Missouri’s Republican leadership spent the bulk of 2020 demonstrating exactly how not to lead in a crisis but definitely how to win an election campaign. With a deadly pandemic raging, the economy plummeting and medical staffers overwhelmed by the constant flood of coronavirus victims, the state’s elected Republican leaders did their best to echo President Donald Trump’s misinformed statements that this virus was no big deal and would soon be a thing of the past. Don’t bother with those masks. Enjoy your spring break. Party hardy through the summer, and forget about tomorrow. We won’t push back if local activists invoke Hitler’s Germany to protest radical socialist Democrats’ call for mask mandates.
The apparently coordinated campaign of ignorance-exploitation by Missouri’s top Republican leaders was successful in helping turn a manageable viral outbreak into a health care crisis of catastrophic proportions. Yet, amazingly, the strategy turned out to be popular at the polls on Nov. 3.
If the results weren’t so tragic, with more than 5,100 deaths and 378,000 coronavirus infections statewide, history could well record Missouri’s 2020 performance as one of the most bizarre comedy shows of all time. In the starring roles were a gaffe-prone, farmer-turned-governor who seemed to mean well but never could quite get his dang pandemic message straight.
His bumbling sidekicks included an attorney general who got horribly confused and, bless his heart, wound up suing China. Then there were the two U.S. senators who constantly mistook the words pandemic with politics and election loss with fraud. Combine their antics with open defiance of health precautions by lawmakers and local officials from rural areas, and Missourians had the makings of a rollicking good remake of “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.”
In the final scene, the nation voted overwhelmingly to oust Trump from the White House, but Missouri’s Republican leadership, bless their hearts, completely forgot that this nation is a democracy. Forty state Republican lawmakers signed on to a Supreme Court amicus brief seeking to overturn the election result, citing fraud that nobody could prove. Honey, I shrank the Constitution!
How did things go so far astray? The year began with economic and political indicators looking positive for Gov. Mike Parson and the rest of the state’s GOP super-majority. But the pandemic’s arrival in February turned the state’s entire political picture upside down.
Top-level Democratic contenders, led by State Auditor Nicole Galloway, had their campaign aspirations dashed by the need to demonstrate responsible leadership. They curtailed public appearances, dutifully wore masks and conducted rallies by Zoom. That approach was absolutely the right thing to do.
But, alas, responsible leadership turned out not to be what Missouri voters were looking for. Republican politicians, encouraged by Trump’s aggressive, throw-caution-to-the-wind rally schedule, campaigned in-person with reckless abandon. In fact, they turned mask-free gatherings into a virtue, equating masks and gathering restrictions with radical socialism.
The arrival of warm weather in May led to a viral video of a big pool party at Lake of the Ozarks. Parson punted responsibility for such irresponsibility by telling reporters that it was up to local governments to enforce their own rules and restrictions. (This, of course, is the same governor who signed legislation prohibiting local governments from imposing their own gun restrictions and denying counties the right to ban stinky, polluting industrial pig farms.)
“You don’t need government to tell you to wear a dang mask,” Parson told a cheering crowd in mid-July. The quote was particularly ironic considering the context. Weeks before, Trump had conducted a mass rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in which thousands gathered proudly without those dang masks. Days later, Oklahoma saw a big spike in coronavirus infections. One of those in attendance at the rally, former GOP presidential hopeful Herman Cain, became infected and died on July 30.
It turned out that people really did need the government to tell them to wear masks. Yet the more Parson appeared to champion the cause of freedom over personal responsibility, the more people partied and rallied, and the more hospitals filled with coronavirus patients.
When the rural numbers started spiking, this Editorial Board criticized Parson for misleading his supporters about the pandemic’s seriousness. We warned in late April: “As the virus moves out from the cities, rural America will face some unique problems, including older-than-average populations, lack of hospitals, lack of medical insurance — and a sense of complacency or tough-it-out self-reliance that too many rural-state political leaders have encouraged. … It didn’t help that rural-state governors, including Missouri’s Mike Parson, were generally slower to issue stay-at-home orders than their urban counterparts, further signaling to their citizens that this wasn’t a threat.”
Parson responded angrily. He told reporters incorrectly that the editorial had referred to residents outside the St. Louis region as “simple-minded rural Missourians.” No such wording appeared anywhere in this newspaper.
Parson was, however, embarking on a campaign strategy of pitting rural Missourians against urban elites. That theme would play out again and again in the leadup to his victory in November.
But our warnings ultimately were borne out. Coronavirus hotspots — initially the major urban regions of St. Louis and Kansas City — shifted dramatically. Suddenly, the very rural areas that Parson treated as somehow immune to the virus started seeing dramatic infection spikes. His base — that is, Trump’s base — was getting sicker and sicker. And when rural clinics were unable to handle the surge in cases, those patients began flooding into urban hospitals, overwhelming their resources and filling beds to near capacity.
On Sept. 23, the governor’s office announced that Parson had tested positive himself, along with his wife. Two weeks later, Trump would be hospitalized with the virus.
But rather than serve as a reminder to voters that these two didn’t have a clue about leadership in a crisis, Missouri voters treated Parson’s and Trump’s infections as a badge of honor. Their popularity seemed to increase.
The example of vigilance and caution set by Auditor Galloway in her gubernatorial campaign wound up working against her. She couldn’t circulate under pandemic restrictions, leaving Parson to sweep through the countryside with a message of defiant disregard.
An equally defiant state Attorney General Eric Schmitt tried his own unique approach, garnering national headlines by filing a federal lawsuit against the Communist Party of China for failing to stop the coronavirus.
Schmitt, Parson and Trump swept Missouri although Trump, of course, lost the national vote. Schmitt latched onto Trump’s unfounded claim of massive vote fraud and joined a lawsuit by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton seeking to overturn millions of legally cast votes. The Supreme Court rejected the case without so much as a hearing.
The state’s two Republican U.S. senators, Roy Blunt and Josh Hawley, did their best to enable the president’s bizarre fraud fantasy. Blunt refused for weeks to recognize Joe Biden as the president-elect. Hawley fully embraced the fraud narrative and stuck with Trump to the end. The entire Republican U.S. House delegation from Missouri signed on to the same Paxton lawsuit that Schmitt endorsed.
Their clear strategy, just like their approach to the pandemic, was simply to ignore reality, reject facts and do their best to cultivate mass ignorance. In Missouri, that’s what passed as leadership in 2020.