In Michigan, a puzzling COVID surge and a cautionary tale about the exercise of power.
Last Christmas, Governor Gretchen Whitmer released one of the wildest, most mind-warping videos I’ve ever seen. It begins with her shouting, “Thank you for joining us!!” over a Zoom call, before introducing none other than Santa Claus. Several scripted and possibly terrified children then prompt Santa to talk about how he wears a mask at the North Pole and uses hand sanitizer before eating cookies, all while Whitmer hovers imperiously in the corner like some yuletide Big Brother. The video ends with her gently informing the tykes that this year they won’t be able to visit their grandparents for the holidays.
Watching that, I kept expecting the Soviet national anthem to start playing or Whitmer’s eyes to turn into rotating swirls. I believe the editorial line here at TAC prevents me from advocating drug use, but holy moly, that must be some trip. Yet it’s also typical of Whitmer, who more than any other governor has used the coronavirus to exalt herself into a kind of self-unaware epidemiological monarch. Now, her kingdom is starting to crumble. Check the New York Times‘s COVID map and you’ll notice only one state is colored in crimson, indicating a severe level of infection risk: Michigan. Over the last two weeks, the daily average of hospitalizations has increased nationally by 9 percent; in Michigan, it’s 42 percent.
Whitmer claimed she needed unprecedented unilateral power in order to beat back COVID. Now, her state and her state alone is undergoing a deadly surge.
In fairness, Whitmer was dealt a tough hand at the start of the pandemic. Michigan was initially one of the hardest-hit states, and it couldn’t blame those numbers on a massive, densely packed metropolitan area the way New York could. Yet even among Democratic governors, Whitmer’s response was heavy-handed. She prohibited all private and public gatherings of any size; she banned sales of carpeting, paint, and gardening supplies; she halted all golf games and lawn mowing services. And when the legislature declined to renew the state of emergency that granted her this authority, she simply ignored them.
The meddlesome ingrates on the Michigan Supreme Court later affirmed that Whitmer couldn’t simply rule without legislative consent. That stripped away many of her powers, though she circumvented this by continuing to issue edicts through the health department rather than the governor’s office. The result has been the protracted abolition of any serious democratic deliberation over Michigan’s coronavirus response. Everything has been done through the royal prerogative of Her Majesty the Governor, who seems to regard her Republican opponents as might a mad queen about to reach for the trapdoor button.
The old saying about absolute power corrupting absolutely notably does not exempt strong independent women with Dr. Fauci pillows in their offices. And so Whitmer’s reign has brought with it an endless if predictable series of hypocrisies and abuses. Michiganders couldn’t see their families, but their governor could march socially undistanced at a Black Lives Matter rally. They couldn’t go boating, but her husband could try to leverage his position to get a marina to put out his boat during a lockdown. They were to sacrifice for the sake of Michigan’s elderly, yet Whitmer still won’t release all the data on the deaths of those same seniors. As with Andrew Cuomo in New York, she issued an order that strong-armed nursing homes into taking COVID patients, yet unlike Cuomo, she’s received little national scrutiny for it.
Yet her most stunning do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do surfaced only recently. After warning about the dangers of traveling for spring break, it was revealed that the Liege of Lansing herself had taken a trip to Florida to visit her ailing father. (Remember: Florida, in the Democratic imagination, is currently a blasted heath of disease and anarchy.) And then it came out that one of her top aides had gone to a Floridian beach, while the director of her glorious health department had paid a visit to Alabama.
I know the Michigan winter is rough and NFL season up there is rougher, but this is starting to get out of control. Incredibly, Whitmer tried to defend her Sunshine State sojourn by pouting that at least she “wasn’t out partying in Miami.” At which point everyone in Michigan went silent, lest she get any ideas and start banning glow sticks and Solo cups.
What can be learned from this reign of error? One takeaway is simply that aforementioned adage. Power does indeed corrupt. Concentrate authority in an elite political class and you end up with a two-tiered system, divided between those who make the laws and can flaunt them and those who don’t and are bound by them. Another is that unilateral governments, authoritarian governments, aren’t as effective as we sometimes think. Because decision-making is left to a relative few, serious dissent gets shut out, with groupthink and epistemic closure the predictable consequences. Even the experts Whitmer claims to be consulting are not immune to this. If they were, Texas would be a COVID hellhole right now.
The most glaring lesson from across the bloodstained 20th century is this: There is no such thing as the all-knowing, benevolent leader. That’s true no matter how much we might whimper for one during times of crisis. But she’s keeping us safe! Except she’s not, is she? In fairness, the current COVID surge in Michigan can’t necessarily be blamed on Whitmer. Recently she had been loosening her state’s restrictions, perhaps realizing her subjects were growing restless. It could be that the U.K. variant is running its course. Or it could be the fault of those eased regulations (though plenty of states have opened up more than Michigan without experiencing similar surges).
The truth is that we simply don’t know why Michigan is suffering. But we do know this: The reason Whitmer sits in all her radiant splendor is because she said she needed unilateral authority in order to manage the pandemic. Now she’s failed; her rationale is gone. Which entitles everyone else to ask: Isn’t it time her powers were rolled back for good?