Susan J. Demas: Republicans have us trapped in a deadly COVID stupidity loop

July 22, 2021 4:32 am

A man wears a ‘I Do Not Comply’ pin at a protest against masks, vaccines, and vaccine passports outside the headquarters of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) | Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images

Republicans — with the help of four cowardly Democrats — celebrated their ignoble victory Wednesday over common sense and public health, as they ditched a 76-year-old law that makes it easier for governors to respond to catastrophes.

It was a pro forma action — the Michigan Supreme Court last year overturned the law when it still had a GOP majority — but Republicans are eager to head into the 2022 midterms chortling that they snatched power away from “Queen Gretchen” Whitmer, as their favored gubernatorial hopeful James Craig woodenly declared in a Grand Rapids speech this week.

Indeed, that’s been the No. 1 goal of the GOP since before the Democratic governor even took office in 2019. Some of us were warning about that long before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, but as usual, it was dismissed by some smug political insiders as liberal whining instead of a factual assessment of a national trend

There’s been no bigger public health crisis than the pandemic that’s shaken the world for the last year and a half, leaving almost 610,000 Americans dead and more than 34 million ill. In Michigan, we’re closing in on 900,000 people who have been sickened and almost 20,000 who have died.

That’s like the entire population of Monroe being wiped away — and we really don’t spend enough time talking about this unbelievably somber reality.

The U.S. Capitol is centered among the “Field of Flags” at night during the 59th Presidential Inauguration in Washingtion, D.C. The Field of Flags represents the victims of COVID-19. | CBP via Flickr Public Domain

Whitmer issued some of the toughest health restrictions in the nation to fight the virus’ spread during the first and second waves last year when Michigan was hit hard. Her pandemic response has generally been popular in polling and she’s earned kudos from national health experts for saving thousands of lives, but it wasn’t perfect — nor would any reasonable person expect it to be.

In reality, it wasn’t that she overdid it with mask requirements, limits on gatherings and business closures, as Republicans have wailed about with scant proof, as the economy is kicking along and unemployment is only 5%. If there’s anything to criticize, it’s that she didn’t shut down the state fast enough in March 2020 during the earliest days of the pandemic in Michigan and she inexplicably whiffed on issuing new restrictions during the third wave this spring.

Like many Democrats, including President Joe Biden, Whitmer has been staunchly committed to gaining GOP support for her health proposals, even though they’ve shown zero interest in bipartisanship or compromise. 

One of the biggest obstacles to getting coronavirus under control is that too many policymakers have obsessively attempted not to anger the very vocal minority of COVID conspiracy theorists, anti-vaxxers and far-right activists who have dominated news stories far more than they deserve to. 

You know, like the self-styled militiamen who allegedly plotted to kidnap and kill Whitmer last year over her health orders. Or like the fine AR-15-wielding folks who invaded Michigan’s Capitol last April during yet another GOP vote to yank Whitmer’s powers. That would later be called a “dress rehearsal” for the violent pro-Trump insurrection at the U.S. Capitol when our democracy teetered on the brink for several hours as right-wing activists tried to hunt down members of Congress and Vice President Mike Pence to stop Biden from being certified as the rightful winner of the 2020 election.

There’s no reasoning with folks like that who don’t believe in the social contract or even democracy itself. The sooner we accept this, the sooner we can start crafting policy solutions that work for the reasonable, sane majority.

But with leaders assiduously trying not to inflame those who have behaved the worst during the pandemic, like lifting mask mandates for the vaccinated but requiring zero proof because vaccine passports would hurt the feefees of conspiracists constantly egged on by GOP politicians, it results in an endless stupidity loop. 

We’re trapped, living through wave after wave of this lung-shredding disease with new, deadly, quicker-spreading variants popping up month after month.

And so, as health experts are warning a fourth wave is nigh, of course members of the world’s most unserious deliberative body, the Michigan Legislature, would be congratulating themselves for passing legislation making it harder for governors to handle crises.

There’s no reasoning with folks like that who don’t believe in the social contract or even democracy itself. The sooner we accept this, the sooner we can start crafting policy solutions that work for the reasonable, sane majority.

– Susan J. Demas

How exactly did we get to this ridiculous point? After the gun-toting protests that so many GOP legislators thought were really rad, Republicans had a sad because none of their bills quashing Whitmer’s powers were getting signed by the meanie governor, for some reason.

So the well-connected right-wing group Unlock Michigan launched a petition drive that would neuter the governor’s power last year. It was a cynical ploy to rile up the GOP’s radical base, keep wealthy donors engaged and amp up the hatred against Whitmer going into ‘22.

Republicans knew that as long as they got signatures from roughly 3% of Michigan’s population, they were golden, thanks to a quirk in Michigan law. Yep, that’s all it takes to get a citizen-led petition before the Legislature. And when your friends control it, in part due to gerrymandering (a story for a different time), they’ll of course approve it, which the Senate did last week and the House followed suit on Wednesday. 

And get this: The governor has no veto power. That’s a pretty neat way to impose the will of far-right activists and ultra-rich donors on the rest of us. Because Republicans enjoy nothing more than a good troll, they were sure to declare in various cliché ways that this was democracy at its finest.

There are currently no COVID restrictions and there’s little indication that Whitmer will reinstate any, even if the fourth wave devastates our state. 

Her administration has put all its hopes in hitting herd immunity through vaccinations, even helping organize lottery-style prizes to motivate the incalcitrant to get a shot that could save their lives and others. Sadly, that seems to be doing little to move the needle, which is unsurprising when one of our two major parties is in thrall to COVID conspiracists and most Michigan Republican lawmakers won’t even say if they’re vaccinated.

So on some levels, what legislative Republicans did this week in approving the Unlock Michigan petition doesn’t really matter in the short-term. But it will when another crisis hits. And it does send the loud, proud message that the GOP will always fight science and common sense and do the wrong thing during this pandemic.

Having the party that controls our state Legislature — and those in the majority of states — fight efforts to keep people healthy and alive at every turn has been truly terrifying.

How many more people have to die so they can keep their anti-science, anti-common-sense base happy? We will unfortunately continue to find out.

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Susan J. Demas

Susan J. Demas is a 22-year journalism veteran and one of the state’s foremost experts on Michigan politics, appearing on MSNBC, CNN, NPR and WKAR-TV’s “Off the Record.” In addition to serving as Editor-in-Chief, she is the Advance’s chief columnist, writing on women, LGBTQs, the state budget, the economy and more. For almost five years, Susan was the Editor and Publisher of Inside Michigan Politics, the most-cited political newsletter in the state. Susan’s award-winning political analysis has run in more than 80 national, international and regional media outlets, including the Guardian U.K., NBC News, the New York Times, the Detroit News and MLive.