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Republicans ignored Covid to protect Trump. Now they're motivated by something worse.

Call it the "Make Covid Great Again" agenda.
Photo illustration: A red cap that reads,\"Make Covid Great Again\" with the Republican party elephant above it.
Anjali Nair / MSNBC; Getty Images

A striking number of the top Republican contenders for a 2024 presidential run are increasingly bucking commonsense measures to prevent the spread of Covid-19 and framing them as tyrannical, even as the delta variant of the coronavirus wreaks havoc on their own constituents. Call it the "Make Covid Great Again" agenda — a commitment to gamble on people's lives to stand out as conservative leaders and stay at the front of the pack for a potential White House bid.

Potential 2024 contender Ted Cruz introduced legislation last week that would overturn rules requiring masks on federal property.

The Washington Post has a good report summarizing how some of the key potential White House hopefuls have been spearheading a pro-Covid agenda lately:

"In Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott has banned local governments from implementing mask requirements even as he pleads for emergency medical help in combating a surge in coronavirus cases from the delta variant. In South Dakota, Gov. Kristi Noem welcomed hundreds of thousands of revelers to the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, which last year bore characteristics of a superspreader event. And in Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis is waging war on school districts seeking to defy his executive order prohibiting mask mandates for students — while the state's rates of hospitalization from Covid surge past the worst levels of 2020."

And over in the Senate, potential 2024 contender Ted Cruz introduced legislation last week that would overturn rules requiring masks on federal property and make it illegal to require anyone to get a vaccine that received emergency use authorization from the Food and Drug Administration, even if it is given full approval later. Of course, many hospitals and a growing number of businesses have been requiring Covid vaccines, and the Pentagon has announced plans to require them of active-duty troops.

It's a dispiriting trend, to put it lightly. Sure, Republicans and right-wing media have downplayed the dangers of Covid-19 and bucked policies to contain it since the beginning of the pandemic. But initially one fact made that more explicable: 2020 was an election year, and there was a discernible political incentive for Republicans to ignore the virus to protect then-President Donald Trump's reputation and win elections. It was morally perverse but at least intelligible as a political agenda.

This time around, as Democrats control the White House and Congress, as the delta variant causes extraordinary surges in hospitalizations and as the end of the pandemic is receding further into the future, Republicans have a perfect opportunity to go moderate on Covid-19. In fact, they have an opportunity to try to hold Democrats' feet to the fire over containing the virus as the pandemic intensifies and use Democrats' own Covid concerns against them.

It has become a mark of political ambition to paint basic public health protocols to prevent Covid transmission as a Trojan horse for totalitarianism.

But while some Republicans have sought to heed expert advice about Covid-19, it has become a mark of political ambition to paint basic public health protocols to prevent Covid transmission as a Trojan horse for totalitarianism.

DeSantis, who has consistently strived to present himself a natural successor to Trump, warned against the specter of a "Faucian dystopia" at a right-wing conference this summer, calling for conservatives to say "no to lockdowns, no to school closures, no to restrictions and no [to] mandates."

It's also clear that for Noem, a pointed refusal to do anything to slow the spread of Covid-19 is a way to prove her conservative bona fides.

"We've got Republican governors across this country pretending they didn't shut down their states, that they didn't close their regions, that they didn't mandate masks," she said at the Conservative Political Action Conference in July, all but mentioning DeSantis and Abbott by name. "Now, I'm not picking fights with Republican governors. All I'm saying is that we need leaders with grit. That their first instinct is the right instinct."

Noem sees her refusal to have any lockdown in South Dakota as a sign that she's more authentically right-wing than her rivals.

Meanwhile, Abbott has fought against mask mandates but tried to shift the blame onto immigrants by signing an executive order restricting border entries into Texas. The order is unlikely to do anything to save people from getting sick, but it does help him pander to his anti-immigrant base and gives him a Trumpian talking point.

2024 is certainly a long way off, but in American politics, the presidential race is more or less ever-present. (It's terrible, but it's just another exceptional feature of our political system and culture.) There are already a lot of signs that Republican jockeying for the spotlight will further politicize measures to protect the public in a bid to claim the mantle of fiercest freedom fighter. In the meantime, the public will pay the price for their callous extremism.