I live a little more than a mile from the University of Iowa Hospital and Clinics—a big, excellent research and teaching hospital. Iowa’s depopulating rural outlands can’t support many hospitals, so UIHC is, for many Iowans, the only high-quality, full-service hospital within a hundred miles. There’s no point in motoring an ambulance an hour or more into the hustings to fetch an ailing farmer; you might as well send a hearse. This is why UIHC has a small fleet of helicopter ambulances.
Pre-COVID-19, I’d spot one of the AirCare choppers speeding overheard maybe once a month. Right now, I see or hear at least one pretty much every day, and it fills me with dread every time. Somebody’s been struggling so mightily to draw breath they could die in the time it would take to drive to Iowa City. That’s what I assume the helicopter means. But I’m only catching the flights heading south and back. I can’t imagine how exhausted the pilots and flying doctors and EMTs must be. Sometimes I hear them in the dead of night.
Elaine Godfrey’s outstanding reported piece in The Atlantic captures the carnage Iowans have been suffering thanks to our state government’s willful negligence. It’s heartbreaking, even if you don’t have to hear the damn helicopters. She writes:
The story of the coronavirus in Iowa is one of government inaction in the name of freedom and personal responsibility. Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds has followed President Dondald Trump’s lead in downplaying the virus’s seriousness. She never imposed a full stay-at-home order for the state and allowed bars and restaurants to open much earlier than in other places. She imposed a mask mandate for the first time this month–one that healthcare professionals consider comically ineffectual–and has questioned the science behind wearing masks at all. Through the month of November, Iowa vacillated between 1,700 and 5,500 cases every day. This week, the state’s test-positivity rate reached 50 percent. Iowa is what happens when a government does basically nothing to stop the spread of a deadly virus.
By November, the number of new COVID-19 cases in Iowa was higher than at any other point in the pandemic, and as many as 45 Iowans were dying of the disease every 24 hours in a state of just 3 million people.
Godfrey reports that epidemiologists expect Iowa to suffer a “super-peak” in late December and early January, which will lead to hundreds of more preventable, but unprevented, deaths. Eli Perencevich, an infectious disease specialist at UIHC, says, “In a lot of ways, Iowa is serving as the control group of what not to do.”
Having been forced into the control group of what not to do has left me feeling overwhelmed by a sense of helpless betrayal. I’m certainly not the only one here who feels this way. Sadly, there aren’t enough of us.
Donald Trump won Iowa by an eight-point margin—just two points off his 2016 performance. Joni Ernst won re-election by six points—just two points off her 2014 performance. Democrats lost at least one House seat. (In my own district, according to the latest recount, Rita Hart, the Democratic incumbent, trails Marianne Miller-Meeks, the Republican challenger, by six votes. Six!) If Governor Kim Reynolds had been up for re-election this year, she almost certainly would have won.
But, but, but …. How? This is the same question posed in my last column in the Times, writ small. I think I got the answer right, as far as it goes. The pre-pandemic economy was stronger than Democrats were inclined to credit. The CARES Act worked to temporarily mute the economic pain of the initial pandemic downturn. Trump drove in the wedge of polarized negative partisanship to further detach Republican voters from credible sources of information. He lied and lied and lied to convince the GOP base that the severity of the virus was overblown; that COVID-19 wasn’t really killing that many people—or, if it was, that nothing realistic could have been done about it; that the economy would have remained the greatest in American history if not for an easily dismissed technicality; that insofar as businesses were failing and Americans were out of work, Democratic hysteria and/or sabotage were to blame. Republicans, following Trump’s shamelessly blustering lead, somehow managed to transform their abysmal failure to contain the virus and prevent mass death into a triumph for freedom and the working man. It worked.
That’s what I can’t stop fixating on. It worked. Kim Reynolds fully endorsed Trump’s hyper-partisan denialism and aggressively opposed municipal public health restrictions and mask mandates, which led very predictably to the needless deaths of thousands of Iowans and turned our state into a hotbed of contagion. Iowans then went to the polls and said, in effect, “Great job! Keep it up!”
This is hard to take. It makes me more than a little crazy. In retrospect, I feel I should have known better, but I honestly didn’t think this would work. I don’t know how many times over the past year I’ve thought, “What the hell does Reynolds think she’s doing? What do Republicans think they’re doing? They’re gonna get slaughtered over this.” Because … how could they not?
Well, I knew how they could not. I grasped that elections won’t function very well as referenda on the performance of incumbents when perceptions of performance are laden with partisan bias. I grasped that polarization just is growing partisan disagreement over the standards we ought to apply to judge performance in office, as well as disagreement over basic empirical facts that figure into these judgments. I grasped that Trump masterfully inflames polarization and leverages negative partisanship to turn supporters into a captive audience hostile to credible sources of information. But I assumed that the reality distortion field would glitch out when imposed on something so existentially consequential. Surely the awful reality of ubiquitous mass death and our disastrous economy would break through.
I think Democrats got caught flat-footed by Republican inaction and obstruction, because they made the same mistake I did. It was just too hard to believe that the GOP would not get roundly punished at the polls for such a momentous failure, even if you were prepared to understand why they wouldn’t. The pandemic seemed too big for those rules to apply. It is a literal, immediate, urgent, visceral matter of life or death, Republicans have screwed it up royally, and people generally don’t want to encourage people who are actively trashing their economic prospects and putting their lives at risk.
If you think these claims are plainly, obviously true—and they are—you won’t be inclined to see it as a partial, partisan opinion. It’s just reality, man. But that reality made it hard not to think Republicans would pay for their catastrophic failures. Of course, Trump did everything in his power to turn plain truth into something only an un-American, pro-looting, fetus-slaughtering Democrat would believe. I just didn’t think it would work as well as it did. That is to say, I wasn’t cynical enough about negative partisanship. I could see it working right under my nose—shutdown protests, family and old friends indulging in science denialism on social media, angry anti-maskism—but I guess I just couldn’t accept that so few Republicans would see through it or grasp how dangerous it all is.
I think the Democratic Party made the same mistake, which obscured the need to hit back much harder against the GOP’s Trumpist pandemic talking points. This complacency was compounded by systematically inaccurate polling, which appeared to validate Democrats’ false assumptions that the GOP’s disastrous neglect would demoralize conservative voters and bleed away support.
I’m not sure there’s anything Democrats could have done to keep Trump or Joni Ernst from winning here, but they could have kept it closer. They certainly could have kept Rita Hart from losing a Democratic House seat by six votes. In any case, it’s depressing as hell to think that Republicans did so well here in part because Democrats made overly optimistic assumptions about Republican voters.
I wish I could say that I was confident that Democrats won’t underestimate the reality-distorting power of Republican negative partisanship again. It’s tempting to think that it won’t be so bad once Trump’s gone, and I do think it will get a bit better. That guy is the absolute worst. However, Trump has just shown Republicans how much they can get away with if they weaponize polarization to make the consequences of their leadership, or lack thereof, more or less irrelevant to the outcome of elections. This should chill us to the bone, because, as Godfrey reports, here are the coming consequences for Iowans:
An end to the pandemic is in sight: The United States is mere weeks away from being able to vaccinate health-care workers and vulnerable members of the public. It would be helpful if, when it’s time to distribute those vaccines, local hospitals were not on the verge of collapse. But right now, Iowa is on a disastrous path. Experts expect to see a spike in COVID-19 cases in the state roughly one week from now, two weeks after the Thanksgiving holiday. That spike will likely precede a surge in hospitalizations and, eventually, a wave of new deaths—maybe as many as 80 a day, Perencevich, the infectious-disease doctor, estimates. Add Christmas and New Year’s to the mix, and Iowans can expect to see nothing less than a tsunami, Perencevich says.
Here’s what I want for Christmas.
I want it to matter in the 2022 gubernatorial election that Kim Reynolds did this to us. That is to say, I want her political career impaled on a spike. We’re doomed if causing this much suffering and death—if making your state the control group of what not to do—doesn’t wreck an incumbents’ prospects for re-election. Also, I want to not hear the helicopter of the damned this Christmas—not just because it pains me to hear it, but because no one should needlessly perish miles from home and utterly alone on Christmas day. Did I say I want Kim Reynolds’ political career drawn and quartered? I want it drawn and quartered and then impaled on a spike. She needs to become an infamous case study in what not to do. As it happens, the cosmos is indifferent to injustice, doesn’t care what we want, and Santa Claus doesn’t exist, so I’m probably not going to get any of this. Still, a guy can hope. What is life—what is Christmas—without hope?