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Our Summer of American Nihilism

How did “If I die, I die” become this country’s mantra?

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

In a recent interview on The Ringer’s 10 Questions podcast, Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins—a man who says he keeps a four-foot-tall pile of rocks outside his garage to remind him of his own mortality—explained that he’s not all that concerned about the pandemic and isn’t convinced wearing a mask really matters.

In one of his rapid-fire questions, host Kyle Brandt asked Cousins: “If 1 is the person who says, ‘Masks are stupid, you’re all a bunch of lemmings,’ and 10 is, ‘I’m not leaving my master bathroom for the next 10 years,’ where do you land?”

Cousins laughed, then replied: “I’m not gonna call anybody stupid, for the trouble it would get me in. But I’m about a 0.00001.”

He then expanded a bit more on his philosophy, noting that he has been wearing a mask at the Vikings’ team facility mainly to make others feel comfortable. As far as the virus itself goes, Cousins continued: “I would say I’m going to go about my daily life. If I get it, I’m going to ride it out. I’m going to let nature do its course. Uh, survival-of-the-fittest kind of approach and just say, if it knocks me out, it knocks me out. I’m going to be OK. Even if I die. If I die, I die. I kind of have peace about that.”

From the mouth of someone so protected, the meaning seems to flip: If you die, you die. It is easy, and justifiable, to get extremely pissed off at someone like Cousins—a white man with a massive platform, wrapped in 10 layers of the best Bubble Wrap money can buy—speaking so recklessly in the midst of a pandemic that has been so devastating for millions of people, with environmental and health care racism leaving Black and brown people especially vulnerable to the worst impacts. It was also easy because the mantra he wrapped himself in—“If I die, I die”—has felt inescapable over the past five months. It’s an ethos of annihilating selfishness that has in many ways come to define our summer.

Even as uprisings in defense of Black lives continue across the country, even as we’re seeing a profound outpouring of community-level mutual aid—even as most people seem fine with wearing masks—major media institutions and the White House have fed and nurtured this narrative and policy in service of this national death drive.

In March, that kind of nihilism saturated media coverage, regardless of who said it. An interview with a spring-breaker in Florida went viral after he casually boasted, “Whatever happens, happens.” (Said spring-breaker quickly apologized and retracted his statement.) Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Blake Snell said, in reaction to Major League Baseball’s safety precautions, “If I get it, I get it.” And perhaps most infamously, Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick said that elderly people could “take care of ourselves,” as he made an impassioned plea for sacrificing grandma and grandpa in service of reopening the economy.

By May, there were reports of people attacking and spitting on grocery workers for enforcing their store’s mask policy. Petulant gun-toting protesters, many maskless, stormed state capitols in protest of legislatures and governors closing businesses to help keep people at home. It wasn’t until July that the president publicly encouraged the use of masks—140,000 deaths after he responded to a voluntary mask directive issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in early April by saying, “I don’t think I’m going to be doing it.”

These stories have stayed with me through the summer because they bleed together into a single story of the thing that feels so sick about our country. Selfish individualism mixed with violent paranoia and gleeful provocation in the face of other people’s misery. But even as that’s true—those are the mandates that dictate our policies and have shaped our failed recovery—they also weren’t reflective of most people. Which felt like its own story about the country, both this summer and long before it.

Last week, the Pew Research Center released a study showing that the number of Americans who reported wearing their masks in public most or all of the time has skyrocketed since similar polling conducted at the beginning of the summer. Between June and August, the rate jumped from 65 percent to 85 percent. (Those who identified as white, Republican, and men—i.e., Cousins, a golf buddy of Trump’s—ranked lower than their comparable counterparts in all categories, but they all still made similarly significant gains.)

Now, as was the case with the June numbers, there are going to be refutations of reports of such high mask-wearing rates—when asked how many people they saw in public wearing their mask all or some of the time, respondents from the June poll pegged the number at just 44 percent, 21 percentage points below those who claimed to be taking the preventative measure. And speaking purely anecdotally, as someone who just spent five months back home in rural North Carolina, including the time period during which the Pew poll was conducted, I understand the skepticism. Nearly every time my partner and I left the house, we would be two of the only people in our Food Lion with masks on. I listened as the “If I die, I die” attitude came out of the mouths of family members and in-laws young and old, healthy and sick.

My first instinct was to write a piece pointing to the prevalence of the worldview Cousins espoused, because it felt so familiar to me. It’s one that is buoyed by the Christian faith and the belief in an eternal afterlife—as long as I’m right with God, what happens to me on Earth will ultimately be insignificant, the reasoning goes. And too often, especially during the pandemic, this otherwise respectable way of comprehending and coping with the inevitability of death has been used to excuse irresponsible personal behavior.

But these impressions and anecdotes can be distorting at the same time as they represent something very real and powerful in this country. From the beginning, people have largely been onboard with placing public health and safety over the financial interests of the economy. The same week that the armed anti-shutdown protesters walked in state capitols, polling showed that 68 percent of the public believed that any efforts to reopen the economy were being pursued too hastily—a tacit acknowledgment that people largely believed protecting their neighbors and communities from the virus was more important than being able to get one’s hair trimmed.

Just as sex sells, so too does white grievance. It is always easier to turn the camera to the person screaming in the street that the government is trying to turn us all into Communists than it is to focus on the large group of people standing slightly off-screen cocking an eyebrow and intoning quietly that they actually kind of like their neighbors and would be happier if they didn’t die of a preventable virus.

And by that same token, it was just as tantalizing to hate-read stories about rowdy teens packing into swimming pools and Florida beaches because, again, it was far easier to yell at people with little institutional power for being stupid than it was to recognize that most people were being kind and thoughtful while their government set them up for needless suffering and death. That even the spring break idiots were only there because their governor hadn’t shut down the bars around the beaches as the virus raged.

It wasn’t really the college kids, then. They may grow up to be the next generation of grievance warriors with real institutional power, but, right now, they just became avatars for those people and the policies that have come to shape our daily lives. In this way, the mask wars start to resemble all of our politics. Otherwise popular policies are easily blocked all the time because of this same dynamic. This is how universal health care, seen as favorable among 55 percent of Americans, has been relegated to a distant dream. Conservative state legislatures continue to do everything in their power to block measures as simple as Medicaid expansion, despite voters almost always voting in favor of it if it is put to a referendum. This is minoritarian nihilism. This is America.

Kirk Cousins is a dumbass, but his statement and the reaction to it is also an encapsulation of what we should be worried about most. Viewpoints like his have consistently been centered throughout the pandemic, by both media outlets hoping to cash in on easy contrarian hate-clicks and radical conservative politicians like our president who look to seize these one-offs as proof that their fragmented and lonely individualism-above-all worldview is worthwhile and popular. It’s not, and it never has been. But the battle is less in proving that people like this are wrong, and more in organizing to ensure that our systems of power are not dictated by the loudest, dumbest voice.