After Attacking Civil Liberties for Two Decades, the Right is Now Pretending to Care About Them

Determined to undermine the US pandemic response, the Right is opposing vaccine mandates on the grounds that they’re an authoritarian power grab. Don’t be fooled: up until a few months ago, they backed every civil liberties–shredding measure under the sun.

Several thousand protesters opposed to the COVID-19 vaccine mandates marched through the streets of Manhattan on September 18, 2021. (Andrew Lichtenstein / Corbis via Getty Images)

For a country that’s one of the world’s leading democracies, the United States sure does have a government vested with some alarming potentially tyrannical powers: assassinating US citizens by fiat, indefinite detention without charge or trial, a sprawling surveillance state that collects data on practically everyone in the world, and a security apparatus that can be deployed domestically to infiltrate and put down dissent, just to name a few. All of this could, at the hands of a semi-competent authoritarian leader, be used to seize power and establish a nightmarish totalitarian state.

If you’re a right-wing media or political figure, however, none of this is an issue. The real threat to freedom and democracy, rather, is the life-saving vaccine developed to fight the pandemic that’s cost at least 677,000 American lives this past year and a half. Since Joe Biden ordered a nationwide vaccine mandate to boost the country’s flagging vaccination rate and prevent the thousands of deaths that are happening every day, the GOP and their allied media have suddenly transformed into the ACLU, warning of the mandate’s threat to civil liberties and the country’s imminent slide into fascism.

Just as with free speech, the US right has made a strategic choice to champion a principle (the protection of civil liberties) it’s long been hostile to, in this case as part of a bizarre mission to kill its own voters. And just as with free speech, the Right’s defense of civil liberties is extremely selective and unprincipled, with all the prominent conservatives now bleating about authoritarianism having cheered on or pursued a variety of assaults on basic freedoms, or stood by in silence as they happened.

“Actual Textbook Fascism”

Take the billionaire-funded Federalist, a web magazine so militantly committed to free speech its editors will block you on Twitter if you ask them where they get their money from. The outlet instantly deemed the vaccine mandate a “fascist move,” its political editor, John Daniel Davidson, following up with a particularly over-the-top declaration that, “The 9/11 Attacks Ultimately Proved A Lesser Threat To America Than The Totalitarian Left.”

Conflating the centrist liberalism of Joe Biden and the Democratic Party with the Left, Davidson explained that “when a regime uses the power of the state to compel major corporations to enforce its mandates . . . that’s actual textbook fascism.” He pointed to other pandemic restrictions put in place by officials as “an unprecedented expansion of rule by executive fiat.”

Given this kind of talk, one would think the Federalist would have a lot to say about the various alarming expansions of executive and state power that have come as a result of those very same terrorist attacks. Take, for instance, Barack Obama’s assassination-by-drone of several US citizens without due process, which he justified in 2014 in a memo that claimed the right to do this anywhere on Earth.

Surely execution by fiat is worth at least the same concern as compelling people to vaccinate or wear masks?

Apparently not, because the Federalist has never once bothered to so much as mention this act, the most tyrannical possible power a government can claim. The outlet has only discussed one of those assassinated US citizens, Anwar al-Awlaki, in the context of what a scary man he was, implicitly justifying the policy.

You can pretty much go down the list of examples of civil liberties–violating government overreach in recent history and find the same results. Legislation attacking Americans’ right to boycott a repressive foreign government? They’re all for it. State laws criminalizing the right to protest? That’s A-OK. Closing Guantanamo Bay? “An affront to Congress and the Constitution.” George W. Bush’s flagrantly illegal secret warrantless wiretapping scheme? Why that was merely a “program designed to mitigate terrorist threats in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.”

Ideological Whiplash

The Federalist is only the most vivid example of this hypocrisy. Right-wing radio host Todd Starnes called the mandate “a direct assault on the US Constitution, it was a direct attack on our civil liberties and our personal freedoms” and “half-expected to see tanks and armored vehicles rolling down the street.”

Starnes is a Bush-era, perpetually aggrieved culture warrior who hasn’t quite gotten the memo to tweak his rhetoric over the past few years. So while the Federalist has at least published the occasional piece critiquing some mass surveillance, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a single example of Starnes expressing an iota of concern for the many national security–based violations of civil liberties and the Constitution these past two decades. To be fair, it’s hard to find the time do this when you’re doing critical work like whining about naked street performers or school plays with adult themes, and being triggered by national anthem protests and supposedly offensive statements about the troops.

Likewise, despite Breitbart’s charge that a vaccine mandate meant going “full totalitarian,” the “platform for the alt-right,” in the words of its cofounder, had a muted response to Obama’s assassination of US citizens, as it did to more recent Republican-led assaults on the right to protest, which it has barely covered. While it now proudly displays a “Covid-1984” tab on its home page, Breitbart previously cheered on “war on terror”–driven tech and government censorship, and was almost entirely silent on the government crackdown on speech and protest known as the J20 case, other than to tacitly justify said crackdown.

Special mention has to go to Fox News, which accused Biden of being an “authoritarian” and “tyrant” for issuing the mandate. This was the same network that under Bush became ground zero for vehement defenses of every Bush-era government overreach, from signing statements to spying on Americans to warrantless wiretapping, a policy Fox was particularly enthusiastic about.

Its hosts repeatedly accused the press of undermining national security by reporting about these violations, even explicitly accusing groups like the ACLU of being terrorists themselves, and sometimes came up with their own authoritarian recommendations, as when they suggested Bush set up an “Office of Censorship” to deal with pesky reporting on secret government surveillance programs. Little changed when Obama came in and took anti-terror policy into an even more extreme direction: the network simply charged him with being too soft on terrorism.

Beyond Parody

You’ll find the same results among the Republican officials who are trying to make political hay of the “fascist” vaccine mandate, all of whom were hostile free speech and other civil liberties until this one measure came along. Here, for instance, is a brief summary of the records of a sampling of the GOP governors who are now bravely standing against the supposedly dangerous government overreach of the vaccine mandate:

  • Iowa governor Kim Reynolds, who said the mandate would “insert the federal government even further into our lives,” signed into law harsher criminal penalties against protesters and protection for people who run them over just three months ago.
  • Florida governor Ron DeSantis, who deemed the mandate “unconstitutional” and “very intrusive,” pushed an anti-protest law so hostile to First Amendment freedoms that even some of the state’s law enforcement officials thought it went too far.

Then there’s someone like Tennessee senator Marsha Blackburn, who compared the mandate to the actions of a “dictator.” Since her election to the US Congress in 2003, Blackburn has been one of the country’s most reliable national security hawks, rarely meeting a civil liberty she wasn’t willing to sacrifice or a government overstep she wasn’t willing to back in the name of battling terrorism. She staunchly backed Bush’s policies throughout the 2000s, consistently voted to let the government spy on Americans, and has been a leading opponent of attempts to close Guantanamo Bay.

Don’t Be a Sucker

It’s not that there aren’t genuine, good-faith concerns about the implications of a vaccine mandate. But such mandates have already been widely accepted for decades in the United States for other diseases, and pale in comparison to the gross violations accepted for the purposes of the “war on terror.” The idea that they will lead to some sort of fascist power grab is even more absurd considering that the Nazis relaxed vaccine mandates when they took power.

But more to the point, one should be deeply suspicious of the Right as it pretends to stand in defense of civil liberties by opposing this mandate. Eroding the Bill of Rights and strengthening repressive government powers has been a core project of right-wing media and politicians, both in the recent past and right now, and one in which they’ve often been assisted by Democrats like Biden, Obama, and Nancy Pelosi. Their opposition now is inflamed by the narrow concern that, in Todd Starnes’s words, “the United States government can actually dictate what you do as a private business owner.”

The same party that believed in the “1 percent doctrine” — the idea that if there was even a 1 percent chance a terrorist attack were real, the US government had to treat it as if it was a certainty — decided that 176,000 corpses was “acceptable” two decades later when it came to a pandemic. When it doesn’t involve vaccines, or once it’s their team in power doing the civil liberties–violating, the Right will happily resume its project of moving the country in an authoritarian direction.