First they came for the health officials.
As the COVID-19 pandemic began its initial wave last year, those charged with making decisions to safeguard public health found reason to fear for their own safety. Mask mandates and other mitigation strategies were met with aggressive resistance. Health officials were routinely berated, and threats of violence escalated.
It’s had a chilling impact. Since the spring of 2020, more than 180 state and local public health leaders have resigned, retired, or been fired nationwide, according to an analysis from Kaiser Health News and The Associated Press. It’s been called the largest mass exodus of public health officials ever.
”While the vitriol experienced was unnerving, when threats were left on our doorstep, it was far more concerning,” Nick Baldetti told ABC News after he resigned in July as health department director in Reno County, Kansas. “It is one thing to be threatened, but when those threats cross over to your family, it is another stress altogether.”
Public health officials aren’t alone in experiencing vitriol and worse for simply trying to do their jobs. That growing list includes election officials, teachers, administrators, and school board members forced into the eye of a right-wing storm that’s been roiling mostly unchecked for years.
With many walking away out of fear and frustration, the endgame is taking shape — to replace them with people fixated on toxic ideologies instead of serving the public good.
When Merrick Garland was confirmed in March to lead the Justice Department, it’s a safe bet he never imagined his duties as attorney general would include protecting school board members. But months of meetings that turned into shouting matches, attended mostly by white parents irate about everything from mask mandates to school curriculums, forced Garland’s hand.
On October 4, the Justice Department issued a memo citing “a disturbing spike in harassment, intimidation, and threats of violence against school administrators, board members, teachers, and staff who participate in the vital work of running our nation’s public schools.”
Garland said that while “spirited debate . . . is protected under our Constitution, that protection does not extend to threats of violence or efforts to intimidate individuals based on their views.“ The Justice Department, he said, would use “its authority and resources to discourage these threats, identify them when they occur, and prosecute them when appropriate.” For this, Garland spent hours in a Senate hearing Wednesday as Republicans lied about the memo’s contents, showboated for the base, and downplayed real threats against school board members.
What this dishonest grandstanding evoked was the reaction Janet Napolitano, the Obama administration’s first homeland security secretary, faced when she issued a 2009 joint report with the FBI about a surge in far-right extremism, radicalization, and attempts by domestic terrorist groups to recruit Iraq and Afghan war veterans. Conservative backlash was so ferocious and, of course, intentionally misleading that Napolitano backed off and offered “sincere apologies for any offense.”
That report quickly disappeared. The threat did not.
This is the same fate Republicans want for Garland’s memo. They don’t want Americans reminded that some professionals and local citizens who once quietly went about their assigned duties are now harassed by strangers or must ask police to keep watch over their homes and families. Someone even claimed in a false call to the state’s child protective services that a school board member in Florida was abusing her child. Her real offense? Supporting masks in schools.
That woman remains on her county’s school board. The question looms as to who will replace her when she’s had enough of a position that’s become tantamount to wearing a “kick me” sign. That’s also the case for election officials and workers still coping with the stench of the Big Lie and various voter suppression efforts. Their positions could be filled by right-wing partisans with a greater allegiance to power than to democracy.
Professionalism, expertise, and devotion to public service are no longer as valued as misinformation and tribalism. That’s why Donald Trump in the waning months of his presidency wanted to install a loyalist at the Justice Department who would be willing to overturn the election. His effort failed but provided a blueprint for his followers.
Trumpism didn’t create this rage but invigorated it. COVID protocols were falsely assailed as tyranny made it manifest. A nation pushed to reckon with its racist past and present turned history’s dark truths into America’s bogeyman. All that anger is an essential part of an orchestrated long game designed to push our teetering democracy into the abyss.