Photo: Intelligencer. Photo: Getty Images
the national interest

Where Is the Republican Soul-searching for Getting COVID Wrong?

Fauci is at least answering some hard questions.

Photo: Intelligencer. Photo: Getty Images

Last week, Anthony Fauci submitted to a lengthy, probing, and sometimes contentious interview with David Wallace-Wells, a science journalist at the New York Times. Their exchange is illuminating, but I was struck by this snarky response by Wall Street Journal opinion columnist Kimberly Strassel:

Strassel seizes on the word something in Fauci’s confession, “Something clearly went wrong.” The American right has a well-honed list of Faucian crimes that render this “something” into an ironic understatement, and at least some of the items in the indictment are legitimate grievances. But if you scroll down to the context of this confession, here is what you find:

David Wallace-Wells: Three years ago, in March 2020, you and many others warned that Covid could result in as many as 100,000 or 200,000 American deaths, making the case for quite drastic interventions in the way we lived our daily lives. At the time, you thought “worst-case scenarios” of more than a million deaths were quite unlikely. Now here we are, three years later, and, having done quite a lot to try to stop the spread of the virus, we have passed 1.1 million deaths. What went wrong?

Anthony Fauci: Something clearly went wrong. And I don’t know exactly what it was. But the reason we know it went wrong is that we are the richest country in the world, and on a per-capita basis we’ve done worse than virtually all other countries.1 And there’s no reason that a rich country like ours has to have 1.1 million deaths. Unacceptable.

In this case, Fauci was being pressed for having dramatically underestimated COVID’s death toll. To his credit, he at least acknowledged the error and updated his understanding of the pandemic’s deadly reach. But underestimating the pandemic is a sin of which the Republicans were far more guilty.

More to the point, the soul-searching in which Fauci and other liberals are currently engaged has absolutely no parallel on the right. Conservatives got COVID extremely wrong. Where is the accountability? Where is the course correction? The answer is that they don’t exist, because the conservative movement is incapable of engaging in them.

Start with the subject of Strassel’s snark, the COVID death toll. Donald Trump threatened to fire Dr. Nancy Messonnier, a top CDC official, for telling reporters in February 2020 that the virus would likely spread to the United States. Trump insisted that month that China was “getting it under control more and more, that the United States had just 15 people [with COVID], and the 15 within a couple of days is going to be down to close to zero.” He repeated over and over: “Just stay calm. It will go away.” (March 10). “It’s going to go away, hopefully at the end of the month. And, if not, hopefully it will be soon after that.” (March 31). “It is going to go away. It is going away.” (April 3). “I always say, even without it [a vaccine], it goes away.” (June 16). And on and on.

Maybe you believe, as many conservative elites do, that Trump’s positions do not reflect on the conservative movement or the Republican Party. (Trump is the subject of an elaborate, years-long-denial complex by the right-wing intelligentsia.) But even highly respectable conservative intellectuals made utterly absurd claims about the pandemic’s likely death toll. Hoover Institute scholar Richard Epstein predicted COVID would kill just 500 Americans, before correcting a small computational error and revising the prediction to 5,000 (still a gross underestimate, as more than a million Americans have perished from COVID-19).

In March 2020, the Journal ran an op-ed arguing that the standard models of the projected COVID death toll were “too high by orders of magnitude,” proposing the actual death toll would be 20,000 or perhaps 40,000. The prominent voodoo economist Kevin Hassett created a model that persuaded White House staff that COVID deaths would drop to zero by mid-May 2020.

The wishful delusion that COVID posed barely any serious health risk produced other delusions. Hydroxychloroquine would cure it! The vaccines were unnecessary or even harmful! These errors were the product of ingrained mental pathologies on the right, which is why a figure like Hassett is now merrily assuring Republicans that defaulting on the national debt would be no big deal.

Far from examining the epistemic bubble that produced these bizarre beliefs, conservatives have coalesced around them. Trump is now running away from Operation Warp Speed, because it constitutes a political liability for him. Ron DeSantis, the Journal’s preferred candidate, has turned the anti-vaccine movement into a powerful wedge against Trump. DeSantis has appeared with and promoted anti-vaxxers and recruited an idiosyncratic vaccine skeptic, Joseph Ladapo, to run his state’s health department. Florida is “affirmatively against” providing the COVID-19 vaccine to children, making it the only state to adopt such a position. Ladapo recently altered a study to exaggerate the risks of the vaccine.

The Journal has an editorial roasting Randi Weingarten for downplaying her role in closing schools. And while more honesty from Weingarten would be nice, at least she is backing away from her previous stance. The Biden administration was able to push for reopening schools, more or less successfully.

The Democratic Party certainly has its problems with scientific groupthink. A loud faction on the left continues to insist that it was correct to call the lab-leak hypothesis a racist conspiracy theory. But there are still enough healthy antibodies in the system to overcome this tendency. The Biden administration has, correctly, taken a neutral posture on COVID’s origins.

Meanwhile, right-wing orthodoxy has so thoroughly permeated the right that the very idea of confronting its scientific errors is unthinkable. Conservatives aren’t contemplating, let alone engaging in, soul-searching over their incompetent dismissal of COVID’s risk, or embrace of quack cures, or vaccine skepticism. Fauci got some things wrong and is at least entertaining criticism. The Republican Party was underestimating the death toll by orders of magnitude and urging people to cure it with horse dewormers, and it is just sinking deeper into self-satisfied error. It’s a revealing synecdoche for the current state of the two parties.

Where’s the GOP Soul-searching for Getting COVID Wrong?