride a unicycle. We do little of it and carry limited capabilities.
Human beings augment our limited calculation power by reasoning in groups. For most of our lives we lean on what has come to be called “System 1” or autonomic decision-making. Those System 1 frameworks are shaped by our social groups. Resorting to “System 2,” or calculated, critical thought, is too uncomfortable, resource-intensive and slow for constant use. Human beings build networks of trust within which these calculation burdens can be shared or offloaded. Civilizations are built on networks of trust. Those networks of trust are defined by mythologies or narratives that identify an “us.” Slice those cords of trust and a civilization descends into dysfunction.
From the late 19th century until about our time, America was held together by a mythology of white supremacy. That mythology defined who was good and bad, who was us and them, who should be helped, promoted and developed and who could be freely exploited. It was cruel, stupid and flawed, producing a stunted version of “us,” but that’s the mythology that shaped us. Racism hasn’t died, but a system of white nationalism, built on a mythological framework of white supremacy has collapsed. Nothing has yet emerged to take its place.
White supremacy had to die, but killing it isn’t enough. There is no victory in the death of white supremacy until we’ve built a new, better mythology to take its place.
Though slavery and racism shaped America from its earliest origins, white supremacy did not always provide the mythos or narrative that bound Americans together as an “us.” As it did not always serve this function, there is no reason we cannot replace it with something better.
What happens to a bunch of people living in close proximity when the mythology that united them fails? They fragment, cobbling together smaller identities under which to organize some modicum of collaboration. Right now, the largest of these mythological identities is still white supremacy, though it’s losing ground fast.
As people descend into these fragmented mythological frames, the lack of an “us” inspires a blooming field of “thems.” Suspicion becomes more common than trust. A sense of threat draws people toward strong leaders, whose failures or outright crimes are excused or denied. Why has it become impossible to hold powerful people to account for crimes? We lack a secure, shared culture within which we can feel safe enough to replace strong leaders. We tolerate corruption and ineptitude because the loss of one of our leaders for any reason might grant dangerous power to an enemy.
These tightly closed and threatened circles of trust are a feeding ground for grifters and autocrats. If a leader demands suicide to protect “us,” many will comply and almost no one will openly resist.
A little man named Tate Reeves serves as Governor of the world’s worst COVID-19 hotspot, Mississippi. Not only has he refused to take necessary actions to contain the plague, he’s used his power to block others from stopping it. He explained why: “When you believe in eternal life—when you believe that living on this earth is but a blip on the screen, then you don’t have to be so scared of things…We can move on.” There’s a code in this message. Scientists, researchers and disease specialists don’t share your mythology, but I do. Ignore them, listen to me. Sure, you might die, but you’ll be helping to promote a higher goal and be rewarded by god. These are the new Ghost Dancers, sacrificing everything in a ritual to appease the gods and restore their power. From Nuremberg to Jonestown, a cult is a cult is a cult.
Why are our fellow Americans killing themselves over COVID-19? Because they aren’t “fellow” anymore. We are no longer tied together by a shared mythological definition of “us.” Republicans would rather die obeying the high priests of their mythology than abandon the faith and thrive. We are not immune from this same poison.
Want to see an end to this insanity? Assemble a new unifying mythology. A darker, tougher goal is tied to this imperative. Building a new unifying mythology will demand that we demonize the old one, making its dead-end adherents the essential “them” around which an “us” can emerge.
Americans have seen these cycles of rising and falling mythologies before. They were seldom clean or pretty, but the nation survived. There can be a post-white supremacist United States, but we’ll have to build it. We won’t build it without identifying and defeating its enemies.