Voters are getting exactly the picture they should on the eve of Election Day: President Donald Trump in denial of an ongoing pandemic and actively participating in its spread.
At rallies over the weekend, Trump repeated what has become his new favorite line: that the U.S. is “rounding the corner” on the coronavirus outbreak. He attacked doctors, allegedly for inflating COVID-19 numbers in order to make money, and Democratic governors, for supposedly overreacting to the threat.
He even hinted he might fire Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who since the start of the pandemic has arguably been the most consistent, reliable voice of reason at the national level.
Meanwhile, as of Sunday, reported cases were up 43% from two weeks ago and deaths were up 15%, as part of a third coronavirus surge that public health experts long predicted. Trump’s rallies, which pack thousands onto buses and into airplane hangars with sometimes poor ventilation, are likely playing some small part in this. As many as 30,000 cases and 700 deaths trace back to his rallies, according to one modeling exercise from some Stanford University economists.
The surge is hitting hardest in the upper Great Plains and Midwest, including the Dakotas and Iowa, where three very Trumpy Republican governors have been refusing to mandate mask-wearing and, in the case of South Dakota GOP Gov. Kristi Noem, bragging about it.
The U.S. is not alone in struggling with a new surge: France, Italy and even Germany are facing big increases. But the U.S. is the only one of those countries with a leader pretending things are getting better.
More than 230,000 Americans have already died from COVID-19, a number Trump himself once suggested would be a worst-case scenario. At this rate, nobody would be surprised if the number hits 300,000 or even 400,000 before the pandemic is over.
Trump’s determination to deny this reality, rather than react to it, has a lot to do with his personal traits ― his habit of surrounding himself with charlatans, his refusal to study problems in detail, and his apparent inability to summon the basic level of empathy we associate with most members of the human species.
But Trump’s behavior alone doesn’t explain why the U.S. pandemic response looks like it does. Right-wing thought and its grip on the Republican Party have also played a role ― by denigrating experts, undermining the public sector and preaching a libertarian ethos that says we can’t or shouldn’t bother responding collectively to big problems.
A Trumpy Approach To The Virus
It is not surprising that a president who seeks economic advice from Lawrence Kudlow, whose record includes predicting Bill Clinton’s tax hikes would kill the 1990s economy and that the 2007 housing bubble was a mirage, is taking cues on the pandemic from Scott Atlas, a politically conservative radiologist without special expertise in public health or epidemiology.
Nor is it surprising that a president who has suggested energy-efficient light bulbs cause cancer and once confused HIV and HPV would hype unproven (and later deemed to be too risky) COVID-19 treatments and speculate that injecting bleach might be an effective way to treat patients.
And when a politician literally brags that he could shoot somebody in the middle of Fifth Avenue without losing the support of his base, it is to be expected that he might be the type to hold big political gatherings smack in the middle of COVID-19 hot spots, creating what looks like a rolling series of superspreader events ― in order to rally his supporters or, maybe, just to bask in the adulation.
If Mitt Romney, who is famously data-driven and known for his managerial skills, were president, the federal response to COVID-19 would almost surely be a lot more aggressive and more faithful to science. The same goes for Republican governors like Charlie Baker of Massachusetts, Mike DeWine of Ohio and Larry Hogan of Maryland, all of whom have followed the advice of public health experts and acted aggressively to assist both providers and citizens in need ― frequently, because the federal government was not.
The Right’s Crusade Against Expertise
But the failures of the Trump pandemic response also have deep roots in the way mainstream Republican thinking has evolved over the past few decades. And that evolution has not taken by accident, as writers like investigative journalist Jane Mayer and political scientists Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein have chronicled over the years.
Conservatives have repeatedly questioned the authority of experts, especially scientific experts, because of an alleged liberal bias. And since the 1970s, they have invested heavily in the creation of an alternative reality with alternative facts, which are then spread by an alternative conservative media that now has a hold on anywhere from one-third to two-fifths of the population.
The most obvious (and, in the long term, possibly most dangerous) version of this is climate denialism, which has its roots in the funding of anti-regulatory think tanks during the 1970s and 1980s but really took off in the late 2000s, when newly elected President Barack Obama and his Democratic allies tried to pass a “cap-and-trade” scheme of tradable emissions permits to reduce carbon output.
Conservative groups, many of them funded by the Koch Brothers, declared all-out war and soon Republican leaders were denying that climate change was even a problem ― even though their 2008 presidential nominee, Arizona Sen. John McCain, had proposed such a scheme.
The party’s rhetoric has shifted a bit lately, now focusing more on the idea that climate change may be real but is unrelated to human activity ― a position that scientists almost universally reject but which is the predominant view among both GOP leaders and their voters. Just 35% of Republican voters believe climate change is a man-made phenomenon, according to Gallup, and just 18% think it will pose a serious threat in their lifetimes.
It’s a straight line from that kind of thinking to Trump’s attacks on Fauci and, more broadly, his defiance of public health authorities who warned against preemptive loosening of COVID-19 restrictions in the spring and called repeatedly for mask mandates.
And in this era of extreme polarization, when so many voters take their cues from their leaders, Trump can count on backing from the majority of Republican voters ― who, in poll after poll, have said the coronavirus threat is exaggerated and signaled strong approval of Trump’s response.
The Right’s Crusade Against The Public Sector
A big motive behind the right-wing attacks on independent expertise was a desire to weaken the case for regulation and taxes ― which, for conservative financiers like the Kochs, was very much an act of self-interest, since they perceived both regulation and taxes as direct threats to their income. The same motive explains their efforts to undermine the public sector more generally, by taking away the funds it needs to operate effectively.
One example of this is the systematic, long-term neglect of public health agencies. Spending on state public health departments has fallen by 16% since 2010, while spending on local health departments has fallen by 18% in that time, according to an analysis by The Associated Press and Kaiser Health News. That decrease is especially remarkable given that it took place against the backdrop of two major outbreaks, H1N1 and Ebola, that prompted widespread alarm about America’s lack of pandemic preparedness.
“A ‘herd immunity’ strategy really means more mass death ― which, alas, seems to be where we are headed.”
The result of that underfunding has been a severe strain on local agencies that, today, are responsible for key elements of the COVID-19 response, including the contact tracing necessary to quickly contain outbreaks when they happen. An inability to conduct sufficient contact tracing has hindered public health efforts in the case of several notorious superspreader events, including the Sturgis, South Dakota, motorcycle festival in August.
No single policy decision led to this neglect of public health funding. It’s the cumulative result of years and years of tight budgets, at both the federal and state levels ― which, in turn, reflect a broader mentality that government spending is always too high and that government programs are always wasteful.
This is the argument that conservatives have been making for decades and that the Republican Party, which not that long ago had a more nuanced view of government, now embraces as its central dogma. And underlying that skepticism about government is a broader belief about the role of misfortune in life and what, if anything, society should do about it.
The Right’s Crusade Against Solidarity
The core of modern conservative thinking ― the idea that unites its aversion to taxes, regulations and government ― is that societies are fundamentally helpless to address certain problems. Fighting poverty is futile. Slowing climate change is pointless. Making sure every kid has a good public school is impossible. The best hope is to let individuals, businesses and small communities act on their own.
Reasonable people can (and do) have good-faith arguments about what governments can and can’t accomplish. But some problems are simply too big and complex for anybody but governments to address. They are collective action problems, in others words. The pandemic is a perfect example of that.
Nobody but the government has the resources to pay for and distribute protective gear. Nobody but the government has the ability to coordinate testing on a mass scale. Nobody but the government has the personnel to train and give hazard pay to front-line caregivers. Nobody but the government has the money to prop up the economy until the virus recedes enough to allow something resembling normal activity.
The Trump administration has mostly failed on these accounts. (Vaccine development is the one exception; it invested massively in that, in ways that are likely to pay off shortly.) But the Republican Party has failed too ― most conspicuously, when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and his allies rejected hazard pay and extended economic relief, even as they found time to confirm Justice Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court.
The ultimate expression of this attitude is what’s come to be known as the “herd immunity” strategy, which is the idea that the best response to the pandemic is to let the virus run rampant through the population while, in theory, protecting the most vulnerable.
Among its chief promoters these days is reportedly Atlas, who from the look of things has replaced Fauci as the scientist with the most influence on Trump.
Most public health experts reject this strategy, in part because segregating the sick is difficult. Community spread inevitably takes the virus into nursing homes and other long-term care facilities through workers, and there are many others with underlying medical conditions that leave them at high risk.
A “herd immunity” strategy really means more mass death ― which, alas, seems to be where we are headed. One in five Americans already has a close family member or friend who died from COVID-19, according to a September poll.
That number is going to keep going up, and the only question is how high. The answer may depend on what happens Tuesday ― and whether not just the president, but also his party, still have control over the nation’s pandemic response come January.