A far-right rallying cry: Older Americans should volunteer to work

Forget “15 days to slow the spread.” A growing chorus of conservatives have started arguing that older adults should voluntarily return to work to save the country from financial ruin.

Call it “economic patriotism.”

The proposal has taken root in some conservative circles, filtering up from far-right websites to radio pundits to a few prominent politicians to, finally, Fox News. To its proponents, the approach is merely the cold reality that the country needs to avoid another Great Depression. To its detractors, it’s like a battlefield cry to offer up your own life for the sake of the gross domestic product. To health professionals, it’s a recipe for extending the coronavirus pandemic.

Though it’s by no means the overwhelming opinion of Republicans or conservatives at large, the argument seems to have arisen from one strain of the wartime mentality that has emerged during the coronavirus crisis. And as President Donald Trump nears the end of his 15-day call for social distancing, it’s a philosophy that could influence the decision-making within the White House. Trump is known to take cues from a number of conservative pundits who are off the mainstream radar.

“The way that people are talking sounds a lot like the populist nationalism that made up the wave that Trump rode first to the Republican nomination and then to the White House, because it’s phrased in ways that talk about the common good — except ‘the common good’ is really ‘the country’s bottom line succeeds,’” said Seth Mandel, executive editor of the conservative Washington Examiner, in an interview.

Public health leaders have warned that easing the current social-distancing measures — particularly by mid-April, as Trump has signaled — could allow the coronavirus to embed itself in new communities and spread even more rapidly in existing hotbeds. Hospitals are already worried about medical equipment shortages, as well as a limited availability of beds, and any further exacerbation of the situation would threaten to completely overwhelm the health care system.

Yet over the past several days, more right-wing commentators have argued that the health costs of containing the coronavirus, which researchers say has now sickened more than 80,000 Americans and killed over 1,000, is not worth the irreparable economic cost to the U.S. financial system of keeping millions unemployed. Last week alone, over 3.3 million Americans filed for unemployment benefits, hammering home the dire situation.

Older Americans tend to earn more money than their younger counterparts, and are more likely to serve in managerial roles, making them key drivers of the country’s economy. Older Americans are also more at risk of dying or exhibiting severe symptoms if they contract the coronavirus.

Smaller, more traditionally conservative sites like The Federalist have started running articles suggesting the economic downfall of social distancing could ruin people’s lives to the point that “[p]robably almost everyone would be willing to live a somewhat shorter normal life rather than a somewhat longer life under current conditions.” The site even advocated solutions such as hosting “chickenpox parties” to expose children to the novel coronavirus to build herd immunity — an article Twitter swiftly suspended for promoting scientific misinformation.

It’s not an argument being made solely by stringent nationalist conservatives.

R.R. Robin, editor at the religious journal First Things, suggested that New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s declaration that he would do anything to save lives was “demonic” in nature.

“Satan prefers sentimental humanists,” he wrote, and called the mass shutdown of New York City a sign that political and religious leaders had “signal[ed] by their actions that they, too, accept death’s dominion.”

Variations of that sentiment have found adherents in more popular conservative pundits and even a few prominent politicians. Radio host Glenn Beck, the onetime Fox News star, declared this week that he “would rather die” than kill the economy.

“I would rather have my children stay home and all of us who are over 50 go in and keep this economy going and working, even if we all get sick,” he said during his Tuesday radio panel. “I would rather die than kill the country, because it’s not the economy that’s dying, it’s the country.”

And Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, himself a former radio talk show host, went on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show to argue that older Americans would willingly sacrifice themselves to keep the economy afloat and prevent the country from sliding into a depression.

“Let’s get back to living, let’s be smart about it, and those of us who are 70-plus, we’ll take care of ourselves,” Patrick said.

Fox News anchor Brit Hume later called the theory “an entirely reasonable viewpoint.”

Matt Lewis, a conservative opinion columnist at the Daily Beast, was unsurprised that his peers had made this suggestion, though he cautioned the view was not shared by the vast majority of right-leaning Americans, commentators and politicians.

“I suspect most conservatives simply think that the coronavirus worries are over-hyped, and that it might be possible to find a middle ground where we save our economy and also protect lives,” he said.

But this new argument, he said, played into a common Republican stereotype: “There has long been a sense that we care more about money and that we believe in a sort of ‘survival of the fittest.’”

It’s also a reflection of the country’s wartime stance against the coronavirus. Trump has encouraged the public to view him as a wartime president locked in “our historic battle with the invisible enemy.” Public leaders of both parties have also urged Trump to invoke the wartime Defense Production Act, which allows the federal government to redirect factories to address equipment shortages.

The economic patriotism conversation has drawn comparisons to the so-called death panel attack during the debate over Obamacare, when conservatives argued that the Obama administration’s health care plan would eventually let the government dictate who lived and who died for the greater good of the country’s economy.

But Lewis, the Daily Beast columnist, noted that the “Midsommar”-esque sacrifice of the elderly was a uniquely conservative — or, at least a Trump-era conservative — view of how to protect the country.

“A few years ago, the idea of death panels was worrisome. But what were they? The idea was a sort of triage — that if government was paying the bills, government might decide that some people are too sick (and expensive) to be worth saving,” he said.

Ironically, Lewis said, the argument of exposing older Americans to the invisible coronavirus to satiate the invisible hand was simply a larger-scale version of this phenomenon.

“If death panels were enacted, decisions would be made on a case-by-case basis, although there would be guidelines. That’s the micro version. The macro version is for a leader to just decide to sacrifice the aged and vulnerable for the sake of GDP.”

Though it’s extremely unlikely that the Trump administration would adopt this as a serious policy suggestion, the mere existence of the argument underscores the growing unease about the toll the coronavirus on the country’s economy, and by extension, its standing in the world.

“It sounds to me a lot like, ‘this is how we win as a nation, as a people, as a country,’” said the Washington Examiner’s Mandel.