Pandemic Police Populism

Pandemic Police Populism

By Marcia Pally  June 26, 2020

Blaming Covid 19 on the World Health Organization or on a lab in China and calling Black Lives Matter “radical leftist extremists” follow the American-populist playbook of responding to duress by targeting an alien “other” who have wronged “us” and whom “we’re” right to combat with force.

Running through the clamor about the Covid 19 pandemic and the Black Lives Matter protests is the shock of the new. We fear a new breed of virus and wonder if nations across the world face a new, inflammatory moment in race relations. But a more cautious look suggests the persistence of the structurally old in the way the pandemic and protests are available to be understood.

The structures through which the pandemic and protests may be seen share commonalities with that other headline of recent years: populism. Thus, a look at right-wing populism may tell us something about how the pandemic and protests are understood and framed on the right.

Populism begins with the idea of a solution. There’s a problem afoot, often a threat to economic well-being and/or to what I call “way of life”, the sense of how things should work, what’s fair, what’s due you and others. Populist solutions present a binarized explanation of who’s wronged and right to fight back against those unfairly doing “us” harm—“them.” While we social human beings belong to many groups in school, work, church, and play, under conditions of duress, our focus shifts from the thriving of our group to constraining or removing “them.” Amira, Wright, and Goya-Tocchetto find “while the tendency to help the in-group appears to be primary,” “under situations of symbolic threat to partisan identity, respondents shift gears and opt for harming the out-group” (1-22).

The construction of “us” and “them” is site specific and draws from society’s historico-cultural background—beliefs, presuppositions, memories, symbols—what Graham Ward in Unimaginable calls the cultural imagination, “the subconscious within which we move and from out of which we try to make sense, even cope, with all of our collective experience” (10). Important for the “us-them” of populism is the “cultural imagination” about society (who’s in, who not) and government (its proper size, role, and reach). In America—used here as a case study owing to its populist politics,  Covid 19 infection rates, record of police brutality, and Black Lives Matter protests–this cultural imagination is grounded in the history of the liberal, covenanted republic.

Its first prong was covenantal political theology brought to America by the Puritans and other dissenters. It began with the idea that covenant is a reciprocal bond between God and persons and that reciprocity pertains also among persons. Thinkers like Philippe de Mornay and Johannes Althusius developed this idea into a radical vision of the polity: (i) sovereignty rests in the covenanted community, (ii) government governs by community consent and for its flourishing, (iii) the concentration or abuse of power is prohibited, and (iv) rulers may be removed for covenant violations. These themes are echoed in the work of John Locke, John Winthrop’s 1630 “A Model of Christian Charity,” the U.S. Declaration of Independence, and in the federal and tri-partite systems of representative government and checks and balances.

The second contributor to American notions of society and government, the Aristotelian republic, also emphasizes the community from which government is drawn and to which government is accountable (in contrast to tyrannical regimes). Melding covenant and republic, Benjamin Rush, signer of the Declaration of Independence, declared “Republican forms of government are the best repositories of the Gospel” (611-612). The third contributor was British liberalism, emphasizing the individual’s right to separate from community to pursue opportunity. Alexander Hamilton was among those who voiced this view, holding that liberty is a natural right that must be shielded from government interference. The liberal idea was persuasive in America as many immigrants had fled oppressive governments, and the harsh frontier advised self-reliance, trust in local community, and wariness of far-away federal authority. Together, these factors fostered the American ethos of self-responsibility, localism, and contempt for (government) elites.

Each of these contributors to notions of society and government holds government itself somewhat warily as a potential covenant violator, potential tyranny, and constrainer of individual freedom. In covenantal and republican theory, community is paramount. In the American “cultural imaginary,” then, government and community outsiders are the traditional “them,” ever available to be targeted as the source of duress which “we” justly combat. Community “outsiders” have historically included new immigrants and African-Americans, who have played a central and tragic if brilliantly resilient part in this cultural imaginary.

Under duress, as people seek solutions in us-them schemas, (i) usual commitment to community may become my-community-in-struggle against others, who must be constrained or removed, and (ii) wariness of oppressive government may become suspicion of government per se, whose activities should be limited—except to implement the constraints on outsiders required by (i). These cultural pathways emerged early in America. The slave system located African-Americans as the “other” amongst “us.” The anti-government Shays Rebellion erupted in 1786-1787, the Whiskey rebellion, in1791-1794. The anti-immigrant Alien and Sedition Acts were passed in 1798.

American right-wing populism draws on this “cultural imagination”—the slide from community to exclusionary community and from suspicion of tyranny to suspicion of government. It’s a slide that helps also to ground right-wing understandings of the pandemic and Black Lives Matter protests. (For a discussion of American left-wing populism, see here.)

In pre-pandemic populism, suspicion of outsiders was seen in the popularity of the “travel ban” on travelers from predominantly Muslim countries and in the enthusiasm for the “border wall” against immigrants, though immigration spurs entrepreneurship and job growth. It was seen in the wariness of outside “elites” in the media and urban areas. Suspicion of government was seen in opposition to federal programs even by those who benefit from them. Applebaum and Gebeloff write, “They are frustrated that they need help, feel guilty for taking it and resent the government for providing it.” Those who would have lost $5000 in government subsidies had Obamacare been replaced by a Republican plan voted for Trump by 5936 percentage points.

In the pre-protest pandemic, Trump’s assertion, on slim evidence, that the pandemic spread owing to the World Health Organization (WHO) and a lab in China, follows the American-populist playbook of identifying an alien “them.” Lest one think this is a universal response or common to populists everywhere, it’s worth noting that other right-populist governments, such as those in Italy and Israel, did not share it. Trump’s refusal to coordinate national testing, contact tracing, and production and distribution of medical equipment similarly follows traditional wariness of government. States, forced to compete on the open market, faced price gouging and shortages of medical supplies.

During the protests against police abuse, Trump’s labelling the protesters “radical leftist extremists draws on the longstanding “othering” of new immigrants and African-Americans as a frightening alien whom “we” are justified in combatting with police and military force—a reflection and repetition of wariness of government except to constrain “outsiders.”

The important point is that in staking out these positions, Trump was not imposing them on an unwilling America but expressing a worldview held by several sectors of the population. The pandemic has added acute financial and medical stress to longstanding economic and “way of life” duresses, including un- and under-employment in “old industry” regions, rapid technological change, changes in gender roles and in the nation’s racial and religious composition. The additional pandemic duresses redouble the pressures towards us-them “solutions” that target America’s traditional “others” in government and other “outsiders.”

Those who in April 2020 protested against the medical precautions of mask-wearing and social- distancing were hitting both targets: government regulations and elite outsiders in Democratic state offices and sophisticated, urban public health organizations. It’s not so much the return of the historico-cultural repressed as its ongoing, cultural reiteration.


Prof. Marcia Pally teaches at New York University and is an annual guest professor at the Theology Faculty of Humboldt University, Berlin. Her most recent books are Commonwealth and Covenant, The New Evangelicals, and Mimesis and Sacrifice (ed).