What is the Republican position on the pandemic? No, really.

April 24, 2020 6:13 am
U.S. President Donald Trump stands in the colonnade as he is introduced to speak to March for Life participants and pro-life leaders in the Rose Garden at the White House on January 19, 2018 in Washington, DC. | Mark Wilson/Getty Images

U.S. President Donald Trump stands in the colonnade as he is introduced to speak to March for Life participants and pro-life leaders in the Rose Garden at the White House | Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Here are a couple of things you should know about the Reopen Wisconsin rally today:

Sen. Ron Johnson with a U.S. coast guard cap in front of a drug-seizing boat
Sen. Ron Johnson via Facebook

It’s too crazy for Sen. Ron Johnson — the guy who suggested we weigh the relative costs of merely wiping out 1% to 3% of the U.S. population (more than have died in all the wars in U.S. history) against the potentially greater damage to the U.S. economy of an extended shutdown. Johnson won’t be attending the Reopen Wisconsin rally. “I’m not going to gather in crowds,” he told The New York Times, adding that he wears a mask when he goes grocery shopping in Oshkosh. “I have enough fear and respect of this illness that I’m not going to do that myself. I’m not encouraging anybody to do it,” he said of the rally.

Who is going? Here’s a clue: State Republican party treasurer Brian Westrate is asking rally-goers to leave their Confederate flags and AK-47s at home. 

“I well understand that the Confederacy was more about states’ rights than slavery,” Westrate wrote in the Reopen Wisconsin Facebook group. “But that does not change the truth of how we should try to control the optics during the event.”

Yeah, those optics are a concern, all right.

Confederate flag with gun and Trump 2020 flags fly at Michigan rally
Conservative protest at Michigan’s Capitol against Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, April 15, 2020 (Michigan Advance)

As Wisconsin’s best-known conservative pundit never-Trumper Charlie Sykes points out, Wisconsin was never part of the Confederacy, so those Confederate flags that showed up at the Reopen rally in Brookfield can’t claim “any ‘heritage’ cover story … There’s only one reason someone in Wisconsin would fly the Stars ‘n’ Bars.”

The Republicans have travelled a long distance since their founding as an abolitionist party in Ripon, Wisconsin, in 1854.

In this new moment of historic national crisis, what is the Republican  position, anyway?

It can’t be states’ rights, with Reopen rallies protesting state-level policies and pumping up Donald Trump, the president who recently declared he has “total authority” to direct shut-downs in the pandemic.

To be fair, Republicans who support the president are in a tough spot, since he changes positions daily. Just ask the governor of Georgia. 

Trump distanced himself from Georgia’s reopening, even as he went on encouraging “freedom” rallies like the one in Wisconsin today to protest stay-at-home orders in other states.

I asked Sykes what he thinks is the reasonable conservative position on the pandemic.

“The reasonable conservative position is to listen to the health experts, and not rush into a radical and reckless experiment with people’s lives,” he replied. “I understand the concerns about the economy and the pushback against government regulations; but you can’t restart the economy without stopping the pandemic first; and the first role of any government is to protect the life and safety of its residents.”

“Ironically the pro-life party has become the ‘I’d rather get my haircut’ party,” he added.

MILWAUKEE, WI - JANUARY 14: U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a rally at UW Milwaukee's Panther Arena. Trump, who is the third president to face impeached, now faces an impending trial in the Senate. (Photo by Joshua Lott/Getty Images)
MILWAUKEE, WI – JANUARY 14: U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a rally at UW Milwaukee’s Panther Arena. (Photo by Joshua Lott/Getty Images)

Or just the party of denial. Trump’s suggestion in a COVID briefing on Thursday that irradiating people with UV light, or perhaps injecting them with disinfectants, might be the solution to the pandemic, is getting into real parallel-universe territory. This guy is lucky there’s a whole Dark Web full of wingnuts. He’s losing the reality-based community fast.

New polling suggests swing state support for Trump is weakening as the Republicans go big on the Party of Death thing.


Wisconsin’s GOP legislative leaders have more or less adopted the Trump strategy — refusing to lead, and looking for a way to build up personal power during the pandemic while shifting the blame for anything that goes wrong.

The Wisconsin Legislature, obsessed with its own power, went to the state Supreme Court this week to complain that, by extending the Safer at Home order, Gov. Tony Evers and DHS Secretary-designee Andrea Palm were doing “irreparable harm” to … the Legislature. With the number of cases of COVID-19 in the state at 5,052, and 257 Wisconsinites dead from the virus, this is their primary concern.

Attorney Lester Pines, who has represented labor groups against state Republicans, points out that “they had more than ample time to pass detailed legislation to deal with a communicable disease. They did nothing. They sat on their hands. They don’t want to actually legislate.”

Pines and other attorneys think there’s a chance that the Supreme Court will refuse to take the case and tell the Legislature to do its job instead of running to the court it considers its handmaiden to overturn things the governor does.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) works the polling location wearing plastic gloves and gown in addition to a face mask in his Racine-area district on 4/7/20. (Photo contributed by Vos office).
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) works the polling location in his Racine-area district on 4/7/20. (Photo contributed by the Vos office).

In the short run, the GOP got its way last time they pursued this strategy, when the Supreme Court overturned Evers’ order pushing off in-person voting on April 7.  But when the results came in it turned out that forcing voters to the polls in a pandemic — widely seen as a GOP voter suppression strategy — had backfired. Democratic favorite Jill Karofsky beat the Republican-backed Supreme Court Justice Dan Kelly by more than 10 points. 

The other results of the election are still showing up in the form of positive tests. So far, 19 voters and poll workers who showed up that day have come down with COVID-19.

The long-term outlook for the Republicans’ “I-want-to-go-out, so-what-if-people-die” approach does not look promising, either. Which is perhaps why the GOP seems to be a little tentative about fully embracing it. 

The thinly-veiled racist argument that coronavirus is only affecting “those people” in Milwaukee and Dane County, and therefore the rest of the state should be opened, is starting to erode, as more cases turn up in rural areas.

And new polls from Public Policy Polling show swing-state voters trust their own governors more than Trump to handle the pandemic. Nor do they buy into the open-up-now crowd’s message. In answer to the question, “Who do you trust more to protect Wisconsin from the coronavirus: Governor Evers, or President Trump?” 1,415 Wisconsin respondents polled between April 20-21 picked Evers over Trump by a margin of 54-to-39, with 8% saying they weren’t sure.

Asked if the country is doing the right thing in terms of social distancing, 53% of Wisconsinites answered yes, while 23% said we need more aggressive measures, and only 21% thought we should be taking less aggressive measures. 

Across swing states, the polling suggests that the pandemic is hurting Trump’s re-election chances. Trump trails former Vice President Joe Biden in all four states PPP polled — Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania and North Carolina. And in all of those states, voters trust their governors significantly more than Trump.

“It’s no secret why voters in these states trust their governors more than President Trump to keep them safe during this crisis – his incoherent and disastrous response continues to put their health and safety at risk,” says Protect Our Care Executive Director Brad Woodhouse, whose group commissioned the polling. 

And as Trump’s approval sinks, his party sinks with him. Now is the time to jump ship. History will not look kindly on this era of Republican leadership.

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Ruth Conniff
Ruth Conniff

Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. Conniff is a frequent guest on MSNBC and has appeared on Good Morning America, Democracy Now!, Wisconsin Public Radio, CNN, Fox News and many other radio and television outlets. She has also written for The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times, among other publications. Her book "Milked: How an American Crisis Brought Together Midwestern Dairy Farmers and Mexican Workers" won the 2022 Studs and Ida Terkel Award from The New Press.