the national interest

The Secret to Making a Liberal Argument Sound Dumb: Pretending Trump Doesn’t Exist

Photo: Michael Reynolds/EPA/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Conservative intellectuals caught between a president who has turned the idea of having any intellectual basis at all for one’s ideas into a dada joke, and an audience that demands fealty to him, have found refuge in anti-anti-Trumpism. The art of anti-anti-Trumpism often lies more in that which goes unsaid than that which is said. It consists largely of tightly narrowing one’s focus to Trump’s critics, whose actions can be analyzed as if Trump himself did not exist. The attraction of this technique is that it permits relative fealty to the facts without offending the Trumpian base.

The trouble is that the facts, even if true, must omit the context in which they make any sense. Imagine a history of the Pacific theater in World War II, which begins with the Doolittle raid and ends with the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, skipping Pearl Harbor, etc., and you have a sense of how the method works.

National Review editor Rich Lowry has a column that is a perfect specimen of the genre. Lowry’s theme is that science alone is not a guide to managing the coronavirus pandemic. His launching-off point is a series of pro-science quotes — “Joe Biden has urged President Trump, “Follow the science, listen to the experts, do what they tell you.” — which Lowry rebuts by arguing that science doesn’t have every answer: “Once you are outside a lab setting and dealing with matters of public policy, questions of values and how to strike a balance between competing priorities come into play, and they simply can’t be settled by people in white lab coats.”

That observation is perfectly correct, even banal. Science doesn’t have a perfect understanding of every scientific question, and no serious figure is proposing to let scientists alone determine every aspect of the public-policy response to the pandemic. Instead, the liberal Lowry scolds are registering their disagreement with President Trump’s practice of ignoring or manipulating science.

From the outset, Trump has treated scientists as members of a suspicious category. He insisted for weeks that the coronavirus would never spread in the United States and threatened to fire CDC official Nancy Messonnier when she publicly diverged from his denialist stance. He has insisted the virus would disappear on its own, perhaps with warm weather, a scenario scientists have deemed unlikely. He repeatedly touted hydroxychloroquine, even urging Americans to take it, ignoring the pleas of scientists to first allow testing to determine if it was effective. (It apparently is not.) He fired the government’s top vaccine expert, allegedly for failing to cooperate with Trump’s campaign to subvert the scientific method and promote treatments favored by his political supporters. He has floated ridiculous pet-cure ideas that popped into his head and directed his scientific advisers to look into them on camera.

In one especially surreal scene, trade adviser Peter Navarro threw a stack of papers purporting to prove the value of hydroxychloroquine on the table in a rebuke to Dr. Tony Fauci, claiming, “That’s science, not anecdote.” Trump has surrounded himself with, and empowered, a cast of characters who dismiss scientists and fail to understand science. Rudy Giuliani, who has bent Trump’s ear on treatment ideas, laughed at the practice of contact tracing, asking why it wouldn’t also be done for cancer, obesity, and heart disease. (The answer of course is that its purpose is to trace the spread of communicable diseases.) The Fox News hosts Trump spends hours watching and talking to on the phone, like Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham, have promoted kook theories that the coronavirus is far less deadly than scientific authorities believe.

Lowry’s column does not mention, or even allude to, any of this. He does not even have a tossed-off line saying to be sure, Trump’s dismissal of science has gone too far in the other direction. The only mention of Trump’s name in the column occurs in the sentence quoted above, in which Lowry quotes Biden urging Trump to listen to scientists. Lowry does not explain why Biden would even have to make this plea. For the purpose of Lowry’s argument, Biden has simply embraced extreme scientism, out of nowhere.

It is only in that contextless void that Lowry’s criticism makes any sense. An ad for a restaurant promising that its food would contain absolutely no rat would look silly. After all, avoiding rat is not one of the criteria most of us usually focus on when choosing our dining options, and in theory, a restaurateur who obsessed over rats to the exclusion of the taste and price of his meals would be making a mistake. However, if it happened to be the case that a competing restaurant was loading rat meat into every entree, then a no-rats ad campaign would be perfectly sensible.

That is how the anti-anti-Trump conservatives devote their attention: picking apart the claims of the people who are promising America not to serve up plates full of rat every day. Why are they so obsessed with rats? Is rat meat really less healthy than, say, starvation? Didn’t the health inspector once detect mouse droppings in their own kitchen?

Clever minds such as Lowry’s can occupy themselves with questions like this for years on end. It is a seductive escape from the unpleasant choice between maintaining one’s livelihood and thinking clearly about the most powerful man on earth.

Pretend Trump Doesn’t Exist, Liberal Claims Will Sound Dumb