I want to propose a theory about why the polls suggest Republicans and conservatives are taking the threat of the coronavirus less seriously and are apparently far less unnerved by the breakout than others—a theory that goes beyond the “they’re just trying to destroy Donald Trump and I’m not buying into it” narrative. I think it’s about how the Right is more generally trying to hold fast to notions about how people ought to behave at a moment of crisis and personal peril that are anathematic to the political and social culture of the present day.
In short, they feel that the panic is unmanly.
Let me explain what I mean. Obviously, preparing seriously before and during a time of danger is something that any responsible person is supposed to do. The question is, what does it mean to prepare seriously? Does it mean publicly expressing fear and terror of an invisible force that is approaching from afar, or does it mean sobering up and getting to work in a methodical way to ensure the least amount of damage is done to you, your loved ones, and others?
Does it mean expressing an almost lubricious negative glee at the size of the potential catastrophe awaiting us, but hiding that strange impulse behind a veneer of concern and prophetic anger—or does it mean a dispassionate determination?
Does it mean battening down the hatches and securing the immediate safety of those for whom you are responsible? Or does it mean delivering lectures on social media on the grounds that everyone is responsible for everyone else and that, therefore, your impulse to finger-wag and tell others what they should be doing is not presumptuous but somehow noble?
Does it mean playing the strong-and-silent type or emoting like a countertenor in an overripe operetta?
Our culture privileges the emotive and disdains the restrained, and has for a half-century—from former NFL footballer and world-famous knitter Rosey Grier singing “It’s All Right to Cry,” to young boys on the “Free to Be You and Me” record in 1972, to Joaquin Phoenix choking up at the 2020 Oscars at the evil of us stealing a cow’s milk for our morning coffee. And when people in authority began saying a few weeks ago that they were canceling things and shutting things down “out of an abundance of caution,” they were pushing a button they did not understand they were pushing. Plenty of people read that or heard that and got their backs up. Somewhere inside them, they heard a voice pushing back, saying, “Oh, stop being such a sniveling coward.”
When you give people the idea that the taciturn restraint of previous eras is a form of emotional withdrawal rather than a different kind of engagement with the world’s realities, the way they emote in response is going to be very different from Rosey Grier’s. The conservative counterculture is full of its own kind of raw emotiveness, which has its own tone. What is Donald Trump doing on Twitter when he rages against FAKE NEWS and other evil phenomena in all caps but letting it all hang out in 280 characters? His overarching theme, and that of the tendency he represents, is that the worries and fears and anxieties of liberal culture are nonsense, at best, and evil, at worst.
The idea that you basically have to put an entire economy on hold to kill off an invisible threat isn’t as intuitive as those who are screaming at other people on the Internet about it seem to think. The idea that people overreact and that wiser and calmer heads should prevail is a comforting one in times of peril, too. And it dovetails with the classic division Chris Matthews described nearly 30 years ago when he said that the Democrats were the Mommy Party and the Republicans were the Daddy Party. One party was worried your back might be aching; the other wanted to make sure you had a strong spine.
Things don’t break down that neatly in the time of the Coronavirus, of course. We’re three decades gone from Matthews’s observation, and the Daddy Party doesn’t even have the spine it once did—a manliness that might have led it to take the threat with deadly seriousness and to start preparing in earnest rather than pooh-poohing the danger altogether.