March 24, 2020 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

Don’t Underestimate GOP Masochism

Some Republicans will die to make a point.

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One of my preoccupations here at the Editorial Board is getting people to see the problems we face are much bigger than one terrible president. Donald Trump is a symptom of political and institutional rot as much as he is a catalyst. Yet too many people, especially white liberals, seem to think things will get better once he’s gone.

They won’t, because they can’t.

Things can’t get better when so many Americans believe the president more than they do the empirical evidence of their own senses. Things can’t get better when so many Americans are ready to go to war with democracy itself to win. Things can’t get better when so many Americans are ready to sacrifice their own lives to make an ideological point. Things can’t get better when so many white liberals think these people will snap out of it once it’s clear to them that Trump is a lying, thieving, philandering sadist.

They can’t, because they won’t.

To snap out of it means they’d be wrong, and they can’t be wrong. To snap out of it means the Democrats would be right, and the enemy can never—ever—be right.

Apply that to the rapidly expanding global pandemic in which the United States is on track to be the world’s top hot spot.

Not long ago, it was thought the president might lose support in the most unlikely of places—big farming states like Nebraska and Kansas. Trump’s trade war with China was in its infancy, and the business press kept waiting for the moment when the pain of losing access the world’s biggest food market would spark a revolt against Trump.

It never came.

The revolt never came because people no longer vote for their economic self-interest, something the business and political press have taken for granted since at least the early 1990s. But there’s another reason the revolt never came. A lot of Americans support this president not so much because of judges or tax cuts or other traditionally conservative objectives but because he is explicit about who should be punished.

Conservatism under Trump is less about slowing the pace of change—assuming that’s what it means in practice—and more about hurting the right people for the fun of it. But sadism has a flip side, as I argued on June 11, 2018. “Republicans will continue to harm, even mutilate, themselves, with gladness in their hearts for God’s gift of granting the glory of a Republican president.” I called it Republican masochism.

Now apply this school of suicide-bomber politics to the rapidly expanding global pandemic in which the United States is on track to be the world’s top hot spot.

The president didn’t do enough to retard its spread; indeed, his decisions, such as the travel ban from Europe, almost certainly accelerated it. Trump won’t lead or take appropriate action, because leadership and appropriate action would mean more testing for the new coronavirus, and more testing for the coronavirus would be mean higher official numbers of the sick and dead, which is bad. It makes Trump look bad.

At the same time, there are people inside the administration who are pushing the president, as he kicks and screams, in the direction of leadership and appropriate action—for instance, declaring a national emergency that frees up federal funding for cities and states to use on the outbreak’s front lines. But even as he takes some action, Trump is aware the national economy has come to a stand-still, thus threatening a political metric he believes will make or break his chances of getting reelected.

Moreover, as the Post reported late Monday, the president is feeling personally and financially the pain of an economic shutdown. Six of his seven top revenue-grossing properties here and around the world—luxury hotels, golfing resorts and the like—are hemorrhaging cash. He surely had this in mind over the weekend when he floated the idea of easing restrictions. The cure can’t be worse than the disease, Trump said.

It could be that regular Republican voters don’t understand the GOP puts a higher premium on money and power than on human lives. But it could be that they understand that perfectly.

That wouldn’t so bad if it weren’t for the rest of the Republican Party getting behind the idea, especially Republican governors. Some of them appear to be ready to lift shelter-in-place orders or not bother ordering them at all. They understand the pandemic is hurting the economy and that a hurt economy is hurting the president. The best way to protect Trump is blame China for the pandemic or make-believe it isn’t terrible. Or worse: pretending that dying for “principles” is an act of heroism.

Reasonable people can’t believe this. I don’t blame them. But reasonable people suffer from two things. One, a mistaken belief that most Americans are reasonable. Two, a mistaken belief that Republicans leaders, not Republican voters, are the real problem.

I’ve always found that perspective lacking. It denies voter agency. Yes, it could be that regular Republican voters don’t understand that the GOP puts a higher premium on money and power than it does on real human lives. But it could be that regular Republican voters understand that. It could be that they understand that perfectly. Indeed, it could be that they understand that so well they’d risk their lives for it.

The problems we face are much bigger than one terrible president.

Even after Trump is gone, we can’t let up.

John Stoehr

John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.


  1. Laurel Bunce on July 30, 2021 at 8:08 am

    Thank you!

  2. Ed Kako on July 30, 2021 at 8:08 am

    I agree with your assessment. But I’m left to wonder: Can this country be saved? Is it *worth* saving? I honestly don’t know, and it makes me heartsick.

    Where are you on this?

    • John Stoehr on July 30, 2021 at 8:08 am

      Yes it’s worth saving and it can be saved. After lots and lots of damage and death.

      • Ed Kako on July 30, 2021 at 8:08 am

        Thanks for talking me off the ledge! I have moments when I think the authoritarian death cult in power can’t be defeated. I’m hopeful, but it’s a kind of hope that requires work.

  3. danamo on July 30, 2021 at 8:08 am

    thank you for your work // it’s so necessary // about to tell people about it in our newsletter

  4. Thornton Prayer on July 30, 2021 at 8:08 am

    I think that much of the Republican base today is very nihilistic. If they can’t destroy their enemies, they’re perfectly happy destroying the country itself. Think about how much they mirror the Germans who stuck with Hitler to the bitter end and the poor white non-slave owners who fought on behalf of the Confederacy. They had little to begin with and nothing left to lose, but were still willing to stick with the person who was their avenging angel against the people they hate. If the coronavirus does the trick, that’s ok as well.

    Rather than trying to accommodate people who see us as the ultimate enemy, we need to call these people out as who they truly are – destroyers of America and enemies of democracy. No matter what happens with COVID-19 and Dump, we must fight these folks as aggressively as we are fighting the pandemic if we want to save the Republic.

  5. Fred Pollack on July 30, 2021 at 8:08 am

    I agree with your view, but disagree with the somewhat misleading chart. 1) When dealing with exponential growth, one should use a logarithmic chart, not a linear one; and, 2) the growth in daily cases for the US is due to the increasing testing (finally). I’m just a tech nerd, so such things matter to me more than they should.

    • John Stoehr on July 30, 2021 at 8:08 am

      Hi Fred, can you send us an example of what you’re talking about? A link is fine.

      • Fred Pollack on July 30, 2021 at 8:08 am

        A good source of data: Scroll down to the first 2 graphs (Total cases and Total deaths). They are shown in “linear scale”. But note the upper-left corner in each graph, click on “logarithmic”. Note that a straight line with an upward slope is bad. If you look at the total cases (logarithmic option), you see this linearity from mid-jan to mid-feb. This was almost all Chinese cases. After that it turns to become almost a horizontal line – reflecting China’s control of the growth. But then in March, the line starts sloping up again and becoming linear at almost the same rate as seen in China in mid-February, reflecting the growth of cases in the rest of the world.

        On that webpage, scroll down and look at the table, which has the data per country. Since countries report their data at different times of the day, to get a complete day’s increase in cases and deaths, click on “yesterday” just above the table.

        You can also click on a country in the table to drill down and see what is happening in a specific country. When you look at a specific country, eg USA, the most important chart for me is the daily new cases. We will know when we have “turned the corner” when the 3-day moving average (which you have to eye-ball or do it yourself) is on a downward trend. It is beginning to look like that this may be happening in italy. An early indication of this trend is also indicated in the graph above (Total cases for Italy) when viewed at the ‘logarithmic” setting – It is starting to curve (but very slightly). For the kind of graphs and charts that we want to see, look at S. Korea.

        It is not possible to tell how many cases in a given day are a factor of the spreading of the virus versus testing becoming more available. Here is how I look at it though. From what I read (somewhere), we would expect the number of cases to double in 1 week. That is a growth rate of about 10%/day. When I see growth rates significantly above that, I assume that it’s the increased testing. In some sense, hope begins when we see the daily increase in cases consistently well below 10%.

        If you look at the USA page, you will also see a breakdown by state. Right now about 45% of total cases are in NY state. Also about 45% of the new daily cases are NY state. The epicenter is NYC metropolitan area, e.g. Westchester County was recognized as a hot spot before NYC. I suspect that some portion of NJ cases are really, NYC metropolitan NYC.

        • Fred Pollack on July 30, 2021 at 8:08 am

          2 other useful websites:

          For a quick overview of the data in the world and the US, I recommend:
 – this was done by a 17yr old. With Button in upper right, you can leave him a tip. I did. There have been improvements in the site over the last week, and I expect even more to come

          If you happen to live in Florida, as I do, Florida has a great data website:

          About 45% of Florida cases are in South Florida, specifically, Miami-Dade and Broward counties. My wife and I live in Miami Beach.

      • Fred Pollack on July 30, 2021 at 8:08 am

        Here are the best charts comparing countries: -Does not require an FT subscription. In terms of the rate of case growth, Japan managed to stay on the path of doubling every week. Other countries are on the path of doubling every 3 days (or worse).

  6. Wayne on July 30, 2021 at 8:08 am

    I’m sad to say that you’re probably right. Republicans don’t mind seeing the virus decimate New York and other large cities. I see on Facebook people still attack Schumer and pelosi for trying to get a proper aid package through. I thought that maybe it was educational issues but I think it’s more evil than that. sadly it is a cult

  7. Scott on July 30, 2021 at 8:08 am

    No mention of right wing media outlets? I believe they bear an outsized portion of the responsibility. I wholeheartedly agree with the claim that the republican voter will continue to be the problem, however, this is unlikely to change while Fox News et al, tirelessly pump their fascist propaganda into the airwaves.

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