One issue for Republican politics at the moment is that the only criterion that matters for anyone seeking power—absolute fealty to Donald Trump—rarely seems to overlap with competence. “It’s by nature almost impossible for Trump to build an administration of quality,” historian Douglas Brinkley told me what seems a lifetime ago. “It’s not about good governance or ethics or even dead-rock patriotism. It’s about full-bore allegiance to him, to Trump.” This is true of the president’s Cabinet and someone like Wilbur Ross, the Secretary of Commerce, who predicted in January that the novel coronavirus outbreak would be good for American jobs. 10 million people have filed for unemployment in the last two weeks.
But it’s also true of the new class of Republican governors, who have pledged allegiance to The Leader, but who are also often feckless morons. Exhibit A is one Brian Kemp, governor of Georgia. Mr. Kemp ran for the top job in 2018 while he was secretary of state, meaning he had authority to administer state elections, and he refused to recuse himself from overseeing the gubernatorial election in which he was running. This is known as a conflict of interest. In a shocking turn of events, there was a lot of sketchy shit around voter suppression in that election. (In the last few days, both the Republican president and Georgia Speaker of the House David Ralston have said outright that it is to the party’s detriment for more Americans to vote.) Anyway, Kemp oversaw his own narrow victory over Stacey Abrams, and now he’s the governor during a worldwide pandemic.
In his very finite wisdom, Kemp did not put in place statewide mitigation measures like social distancing until Wednesday, when he announced his reversal with a stunning admission.
There is simply no way you could have been paying any attention over the last month—or really months—and not know that coronavirus can be spread by people who are not exhibiting symptoms. No way. Even your average Hannity viewer must surely know this by now. After all, Ol’ Sean is on a campaign these days to pretend he’s always taken this seriously. But somehow, the governor of the nation’s ninth-largest state was completely unaware of asymptomatic transmission until sometime between Tuesday and Wednesday—and it scared him!
Unfortunately, this is what you get when “competent administration” is not among your criteria for choosing a state executive. All you need to make it in Republican politics these days is to lash yourself to Trump and start yelling about immigrant crime. Just to Georgia’s south, there’s Florida, where Governor Ron DeSantis rose to lead the nation’s fourth-largest state as another Trumpish clone.
As a result, his primary response until the last few days was to suggest that the virus was a New York Problem, mandating that anyone traveling from the Empire State—which has been hardest hit—quarantine themselves when they arrive in Florida. Every problem can be traced to some external enemy, against whom retribution can be taken in order to remedy the issue. This response was an anachronism, however: the virus was almost certainly floating around Florida already. It probably didn’t help that DeSantis refused to close the state’s beaches before thousands from all over the country came down for Spring Break, where they mingled together until it was time to go home and bring with them whatever they picked up during the festivities. In fairness, DeSantis’s Democratic opponent in that gubernatorial election was recently found in a hotel room with another guy and some meth. Florida.
But Kemp in particular is an emblem of the militant ignorance which is now required to make it in Republican political life. If you actually know things, you will frequently find yourself in disagreement with the president, so it’s best to dunk your head in the sand and, when you occasionally come up for air, bash immigrants. The president was briefed on the full catastrophic possibilities of the COVID-19 pandemic in January—including that China was fudging its numbers on how bad the situation was there—and chose to downplay the problem for the better part of two months in public. A little over a month ago, he said the number of U.S. cases would go from 15 to zero in a miraculous turn of events. Now there are 214,000 cases in the United States—including 7,700 in Florida and nearly 5,000 in Georgia—and the president has suggested his administration will have done a “good job” if 200,000 Americans die. It’s almost like governing is a hard job that requires people with intelligence and skill to do it.