In “It’s a choice between anarchy and American values” (Opinion Exchange, Oct. 6), Jason Lewis warns Minnesotans about the dangers of “inflammatory and irresponsible rhetoric.”

The morning after that commentary appeared, he went on a right-wing radio show to complain that the masks we wear to avoid getting sick or infecting our neighbors represent “muzzles” designed to enforce “total, absolute conformity,” and called on his supporters to “rise up here pretty damn soon before it’s too late.”

 

I don’t know what he meant by that. But I do know this: COVID-19 has killed approximately 210,000 more Americans than the civil unrest Lewis describes. And while Sen. Tina Smith has condemned those who would pervert the cause of racial justice by engaging in looting and property destruction, Lewis’s own rhetoric on COVID-19 truly is inflammatory and irresponsible. In fact, it’s nothing short of dangerous.

For example: On that radio show last week, Lewis mocked Minnesotans worried about the pandemic, making fun of our “bizarre obsession with risk” and claiming that “anybody under the age of 50 has exactly a 99.98% chance of survival.” In reality, thousands of young people have died during this pandemic, and we still don’t know what the long-term health effects will be for those who survive. What’s more, anyone — of any age — who contracts COVID-19 can easily infect others who might be at even greater risk.

This is part of a pattern. From the beginning, Lewis has done his best to mislead and misinform the people he wants to represent about the most important threat they face. He’s suggested the COVID-19 death toll is being artificially inflated. He’s compared this deadly virus to the common flu. He’s spread wild theories about an “anti-Trump conspiracy” to destroy the economy and a secret plot to mandate “vaccines with tattoos to make certain you’ve got one.”

He’d much rather we pay attention to his fearmongering than to the very real challenges we face. But Minnesota families aren’t buying Lewis’s distractions. Yes, they’re worried. But they’re worried about losing their jobs because President Donald Trump is refusing to allow stimulus negotiations to proceed. They’re worried that Trump’s lawsuit to overturn the Affordable Care Act will take away their health care and rob them of protections for pre-existing conditions.

Most of all, Minnesotans are worried that someone in their family will test positive for the virus that has killed more than 210,000 Americans. That’s what happened to my family. My brother, Ron, who was in his 50s and battling cancer when he contracted the virus this spring, died in the hospital after spending his last days hooked up to a ventilator. We didn’t get to say goodbye and we haven’t had a chance to gather as a family and celebrate his life.

When George Floyd became the latest in a long line of Black Americans to be killed by police officers, Sen. Smith offered a series of community-grounded proposals to address the crisis of racial injustice in law enforcement, because that’s what leaders do: solve problems.

But when it comes to COVID, Lewis and his Republican allies have failed that test of leadership.

Let’s be clear: They are minimizing the danger posed by this virus in order to cover up the fact that the Trump administration’s inaction has made it more deadly and costly than it needed to be. They knew as early as January what was coming, and they failed to protect us. Not enough tests. Not enough protective equipment. Not enough economic support for families and businesses struggling to get by as the virus wreaks havoc on our economy.

Meanwhile, President Donald Trump himself has put Minnesotans at risk by coming here for a rally while likely contagious. His refusal to tell us when he last tested negative has made it impossible for public health officials to know how many people he might have infected. And three Republican members of Minnesota’s congressional delegation who should have been quarantined due to their contact with him chose instead to get on an airplane.

Two days after he went on the radio and made fun of Minnesotans for taking precautions to avoid contracting this deadly virus, Lewis announced that he himself had been in contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19 and that he and his staff would be isolating while awaiting their own test results — the second time in a week he has had to quarantine because he refuses to abide by social distancing guidelines. I pray that they all remain healthy.

But let’s be clear: The threat posed by this pandemic is real, and Lewis’s distractions and distortions are making things worse. We have come to expect overheated rhetoric and false attacks from partisan bomb-throwers like Lewis — but we should expect something better from the people we send to represent us in Washington.

 

Peggy Flanagan is lieutenant governor of Minnesota.