BY JOHN WOOD
“All Jobs are essential, get Oklahoma back to work!” was hastily scribbled just above “Give me Liberty” in red and blue bubble letters on poster board, carefully nailed on a wood pallet. The sign sat upright in the back of a huge Chevrolet Silverado, parked in front of the State Capitol for nearly an hour on the traditional April 15 “Tax Day,” setting the stage for at least 15 states to prematurely open up for business, including Oklahoma.
A hundred or so protesters from far-right groups such as OK Back 2 Work, Constitutional Grounds and the Tom Coburn-inspired Oklahoma Taxpayers Unite [OTU] organized and surrounded the statehouse in their vehicles.
“Back2Work” and “#ReopenOk!” were scrawled in white shoe polish on dozens of truck and car windows, slowly driving, single-file, horns honking around the Capitol after caravanning from Penn Square Mall.
The next day, President Donald Trump, in hopes of a Tea Party redux for his campaign, stoked this resentment, tweeting to “liberate” Virginia, Michigan and Wisconsin – all states with Democratic governors – by reopening for business despite the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I hope Gov. Stitt hears this loud and clear,” declared one woman with a microphone, reporting for the OTU Facebook live show hosted by Adam Modisette.
While ignoring both Stitt’s statewide ban on nonessential gatherings of more than 10 and their own pledge “to remain in their vehicles,” 30 or more sign-carrying protesters stood in close proximity to each other near the Capitol steps as if it were a regular day – none wearing masks or gloves.
Oklahoma City Mayor David Holt chided protesters, warning they were likely to “get sick” as a result of their antics. Holt’s sentiments resonate nationwide, a recent Politico/Morning Consult Poll found 81% say we need to continue to social distance as long as needed to curb COVID-19.
Contradictions aside, the protesters’ frustration is hardly surprising. As recently as February, unemployment in Oklahoma was as low as 3.2%, lowest since at least 2000. In March, in the wake of COVID-19, state unemployment soared 865%, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The sudden economic tumult fueled a wave of tribalism and finger-pointing.
CONSPIRACY THEORIES ABOUND
Two years after OTU protested teacher raises in Oklahoma, many far-right groups are driven again to demonstrate publicly – this time in the belief the pandemic is the result of one or more conspiracies.
A prime example involves billionaire Microsoft founder Bill Gates. In 2015, Gates led a Ted Talk derived from a more detailed New England Journal of Medicine article, predicting the need to prepare for the next health crisis, not just war, because it would have the power to destabilize the U.S.
Gates’ role yielded this April 15 post on OTU’s Facebook page: “The #GatesOfHell loves us so much that he wants to implant us with a tracking microchip we will need to buy, sell or travel. #MarkOfTheBeast.” The post was linked to a posting on Red Pill University website entitled “Bill Gates and Intellectual Ventures Fund Microchip Implant Vaccine Technology.”
Factcheck.com labeled this as a conspiracy, claiming “Gates is plotting to use COVID-19 testing and a future vaccine to track people with microchips.” It went on to explain that while the Gates Foundation has advocated for increased testing and has even funded vaccine research in the past, neither involved implanting microchips.
OTU, like many of President Trump’s supporters, has found a convenient scapegoat with China, depicting the virus as either the “Chinese Virus” or the “Wuhan Virus.” Of course, I guess what is good for the goose is good for the gander, as the Chinese have started calling it the “USA virus,” according to the Atlantic.
While Trump canceled travel from China early on, the Daily Beast reported, he failed to make good use of the month or so of extra time it gave him to ramp up a U.S. response to the coming pandemic. Instead, he downplayed the dangers of COVID-19 – with disastrous consequences.
Naturally, the Fox gas-lighters immediately parroted the new party line it was an “impeachment distraction.” Even as late as the end of February, Trump told rallies it was just another Democratic “hoax.”
So, it is not surprising that even in the U.S. with the most COVID-related infections and deaths in the world, many of his supporters take his word over health experts when it comes to loosening restrictions imposed because of the pandemic.
On OTU’s Facebook page, for example, the group moderator posted his conspiracy-fueled rationale for the Oklahoma City rally:
“It’s clear that the plan from the beginning was to allow this virus to run wild in high profile places like New York and Italy to create fear. It is also clear that people like Dr. Anthony Fauci were activated to ensure the worst possible response to the crisis would be implemented in the U.S. And now, after more than a month after shutting down whole swaths of our economy and locking people in their homes under effective house arrest it’s also clear that most of this response was overblown and unnecessary.”
In this era of post-truth, where debate is framed largely by emotional appeals far removed from details and facts and talking points substitute for reality, I take delight that the Business Insiderstill finds Dr. Fauci as the most trusted expert on COVID, much higher than Trump by far.
At the same time unfortunately, TV’s Dr. Oz told Fox News host Sean Hannity that “opening of schools may only cost us 2% to 3%, in terms of total mortality. Any, you know, any life is a life lost, but … that might be a tradeoff some folks would consider.”
Of course, the New York Times found in 2010, Dr. Oz, a physician but not an expert in infectious diseases, started Sharecare.com, which has been criticized for it’s marketing multiple corporate interests.
THE RIGHT TIME?
Is this the right time to open up the state for business when health experts estimated COVID-19 infections and deaths to peak in late April? Well, most Americans were not buying it. A Pew Research Center poll found 73% of respondents nationally still feared the worst is still to come and 65% said Trump was too slow to react to the outbreak.
Epidemiologists – including Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious disease expert – warned it was too early to open up, especially when states like Oklahoma hadn’t yet reached their forecast peak.
“We’re not there yet,” Fauci said, primarily because the nation still lacks the capacity to test and trace new cases.
Thus, the OTU moderator’s Facebook post: “#FireFauci Should be the Rallying Cry for a Generation #AnthonyFauci.”
For daring to stress the facts and science about COVID-19, Fauci became the target of death threats and was forced to beef up security.
Stitt, meanwhile, was unmoved by warnings he’s loosening restrictions too soon: “I know Oklahomans are frustrated, ready to get life back to normal. Our plan is to do it safely.”
With his statewide “safer-at-home” directive set to expire April 30, the governor took steps to allow some businesses to begin opening April 24, including nail and hair salons, barber shops, and dog groomers parlors. Then, on May 1, restaurants, theaters, sports venues, churches and other entities would be allowed to reopen providing they adhere to social distancing and strict sanitation. A further loosening of restrictions could begin May 15 if the COVID-19 infection and hospitalization rates remain what Stitt called “manageable.”
In the lead-up to Stitt’s re-opening announcement, “Let’s Get Oklahoma Open for Business” became a hot social media meme, a slogan accompanied by the state motto, “Labor Omnia Vinci – Work Conquers All!” The message declared Oklahomans were being “placed under hardship” by COVID-19. Even though “the number of people being hospitalized and dying” is “far fewer than anticipated,” the state “continues to remain closed for business.”
It also labeled Stitt’s “safer-at-home” policies “unconstitutional.”
Responses to this poster on Facebook were mostly supportive, one writing “The virus is a scam. It’s nothing like predicted. Just a way for the Dems to make more money.”
Others weren’t buying. One woman responded: “This ‘parade’ for businesses to reopen … says to stay in your cars to adhere to social distancing guidelines … I’m not sure they understand the meaning of irony.”
TOM COBURN’S LEGACY
The auto rally wasn’t just about unemployment – it reflects a mindset championed by former Sen. Coburn, who died recently of cancer.
The Coburn-inspired and -supported Oklahoma Taxpayers Unite emerged in 2018 when Coburn pushed for a petition aimed at repealing the $400 million tax measure that gave teachers their first pay increase in a decade.
“Dr. No,” as the senator was known, was widely considered the Godfather of the modern conservative, austerity movement in the United States. In two decades as a congressman, then U.S. senator, Coburn fought tirelessly against “earmarks” and for term limits, gun rights, the death penalty, and fiscal conservativism.
His alternative vision to the teacher pay raise? Reduce waste and increase efficiency in an already cash-starved public-school system, which suffered the nation’s steepest budget cuts – 28% – in the previous decade.
Fortunately, Coburn and OTU failed to secure enough petition signatures and defend against petition challenges and the movement seemed to largely fell into abeyance.
And for a man who said he didn’t attack people and believed instead that one should debate the nature of their differences to try to reach an agreement that wouldn’t compromise principle, the organization Coburn birthed is not much into compromise, but more into conspiracy.
OKLAHOMA’S COVID-19 RESPONSE
In early April, Oklahoma ranked dead last nationally in coronavirus tests with only 818 per million at that time. By month’s end, thanks to a ramp-up by private labs, Oklahoma ranked about 30th, testing about 13,000 per million.
Dr. Fauci and others have said that if we open too early without proper tests and tracking equipment, we will end up with a second wave of the virus. This should be a worrisome scenario we should strive to avoid. Yet, Governor Stitt’s phased state reopening is contradicted by the Oklahoma Department of Health finds that deaths have increased by 5.1% daily without an apparent plateau. Such a mindset may likely precipitate a second wave this fall, says Dr. Fauci, not unlike the nightmarish Spanish Flu of 1918-19.
Former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill once said in 1951: “The … people can face peril or misfortune with fortitude and buoyancy, but they bitterly resent being deceived or finding that those responsible for their affairs are themselves dwelling in a fool’s paradise.”
This sentiment was clear in reaction to the coronavirus restriction protests. As one woman put it in a Facebook post, “Stuff like this is WHY I support free college for everyone. I’m so tired of being exposed to stupid people. It’s like a disease.”
We are in a strange post-truth world, cocooned at home with only virtual connections to the outside world, siloed into echoes of tribal false hopes. We all want to get out of the house, live in safety, make money again, but Enlightenment Era reason should prevail, not a fool’s paradise.
– John Wood is an associate professor of political science at the University of Central Oklahoma. The views he expresses are his and not necessarily the university’s. This essay first appeared in the May 2020 print edition of The Oklahoma Observer.