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Why Have So Many American Conservatives Embraced COVID-19 Pseudoscience?

With almost 150,000 COVID-19 deaths, the United States, putative leader of the free world, now is competing with Brazil and Russia for global supremacy in pandemic mismanagement. Not only does the United States lack any kind of coherent federal leadership on this issue, but even state and city leaders have fallen into bickering—and even lawsuits—over the correct response. While many Western nations have all but extinguished COVID-19 within their borders, the American pandemic is raging with a new ferocity. Yet some conservatives continue to protest even basic public-health measures, including masks. How could some of America’s best and brightest abet their country’s collapse into dysfunction in the face of a once-in-a-century pandemic?

The most obvious answer lies with their president, Donald Trump, who has continued to hold large rallies even into July. He and his most fervent supporters boosted the patchwork of conspiracy theories, crank medical science, and plain apathy that informed much of the American response. At the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) conference in Washington, D.C. back in February, the president’s then acting cabinet chief, Mick Mulvaney, assured everyone that no country is better equipped to deal with this kind of crisis, and that “the press was covering their hoax of the day because they thought it would bring down the president… That’s what this is all about.” This was in late February, a full five months ago, when the American death count was still in double digits. Yet now that it is well into six digits, we still get the same script. People die all the time, from all sorts of causes, they tell us. Take the flu. It kills tens of thousands every year, right?

As someone who has a wide network of conservative friends and ideological allies, cultivated over decades of writing on the Middle East conflict, anti-Semitism, terrorism, and related issues, I’ve watched in horror as writers I’ve long respected succumbed to this nonsense. On January 30th, well before many people had even heard of COVID-19, in fact, American Thinker writer Jeffrey Folks was already warning that this was merely a case of “Dems rooting for a global pandemic”:

Russiagate didn’t work. Ukraine didn’t work, the economy is growing at a healthy rate. Nothing works against this president—but maybe the coronavirus will do it! … Things would have to be a lot worse than [the SARS outbreak] in 2002–3, when there were 8,098 cases and 774 deaths worldwide.

Of course, plenty of leaders and pundits botched their response to COVID-19 in January and February. But even in March, by which time it had become obvious that COVID-19 wasn’t just another iteration of the seasonal flu, Trump continued to act as if the disease could be fought on the basis of hunches and pseudoscience. Confiding in Fox News host Sean Hannity, the president said that reports of a high mortality rate were false. Around the same time, an American Thinker writer blithely assured everyone on the basis that “the odds of recovering are far higher than the odds of dying” (which is also true of many kinds of cancer). In the conservative blogosphere, the idea of communist China waging germ warfare against the West was conflated with alleged Democratic efforts to profit from the political fallout—with Trump cast as the adult in the room resisting the call for panic. Or as one writer put it: “Thank God for the cool, calm, collected and seasoned business mogul, President Donald J. Trump, who is guiding us.”

In his weekly articles on the American Greatness site, New Criterion publisher Roger Kimball conferred legitimacy on the no-big-deal approach to the unfolding pandemic with highbrow literary references and Latin phrases. As the body count climbed, he began insisting on picayune distinctions between “dying from the virus [or] with the virus.” This pedantry continues to this day, as various conservatives spin the death numbers this way and that, in order to present the plague as an artifact of testing, natural mortality cycles, or media bias.

Meanwhile, the actual scientists trying to save lives, Anthony Fauci foremost among them, have been demonized. In May, Kimball proclaimed that “the country has been on a moral bender, intoxicated by fear and panic,” and then luridly demagogued the “Svengali-like Anthony Fauci” as some kind of Rasputin figure, noting that the doctor was accompanied by “his comely, Vanna White-like assistant Dr. Deborah Birx.” To this day, Trump himself insists that Fauci is an “alarmist.” Among the president’s supporters, Sweden’s failed effort to let the disease progress toward a state of herd immunity remains an object of admiration.

Even the usually sure-footed Heather Mac Donald wrote that:

Fear-mongering news stories should begin by admitting that there is [as of March 13th], a total of 41 deaths in the United States, half of them from a ‘poorly run nursing home outside of Seattle.’ The chances of dying from the disease in America are infinitesimal compared to the economic damage. In 2018–19, 34,200 people died from influenza. The annual death toll from automobile accidents is 38,800. Even if the current Covid-19 fatality rate were multiplied by a factor of one thousand, it would outnumber traffic deaths by a mere 2,200.

As of late July, in fact, the death toll already has spiked upward, compared to March 13th, by a factor of about three thousand—and no one knows how high it will go. As for the dead, Mac Donald nonchalantly noted that no children under the age of nine had died, while 89 percent of the Italian victims were over 70, “nearing the end of their lifespans. [They] might have… died from another illness.” Succumbing to Godwin’s Law, Dennis Prager argued that the economic effects of the lockdown would be worse than the disease itself, and, in the same breath, that “the Nazis came to power because of economics more than any other single reason.”

The demand that the medical community recognize the miraculous COVID-19-curing qualities of hydroxychloroquine formed another absurd subplot. In his in-depth report on Didier Raoult, the controversial French professor who championed the drug, journalist Scott Sayare explained that much of the misinformation began spreading in early March, when Gregory Rigano—who falsely presented himself as an advisor to Stanford Medical School—self-published a Google Docs report on the subject that he’d formatted so that it looked like a legitimate scientific paper. Fox News host Laura Ingraham picked up on his misinformation, and pronounced hydroxychloroquine to be a “game-changer.” Sean Hannity followed suit. Rigano appeared on Tucker Carlson’s show, where he claimed that Raoult’s study had shown a 100 percent cure rate. At a March 19th White House task force briefing, President Trump repeated the claim that the drug was a “game changer.”

In time, the debate over hydroxychloroquine became suffused with misinformation on both sides, as even the debunkers who opposed Trump’s claims ignored the usual scientific safeguards. In May, the Lancet published a report declaring that hydroxychloroquine wasn’t merely ineffective in regard to COVID-19, but dangerous, too. In June, that work was retracted. This was around the same time that progressive media and public-health groups were insisting that mass attendance at Black Lives Matter events was perfectly safe because the underlying political cause was important—an absurd contradiction of the same health protocols these same experts had properly defended since March. When it comes to COVID-19, Trump and his followers may have led the assault on the sanctity of science. But many of his opponents have made a bad situation worse, proving that political extremism can be a risk to human health no matter which direction it comes from.

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What I have described here represents a crisis of ideology—an abstract, electronic-media-driven phenomenon by which conservatives prioritized partisanship and wishful thinking over saving lives. But the results played out all over real-world bricks-and-mortar America: Healthcare workers begging for PPE, governors bidding against federal emergency-management officials for desperately needed supplies, scenes of triage at hospitals, and chaotic protests outside state capitols. Meanwhile, the nation’s elderly remained holed up as prisoners in nursing homes (the decrepit state of which has been revealed as a scandal in and of itself). The whole world is now watching Trump’s America degenerate into the kind of dysfunction that we usually associate with failed states.

As with all important policy issues, the best approach to fighting COVID-19 is open to debate. Even scientists don’t fully understand the role of drugs, including hydroxychloroquine, or the medical side effects of lockdown. But what I’m describing here isn’t evidence-driven debate: It’s angry, ideologically driven luddite mysticism masquerading as hard-headed conservative skepticism.

Here in France, I’ve already lost two precious friends to COVID-19: Jewish community leader Claude Barouch and senior politician Claude Goasguen. Others who are close to me have suffered horribly from this illness. Ideologues didn’t create the virus that struck these people. But they did let themselves become trapped in a partisan rabbit hole at a time when they could have been lending their influential voices to productive, scientific, life-saving ends.

 

 

Nidra Poller is an American writer who has lived in Paris since 1972. Her work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, National Post, Commentary magazine, New York Post, and other publications. Her most recent book is the 2019 novel So Courage & Gypsy Motion.

Featured image: May 1st protest held in Spokane, WA against statewide stay-at-home order.