In the last few days, Donald Trump and other prominent conservative voices have been suggesting that the steps being taken to contain the spread of COVID-19 are, already, a “cure” worse than the disease, and that the White House ought to end social distancing measures early to limit economic damage, letting the virus take its course.
This is self-evidently insane from a public health standpoint, and advocating for it therefore requires discrediting or belittling every public health expert who points that out. That effort is now beginning as what-passes-for-pundits on the conservative flanks begin to mount concerted attacks on National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases director Dr. Anthony Fauci.
Media Matters has a roundup of some of the emerging attacks on Fauci, who has been guiding—as best as he’s been allowed—the top-level federal responses to the unfolding pandemic. Most are by the usual grubs of the conspiracy-addled right. Fox News is also getting into the act (but I repeat myself).
Fox host Steve Hilton, for example, blasted Fauci: “He’ll still have a job at the end of this, whatever happens. Our ruling class and their TV mouthpieces—whipping up fear over this virus. They can afford an indefinite shutdown, working Americans can’t, they’ll be crushed by it.”
If you want to take a moment to absorb the irony of that statement by Mr. Mouthpiece, feel free. We are on no schedule here.
The point of all this, of course, is that once again we are in the midst of a worldwide crisis, or national crisis, or regional crisis, or local crisis—take your pick—in which conservative ideology is shown to be deficient, incompetent, or fraudulent. There is an obvious path to take for anyone who is “expert” enough to know how viruses work, what treatments may become available when, and what the government’s current capabilities are: We need to slow the spread of the virus, or up to a million or more Americans will die.
This requires limiting human interactions. This is going to be very hard, and very costly. But it is that or mass deaths, deaths that near-immediately overwhelm medical services and result in a cascade of other preventable deaths. We botched early testing. The virus is now everywhere. This is the only remaining choice, for now.
Since conservatives concerned about the impact of these decisions on “the economy” cannot plausibly argue any contrary path, the response from the beginning was to declare each of the expert warnings a “hoax” intended to damage their ideology, their leaders, and the country in general. Dr. Fauci is an expert. Dr. Fauci, therefore, is their enemy.
The only way to refute Dr. Fauci’s conclusions is, on the conservative side, to declare that they are simply wrong. Because reasons. Because no reasons. It’s the now-rote gaslighting in which some random internet bozo is held up as a new expert in a field he (it’s almost always a “he”) has never once set foot in, and who now proclaims that their three days of research into the topic has revealed twists that the world’s entire collection of experts, with their decades of research and knowledge, never once considered.
“Ah ha! Did you consider that the sun may simply be going through a cycle?”
“Ah ha! Did you consider that perhaps plants like pollution, and want more of it?”
“Ah ha! Did you consider that well actually, perhaps mass deaths would save Americans money?”
This is all predictable, and was predicted. If Dr. Fauci—or anyone else—threatens to make Donald Trump look bad, Dr. Fauci is now an enemy. If Donald Trump pulls a new medical declaration out of his declaration hole and Dr. Fauci objects, Dr. Fauci is the ignorant one. At the moment, the highest levels of government aren’t fully focused on fighting the pandemic because large portions of time are devoted to reassuring Trump of his own brilliance, soothing him, and pandering to him so that he won’t reflexively go do something worse.
Don’t feel too much scorn for Fauci and the other experts who stand beside Trump and give him applause for doing the bare minimum, or less than the bare minimum, or for doing nothing at all. If they don’t do it Trump will fire them, replacing them with Jared Kushner, an ex-Trump campaign worker, or the last person who flattered him on his television set.
The next step will be declaring that there would have been little to no economic damage if Dr. Fauci and other experts had not screwed things up. Trump had everything under control, until the experts spoke up. The weeks of Trump refusing to act on the pandemic will be ignored; nobody among the conservative pundits will consider it a success if deaths are limited to half or a tenth or a hundredth of what experts warned were possible if we did not limit transmission.
There is no “conservative” plan for dealing with a worldwide pandemic. There is no “conservative” plan on anything in the last decade based on anything but reflexive objection to what anyone else, anywhere, has to say. The “conservative” plan for a pandemic, as for climate change, tax cuts, regime change, and everything else, is to declare that the bad things are simply not happening. If you believe they are, you are clearly partisan—and an enemy.