DeSantis’ Anti-Mask Order Is Replaying Reagan's Phony “Rugged Individualism”

American conservatism has been a scam since the 1920s, and continues to exclusively benefit the very white and the very wealthy

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Ron DeSantis’ executive order making it illegal for teachers to require kids in their classrooms to wear masks to protect the teacher and other kids in the class (and their families) isn’t about masks. 

If it was about masks and their health potential, pro or con, he’d be discussing how to reduce the transmission of this deadly virus in Florida, which now accounts for more than 20% of all new Covid cases in America.

At the very least, he’d be showing for concern about the seven children currently fighting for their lives in the ICU at the Joe DiMaggio Children’s Hospital in Broward County. Instead, when asked about those children yesterday, he dumped a load of word-salad gibberish on the reporter who asked the question:

“This has been a really negative thing throughout this whole thing, with some of these, quote, experts, some of the media, somebody can contract a highly transmissible airborne virus and they’re viewed as having done something wrong. That’s just not the way you do it.”

But the survival of Florida citizens isn’t what DeSantis’ anti-mask executive order is all about. Instead, it’s about brand identity.

“Self-reliance” and “rugged individualism” are the brands that brought Ronald Reagan to power, first as governor of California and later as President of the United States.  His logos were a horse and a smile, always able to turn a complex issue into a folksy fable with a simple moral.

Truly self-reliant individuals, the mythology goes, should be able to survive without a wimpy mask, and if they don’t, well, they just weren’t all that rugged.

Buried just one thin layer under the surface, Reagan’s new brand for the GOP rested on the all-American foundation of white privilege and Manifest Destiny, a hideous grinning skull representing 300 years of slavery, 100 years of Jim Crow and the most massive genocide of Native peoples in the history of the world.

It embraced the idea that white people who “won the west” stole all that Indian land by themselves when the Indian genocide actually cost America billions in today’s dollars of military expense and massive subsidies, including the trans-pacific railroad to get supplies to settlers.

Just the veteran’s benefits paid to Americans who fought in the Indian Extermination Wars totaled over $118 million (or $3 billion, inflation adjusted from 1913 dollars) between 1893 and 1957, all to provide for 372,659 homesteads.  And the story of the people who were slaughtered always seems to get lost, other than the occasional misty Dances With Wolves cultural tip-of-the-hat.

Similarly, three hundred years of unpaid labor by enslaved people brought here against their will are never counted toward the “success” of white people during America’s early years. 

Even in the North, though, they knew at the time the value of all that slave labor: the Mayor of New York City proposed in 1861 that the city join the South in seceding from the union because Wall Street’s single largest source of profit was the export of cotton picked and processed by enslaved people.

But a gauzy whitewashed history of America is intrinsic to the Republican brand, which is why DeSantis must oppose mask mandates while the GOP continues to promote their “rugged individualism” triumvirate of balanced budgets, personal responsibility and small government.

They’re all ways of dismissing or minimizing the idea that American government should or even can defend working class and poor people from the predations of giant corporations and the morbidly rich.

Balanced Budgets, for example, is simply another way of saying that Republicans don’t want government funds or subsidies going anywhere except to the top. 

We subsidize the fossil fuel industry to the tune of hundreds of billions every year (not including the expenses of exhaust-caused cancers and other diseases, and global warming-caused flood, fire and tornado destruction).  

Our subsidy of the Military Industrial Complex that Dwight Eisenhower warned us about is over a half-trillion a year. 

And the IRS estimates that morbidly rich people and monopolistic corporations steal at least $1 trillion from us every year in tax cheating that Republicans refuse to fund the IRS to catch.

Maintaining this level of subsidy of the rich is expensive and doesn’t leave much left over for average working people.  Which is why whenever Democrats start to talk about small subsidies for average folks, Republicans (and a few Democrats subsidized by the same billionaires who fund the GOP) start squealing about “balanced budgets” and “fiscal responsibility.”

If you just add up the cost of the Reagan, Bush and Trump tax cuts and toss in two illegal Bush/Cheney wars, you exceed the $27 trillion current national debt (which was only $800 billion when Reagan became president in 1981; he tripled it in 8 years).

Which brings us to Personal Responsibility, the old saw that Republicans use to keep minorities and average working people down.

Back in the 1980s one of the more popular conservative jokes folks like Limbaugh liked to tell was: “What do you do for someone when they’re down? Kick them!  Otherwise, they won’t get up!”

It still gets a laugh in conservative circles; they continue to insist that when our government gives subsidies or tax breaks to the morbidly rich it produces good outcomes but giving money or other aid to working class or poor people invites disaster.

Personal responsibility is also an old trope that white supremacists have been using since the failure of Reconstruction. They argue that African Americans are less successful in America because they fail to take “responsibility” for their lives, a convenient slogan that lets conservatives completely ignore the racism structurally built into America’s political, economic and education systems.

As a bonus, it also makes it convenient for them to ignore the plight of poor white people trapped in dying parts of America like Appalachia, or struggling with issues of mental health or addiction.

After all, if people are always “personally responsible“ for their own circumstances, why should we bother doing anything about homelessness, poverty, hunger, addiction, or the struggle that racial, religious and gender minorities face in achieving the American Dream?

Finally, Small Government has been, ever since Republican Warren Harding was elected president in 1920, a euphemism for cutting taxes on rich people and big corporations, and nothing else. In every other regard, the phrase is complete gibberish.

Republicans have consistently and repeatedly exploded the size of government over the years, driving our military spending up to the point where it’s greater than the next dozen countries combined, and thrown every kind of advanced weaponry imaginable at police forces all across the nation.

They give no-bid contracts to their donors and sell off public lands at pennies on the dollar to miners and frackers, wasting hundreds of billions of dollars a year. And even at that, American government spending is only 13.97% of GDP. Sweden, by contrast, is over 25% of GDP but few Swedes want their government “shrunk.”

In reality, the only “size of government” consideration Republicans have is their obsession with cutting public education and programs like Social Security and Medicare while simultaneously reducing taxes on the very, very rich.

But Republicans like Ron DeSantis, if they want to rise up the GOP political ladder, must keep up appearances and that means to continue to push the brand. 

And that brand of rugged individualism emphasizes how important it is that government not do anything to help the average person, including protecting teachers and families from a deadly virus.

American conservatism has been a scam since the 1920s, and continues to be a scam that exclusively benefits the very white and wealthy in this country.

No amount of hand wringing, sloganeering or “reinventing” will change that fact, which DeSantis so well personifies. The question now is, “When will Americans figure this out?”

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