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The Covid-19 pandemic continues to gather force in the United States, even as most other wealthy nations have successfully slowed the spread. In only 11 American states is the pandemic under control. For the rest of the country, the situation is dire—and likely to get worse.
Writing in The New York Times, historian John M. Barry, who teaches at Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine, spelled out the grim statistics: “At this writing, Italy, once the poster child of coronavirus devastation and with a population twice that of Texas, has recently averaged about 200 new cases a day when Texas has had over 9,000. Germany, with a population four times that of Florida, has had fewer than 400 new cases a day. On Sunday, Florida reported over 15,300, the highest single-day total of any state.” Barry added that “the United States has the highest growth rate of new cases in the world, ahead even of Brazil.”
The Trump administration has made its message clear: The American people will just have to learn to live with Covid-19, even as some states, including California, start implementing a second lockdown.
It’s against this background that some of Trump’s most ardent supporters are making strange claims of the merits of eating human flesh. Alex Jones was a pioneer in the field. “I’ll admit it,” Jones said on May 1. “I will eat my neighbors. I won’t have to for a few years ’cause I got food and stuff.… But I’m literally looking at my neighbors now and going, ‘I’m ready to hang ’em up and gut ’em and skin ’em. My daughters aren’t starving to death.’ I will eat my neighbors.”
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It’s easy to dismiss Jones as unhinged, but on Tuesday, Rush Limbaugh, recent recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor available to an American, spoke favorably about the Donner Party, an infamous group of pioneers whose ill-fated trek to California in 1846–47 ended in the consumption of human corpses. Limbaugh contrasted the hardiness of the Donner Party with the alleged softness of the “Millennial generation,” who stood accused of lacking the fortitude to do what is necessary in an emergency.
As Limbaugh explained:
The Donner family and a bunch of travelers trying to get to California over the Sierra Nevada mountain range. They made the mistake of trying to make the trip in the middle of winter. We’re talking the Lake Tahoe region. They get to the peak. It was so bad that they had to turn to cannibalism to survive. That’s what’s noteworthy about the Donner Party. If you read the diaries written by the leaders of the Donner Party, the only reference to how cold it was, was one sentence: “It was a particularly tough winter.”
This account makes clear that for Limbaugh the cannibalism wasn’t an unfortunate tragedy in an otherwise awe-inspiring story about surviving adversity. Rather, the cannibalism is the whole point of the story: It is the evidence of fortitude and toughness. According to Limbaugh, “It’s just what was. They didn’t complain about it, because there was nothing they could do. They had to adapt. This is what’s missing. There seems to be no concept of adaptation.”
Limbaugh’s evocation of the Donner Party has an interesting intellectual genealogy. In 1993, William Bennett, former secretary of education under Ronald Reagan, included an account of the Donner Party in The Book of Virtues, an instructive anthology of literary extracts intended to inculcate old-fashion morality. In a 1994 interview on C-SPAN’s Booknotes, Bennett got almost weepy thinking about the grit and strength of the American anthropophagites:
One of the stories in this book that is a favorite of mine is a diary account of a little girl from the Donner party. Remember the Donner party going west, crossing the Sierra Nevada? People die on this wagon train trip. There’s a story about cannibalism, possibly there was on the trip. People died in the snow—husbands died, wives died, mothers died, children were separated. She writes in her diary, little Lizzie Donner, and says it was a hard winter. That’s her comment. I mean, tough, resilient. Could we withstand that a hundred years later?
In his first book, Dead Right (1994), David Frum cited a speech Bennett gave about the Donner Party. According to Frum, comparing the current lack of moral character to the fortitude of the Donner Party should make us aware of the dangers of “the emancipation of the individual appetite from restrictions imposed on it by limited resources, or religious dread, or community disapproval, or the risk of disease or personal catastrophe.” Frum’s politics have changed, of course, so it is worth recalling that when he wrote those words he was very much a rising star on the right.
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In 2004, John Holbo, a professor of philosophy at the National University of Singapore, noted that when Bennett and Frum cite the Donner Party, “they are thinking: hard-bitten and hard-nosed. Not starving, but made tough by a life lived right on the edge of failure. Inclined to stick it out in an unhappy marriage. Not a counter-culture type. Not asking anything from those above. Not having a lot of sympathy to spare for those beneath. Interests ultimately narrowly aligned with those of the upper-classes.”
So we have three major figures of the American right all speaking about the Donner Party as if the episode were not a horrific tragedy but rather an admirable character-building exercise.
This praise of the Donner Party reveals the hidden logic of the right’s opposition to the wide-scale government action needed to bring the pandemic under control. Of course, the ultimate motive is economic: a desire to avoid the huge government debts—or steeply redistributive taxation—needed to pay for a proper Covid program, including generous unemployment benefits to keep people from working unnecessary jobs.
But that economic position is intertwined with a moral system, one that sees suffering as socially necessary. “Suffering builds character” is perhaps the quickest way to sum up this worldview.
This is a very selective stoicism. After all, Limbaugh is hardly the type to join the Donner Party himself. The risks for Covid mostly fall on people who are very unlike Limbaugh: the poor and people of color. So it’s not so much that suffering builds character as suffering helps keep the lower order in line.
Even if actual flesh-eating is unlikely, cannibalism works well as a metaphor for Limbaugh’s agenda: He’s calling on other people to die so he and his wealthy friends can continue to live at ease. This is social cannibalism, if nothing else.
In only one way is Limbaugh advocating something that is personally risky. He is 69 years old and has struggled with cancer. As a disease that disproportionately effects the old, Covid-19 is a threat not only to Limbaugh but also to his audience. Perhaps for that reason, Limbaugh tried to create a distraction by blaming the cowardice of the “Millennial generation.”
It’s an open question, however, whether even Limbaugh’s audience will be fooled by this argument. It’s one thing to enjoy culture war caricatures in good times. It’s quite another thing to be told you have to sacrifice your life for plutocracy.
Jeet HeerTwitterJeet Heer is a national affairs correspondent at The Nation and the author of In Love with Art: Francoise Mouly’s Adventures in Comics with Art Spiegelman (2013) and Sweet Lechery: Reviews, Essays and Profiles (2014).