the national interest

The Coronavirus and Conservatism’s War on Science

Photo: J. Conrad Williams, Jr./Newsday via Getty Images

Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, President Trump spent weeks in denial, snapped suddenly into taking the threat seriously, reverted to denialism, and has, for the moment, toggled back to serious concern. In his Sunday press conference, Trump cited his public-health experts and refrained from promising a quick end to social distancing. Yet the threat of recidivism hovers over the presidency. At any moment, the wrong CEO or Fox News personality might get Trump’s ear and persuade him to toggle back to insouciance.

Trump’s congenital impatience is not the only culprit. Republican governors in several states have downplayed the virus, either refusing to enforce social-distancing measures or even overruling local officials who attempt to do so. A new study finds that the single factor that best explains the speed of state-level reaction is its governor’s partisan identity. “States with Republican governors and Republican electorates delayed each social distancing measure by an average of 2.70 days,” the authors find, “a far larger effect than any other factor, including state income per capita, the percentage of neighboring states with mandates, or even confirmed cases in state.”

Trump’s extreme, almost comic myopia has driven Washington’s laggard response. Having a television-addled president with the memory and long-term planning capabilities of a fruit fly is deeply unhelpful. But there is more behind Trump’s intermittent disregard for the virus’s danger than simple Trumpiness. As is often the case when analyzing any of the horrors of the Trump era, Trump’s coronavirus response combines his idiosyncratic personality disorders with ingrained pathologies of the conservative movement.

Two weeks ago, Richard Epstein, one of the movement’s most prestigious intellectuals, wrote a contrarian analysis of the pandemic. Epstein argued that conventional models were dramatically overstating the pandemic risk, and predicted the coronavirus would ultimately claim a mere 500 American lives. “Conservatives close to Trump and numerous administration officials have been circulating” Epstein’s article, the Washington Post reported a week ago. Conservative op-eds were still citing Epstein’s findings as of two days ago.

It was obvious almost immediately that Epstein horribly botched his projection. (The American death toll is already several times higher than he forecast, and the Trump administration’s current, most optimistic prediction forecasts some 400 times as many deaths.) In an interview with Isaac Chotiner, Epstein reveals himself as hopelessly out of his depth. He repeatedly claims the coronavirus is bound to weaken as it spreads, a claim he does not substantiate, and which is contradicted by all (real) experts. He confidently asserts that Bill Gates has endorsed his bottom-line conclusion, which is the opposite of the truth. Epstein’s model turns out to have been essentially made up out of thin air.

Some measure of skepticism is appropriate, and even helpful. To be sure, there is a high level of uncertainty as to how widely the virus will spread and how deadly it will prove, not to mention what steps people should take to counteract it. And some conservative intellectuals — most prominently, Scott Gottlieb, Trump’s former FDA commissioner — have taken the pandemic seriously all along. That said, conservatives have widely greeted the warnings of public-health officials with reflexive skepticism. And their objections, like Epstein’s, often amount to rank amateurism cast as sophistication.

The skepticism has run up and down the food chain of right-wing discourse. The National Enquirer has hawked fake coronavirus cures. The Federalist published a column by a retired dermatologist urging readers to hold coronavirus parties to contract the disease intentionally, because it worked on chicken pox. Here is Ann Coulter sharing a chart that plainly shows the coronavirus to be far deadlier than the flu, but claiming it proves the opposite:

Last week, Imperial College scientist Neil Ferguson, chief author on an influential study predicting the virus would kill more than half a million Britons and 2 million Americans unless steps were taken to control it, testified that social-distancing restrictions in the U.K. would cause dramatically fewer deaths. Skeptics insisted Ferguson had somehow walked back his doomsaying predictions. The testimony “raises serious questions about the radical countermeasures inspired by public-health experts like Mr. Ferguson,” concluded Wall Street Journal columnist James Freeman. “Now that we are seeing that the ICU bed & vent projections from orig Imperial College study are almost certainly WRONG, it is critical that we think immed about staggered, gradual opening of our country with new protocols,” proclaimed Laura Ingraham.

His testimony proved nothing of the sort, as Ferguson himself tried to explain. His update reflected the success of the radical countermeasures his forecast had inspired. It is literally as if your mom warned you you’d get wet if you didn’t carry an umbrella, made you carry an umbrella, and then you claimed that the fact that you stayed dry under it disproved her prediction.

For anybody who has closely followed the world of conservative ideas for the last few decades, it would come as little surprise to see such simple errors undergirding the conclusions of even the most esteemed minds the movement has to offer. Conservatism has built an alternative-fact universe, in which pseudo-experts can confidently explain why tax cuts will increase revenue, Obamacare will fail to increase health-insurance coverage, greenhouse-gas emissions will not warm the planet, and on and on.

It is not surprising that the movement generated an alternative reality in which the conclusions of epidemiologists across the world could be confidently discarded. Nor is it surprising that Trump has clung tightly to such thinking at junctures in the crisis. It is almost impressive that Trump has managed to heed the advice of real scientists at all.

The Coronavirus and Conservatism’s War on Science