Covid-19 Brings Out All the Usual Zombies

Let me summarize the Trump administration/right-wing media view on the coronavirus:

  • It’s a hoax, or anyway
  • no big deal. Besides,
  • trying to do anything about it would destroy the economy. And
  • it’s China’s fault, which is why we should call it the “Chinese virus.”Oh, and epidemiologists who have been modeling the virus’s future spread have come under sustained attack, accused of
  • being part of a “deep state” plot against Donald Trump,
  • or maybe free markets.

Does all this give you a sense of déjà vu? It should. After all, it’s very similar to the Trump/right-wing line on climate change. Here’s what Trump tweeted back in 2012: “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing noncompetitive.” It’s all there: it’s a hoax, doing anything about it will destroy the economy, and let’s blame China.

And epidemiologists startled to find their best scientific efforts denounced as politically motivated fraud should have known what was coming. After all, exactly the same thing happened to climate scientists, who have faced constant harassment for decades.

So the right-wing response to Covid-19 has been almost identical to the right-wing response to climate change, albeit on a vastly accelerated time scale. But what lies behind this kind of denialism?

Well, I recently published a book about the prevalence in our politics of “zombie ideas” — ideas that have been proved wrong by overwhelming evidence and should be dead, but somehow keep shambling along, eating people’s brains. The most prevalent zombie in U.S. politics is the insistence that tax cuts for the rich produce economic miracles, indeed pay for themselves, but the most consequential zombie, the one that poses an existential threat, is climate change denial. And Covid-19 has brought out all the usual zombies.

But why, exactly, is the right treating a pandemic the same way it treats tax cuts and climate change?

The force that usually keeps zombie ideas shambling along is naked financial self-interest.

  • Paeans to the virtues of tax cuts are more or less directly paid for by billionaires who benefit from these cuts.
  • Climate denial is an industry supported almost entirely by fossil-fuel interests. As Upton Sinclair put it, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

However, it’s less obvious who gains from minimizing the dangers of a pandemic. Among other things, the time scale is vastly compressed compared with climate change: the consequences of global warming will take many decades to play out, giving fossil-fuel interests plenty of time to take the money and run, but we’re already seeing catastrophic consequences of virus denial after just a few weeks.

True, there are may be some billionaires who imagine that denying the crisis will work to their financial advantage. Just before Trump made his terrifying call for reopening the nation by Easter, he had a conference call with a group of money managers, who may have told him that ending social distancing would be good for the market. That’s insane, but you should never underestimate the cupidity of these people. Remember, Blackstone’s Steve Schwarzman, one of the men on the call, once compared proposals to close a tax loophole to Hitler’s invasion of Poland.

Also, billionaires have done very well by Trump’s tax cuts, and may fear that the economic damage from the coronavirus will bring about Trump’s defeat, and hence tax increases for people like them.

But I suspect that the disastrous response to Covid-19 has been shaped less by direct self-interest than by two indirect ways in which pandemic policy gets linked to the general prevalence of zombie ideas in right-wing thought.

First, when you have a political movement almost entirely built around assertions than any expert can tell you are false, you have to cultivate an attitude of disdain toward expertise, one that spills over into everything. Once you dismiss people who look at evidence on the effects of tax cuts and the effects of greenhouse gas emissions, you’re already primed to dismiss people who look at evidence on disease transmission.

This also helps explain the centrality of science-hating religious conservatives to modern conservatism, which has played an important role in Trump’s failure to respond.

Second, conservatives do hold one true belief: namely, that there is a kind of halo effect around successful government policies. If public intervention can be effective in one area, they fear — probably rightly — that voters might look more favorably on government intervention in other areas. In principle, public health measures to limit the spread of coronavirus needn’t have much implication for the future of social programs like Medicaid. In practice, the first tends to increase support for the second.

As a result, the right often opposes government interventions even when they clearly serve the public good and have nothing to do with redistributing income, simply because they don’t want voters to see government doing anything well.

The bottom line is that as with so many things Trump, the awfulness of the man in the White House isn’t the whole story behind terrible policy. Yes, he’s ignorant, incompetent, vindictive and utterly lacking in empathy. But his failures on pandemic policy owe as much to the nature of the movement he serves as they do to his personal inadequacies.

Trump Is on a Collision Course

Lindsey Graham is among the president’s allies who don’t want him to quickly reopen the country. He says the president should “err on the side of human life.”

Senator Lindsey Graham called President Donald Trump this morning to confer about the massive stimulus bill nearing passage on Capitol Hill. But when Trump said that Democrats had “overplayed their hand,” Graham offered some advice.

“Don’t you do the same thing,” he told his occasional golfing buddy.

Graham worries that the president will move too hastily to try to reboot the virus-stricken economy—loosening social-isolation measures and thereby triggering more disease and death. “He has a predisposition that the cure is worse than the disease,” Graham told me. Should Trump repudiate public-health experts’ advice and take steps that cause infections to spike, he would “own” the fallout, he said. “Any increase in the mortality rate would be a huge problem for him. The biggest political risk any president takes is deviating from sound advice. The economy can recover. Once a person is dead, that’s it.”

Trump’s reflex is to salvage economic gains that, until a month ago, were the basis of his reelection argument. “I would love to have the country opened up and just raring to go by Easter,” on April 12, the president said at a Fox News town hall today. But on this front, Graham told me, he needs to show restraint—to make a “data-driven decision, but err on the side of human life.”

In the coming days, Trump is heading toward a collision—and not just with the medical community and state and local officials worried that aggressive moves to limit the virus’s spread might all be undone.

He could also antagonize some of his strongest Republican allies, such as Graham, who are already sending him warnings. “There will be no normally functioning economy if our hospitals are overwhelmed and thousands of Americans of all ages, including our doctors and nurses, lay dying because we have failed to do what’s necessary to stop the virus,” Representative Liz Cheney, a Wyoming Republican, tweeted today. She was responding to public comments made by Scott Gottlieb, Trump’s former head of the Food and Drug Administration, who had warned that the economy can’t function amid “uncontrolled” spread of COVID-19 in large cities. Senator Tom Cotton, an Arkansas Republican who is also close to Trump, cited Gottlieb’s comments too, adding that the United States has to stop the coronavirus’s spread in order “to get the economy back on its feet.”

Advice is flooding into the White House from all directions—economists and medical professionals, struggling businesspeople and governors. A debate over how the federal government should proceed is still unfolding, but Trump’s predilection seems clear: He wants people back to work. “We all realize we have to get moving again,” said a senior White House official who, like others I talked with for this story, spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Just days ago at the White House, the voice of public-health experts seemed ascendant. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who has advised six different presidents, told me that Trump has never overruled a recommendation he’s made. But there’s no guarantee that Fauci’s influence endures. One person close to Trump told me the president was never entirely comfortable with the broad-based stay-at-home recommendations that touched off the economic tailspin. Trump has always solicited advice widely, and economic conservatives have delivered a contrarian message to what the president is hearing from the medical community.

Stephen Moore, a former Trump-campaign adviser whom the president last year considered for a seat on the Federal Reserve Board, told me he has spoken with White House officials about what he called the “cascading” economic costs of keeping much of the nation sequestered at home. “The public-health people, their view is that any cost is worth bearing. But even from a public-health standpoint, what about putting 35 million people out of their jobs?” Moore said. “It will cause death, more suicides, more drug overdoses, and depression and heart attacks.”

Larry Kudlow, the president’s top economic adviser, was asked about the trade-off between an economic rebound and public health in a gaggle with reporters today. “I think that public health includes economic health,” Kudlow said. “That’s the key point: It’s not either/or.”

When I asked Graham about the advice coming from economic conservatives, he said, “They don’t have to stand for elections.” His hope is that the approximately $2 trillion economic-stimulus package Congress is weighing could lessen the urgency of reopening the economy in ways that risk more illness. Emergency aid that keeps businesses afloat and stems layoffs could buy time, keeping people home and preventing the disease from spreading.

Graham, who represents South Carolina, has played a role in getting the bill passed. He told me he got a phone call this morning from Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who told him that a tweet from Trump signaling that the negotiations need to end would be helpful in prodding lawmakers to pass the package. So Graham said he phoned Trump and told him a tweet would “go a long way.” At 8:45 a.m. ET, Trump’s tweet appeared. “Congress must approve the deal, without all the nonsense, today,” he wrote.

Reports this morning that lawmakers are poised to strike a deal gave the markets a jolt. By the time the markets closed, the Dow Jones Industrial Average had climbed by 11 percent. Still, virtually all the gains under Trump have been erased during the month-long sell-off. And unemployment claims have soared; some analysts predict that the country could sink into a depression.

For the past three years, the strong economy was a core reason Trump said voters should reelect him. Should illness spread because he was too eager to reopen the economy, a spike in the Dow may only remind Americans of the human toll.

“If his judgment is seen as having extended the disease—and taking the foot off the throat of the disease—at a time when we’re making progress, then, yeah, it would put him in great jeopardy,” Graham told me. He suggested an alternative message for the campaign: “I’m the guy who got [the economy] humming. I’m the guy who rebuilt it out of the ashes. My goal is to defeat the virus, and I will rebuild this economy. I’ve done it once. I’ll do it again.”