It’s been a little more than a week since Joe Biden and Kamala Harris were declared the winners of the 2020 presidential election, but in the Midwest, there has been no time to bask in this apparent, though incomplete, defeat of Donald Trump.
These protestations against masks, science, and any sense of collective responsibility are leading us into a dark winter of isolation amid an ever-spiraling increase of COVID-19 cases.
Here, and in other parts of the country, we are facing a clear and present danger, and it’s not just from Trump. Instead, it’s tribalism that’s threatening our existence, mostly through the nearly unmitigated spread of COVID-19.
Minnesota is rapidly careening toward a widespread coronavirus-related disaster, but you would never know that from the behavior of some of the state’s most prominent Republican leaders.
Recently, news broke that Minnesota’s Republican majority leader, Paul Gazelka, tested positive for COVID-19. It is newsworthy not just because Gazelka is a well-known public figure, but also because he has handled the entire pandemic situation—including his own positive test result—in a manner that would likely make Trump proud.
Before getting to the details of Gazelka’s case, let’s go backward for a bit. Ever since the pandemic’s scale and severity became clear in the spring, Gazelka has been a thorn in the side of Minnesota’s Democratic governor, Tim Walz.
While Walz has shown strong leadership from the beginning, by advising Minnesotans to take COVID-19 seriously, wear masks, and abide by a stay-at-home order that was put in place in March, Gazelka has criticized and harangued him at every turn.
Minnesota has the unfortunate distinction of having the nation’s only divided state legislature. Our governor is a Democrat, and his party has a majority in the Minnesota House. Yet Republicans have retained their hold on the state Senate, scoring victories even in districts carried by the Biden-Harris ticket in the 2020 election.
In this way, Minnesota is a near reflection of our divided federal government, and we have the rancor and COVID-19 disinformation campaigns to prove it.
Instead of working alongside Governor Walz to help Minnesotans cope with the pandemic, Gazelka has led a stubborn opposition campaign. He and many of his fellow Republican legislators have waged a public relations battle against Walz, repeatedly claiming that the governor does not have the authority to issue stay-at-home orders or, frankly, constrict business operations in any way.
Walz did manage to implement a statewide mask mandate in July. It’s a strategy widely embraced by infectious disease experts but deemed an infringement upon individual rights by Trump and other Republican leaders.
These protestations against masks, science, and any sense of collective responsibility are leading us into a dark winter of isolation amid an ever-spiraling increase of COVID-19 cases. And they are a symbol, I would argue, of the tribalism that grips the current Republican party, blinding it to reason.
Gazelka tested positive for COVID-19 earlier in November and likely contracted the virus while attending a dinner held on November 5 to celebrate his party’s recent electoral victories. The congratulatory evening became a superspreader event.
At least four state Republican senators in attendance have tested positive for COVID-19 within the past week. But here’s what’s most damning: The state GOP sent around an internal memo, warning members of a potential outbreak due to these newly confirmed infections, but never shared this information with their fellow Democratic legislators, thereby putting their lives at risk.
The Republican caucus also did not bother to tell employees at the restaurant where they had gathered about their positive COVID-19 diagnoses, until a Minnesota Public Radio reporter’s questions prompted them to do so.
This is an outrage. People are dying in Minnesota and in neighboring states at incredibly alarming rates. North Dakota currently has one of the world’s highest rates of COVID-19 infection, and only now has that state’s Republican governor, Doug Burgum, decided to issue a statewide mask mandate.
This was a desperate move on Burgum’s part, as he has resisted any statewide mandates or restrictions for months now in deference to “individual choice.” The situation in North Dakota is so out of control that Burgum also recently said that health-care workers who test positive for COVID-19 but remain asymptomatic can still show up to work.
Nurses in North Dakota have said they do not want to risk their lives even more by working alongside coworkers who knowingly have COVID-19. They shouldn’t have to do so simply because Republican leaders have prioritized scoring points among a real or imagined Trumpian base over the guidance of scientists and infectious disease experts.
Evidence of this toxic tribalism abounds in the Midwest. South Dakota’s Republican governor, Kristi Noem, has flatly refused to implement lockdowns or mask mandates, in favor of coddling Trump’s fragile ego while also allowing large public gatherings to take place. South Dakota is now home to the nation’s second worst outbreak of COVID-19, after North Dakota.
The situation is the same in Iowa, where Republican Governor Kim Reynolds issued a statewide mask mandate on November 10, after months of adhering to, as The New York Times put it, “President Trump’s defiant attitude toward public health guidance on the coronavirus.”
Wisconsin has a Democratic governor, Tony Evers, but Republican lawmakers have repeatedly attempted to block the mask mandate he enacted in August. Meanwhile, COVID-19 cases have continued to rage out of control across the state, where some hospitals are now at capacity.
South Dakota emergency room nurse Jodi Doering captured this frightening situation in a series of tweets she fired off on November 14, on a rare day off from work. While trying to relax at home, Doering said she could not stop thinking about all the COVID-19 patients she’s worked with lately.
As they gasp for their last breaths, many remain defiant and angry, Doering wrote on Twitter. These patients still don’t believe the virus is real, and they are the ones that “scream at you for a magic medicine” and insist that “Joe Biden is going to ruin the USA,” she said.
“This is a terrifying consequence of disinformation,” noted PBS reporter Yamiche Alcindor in response to Doering’s observations. It also appears to be the consequence of Republican tribalism.