For a brief moment there, it looked as though the coronavirus pandemic might escape the muck of partisanship.
It’s true that President Donald Trump, wary of a recession during a reelection year, had first tried to talk the virus into submission. His counterfactual insistence that the situation was under control did nothing to slow the viral spread through February and early March. It did, however, seem to influence the party faithful, as polls showed Republican voters were taking the pandemic far less seriously than Democrats. In other words, the facts of Covid-19 were already politicized. As I suggested last week, it looked as though this process were unfolding just as it had for climate change—but at 1,000x speed.
Then Trump began to shift his message. Suddenly he seemed to grasp the need for drastic measures (while claiming that he’d never hinted otherwise). The White House started repeating the advice from public health experts: Social distancing would be necessary, maybe through the end of summer. In my last piece, I wondered if this new acceptance of reality might keep an epistemic crisis from developing. Perhaps Americans would coalesce into a common understanding of this public health disaster.
But coronavirus denialism wasn’t in remission; it was only mutating. After a weekend of reported clashes among economic and health officials in the White House, and a spate of skeptical op-eds musing on whether social distancing was really worth its economic cost, Trump laid out a new approach by presidential tweet: “WE CANNOT LET THE CURE BE WORSE THAN THE PROBLEM ITSELF.”
By Monday evening, Trump was promising to wrap up social distancing in weeks, not months. “I would love to have the country opened up and just raring to go by Easter,” he declared on Tuesday, during a virtual town hall on Fox News. Meanwhile, a rising chorus of Trump followers have been suggesting that some folks will simply have to die to save the economy. “Let’s get back to living,” Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick of Texas told Fox News host Tucker Carlson. “Those of us who are 70-plus, we’ll take care of ourselves. But don’t sacrifice the country.” Jerry Falwell Jr.’s Liberty University announced that it’s expecting students and faculty to return from spring break. “Even if we all get sick, I would rather die than kill the country,” said right-wing talk host Glenn Beck. “Because it’s not the economy that’s dying, it’s the country.”
The parallel to climate change, in other words, was even tighter than I realized.
“We went through the stages of climate change denial in the matter of a week,” said Gordon Pennycook, a psychologist at the University of Regina in Saskatchewan, Canada, who studies how misinformation spreads. Naomi Oreskes, a historian of science who has studied the origins of climate disinformation, spelled out the pattern in an email: “First, one denies the problem, then one denies its severity, and then one says it is too difficult or expensive to fix, and/or that the proposed solution threatens our freedom.”
These strategies, Oreskes explained, can exist side by side, depending on the context. The crudest skeptics, like the snowball-wielding senator from Oklahoma, Jim Inhofe, still deny the phenomenon itself: Humans aren’t warming the planet, look how cold it is outside! More sophisticated players, confronting a tidal wave of scientific data, may accept that the Earth is warming, but they argue that the ill effects are overstated and incommensurate with the costs of aggressive action. As a Wall Street Journal op-ed from 2017 put it, the economic damage one might expect from climate change “does not justify policies that cost more than 0.1 percentage point of growth.”
Now we’re faced with the threat of another global catastrophe arising from the clash of nature and modern human activity. As with climate change, the implications of the Covid-19 pandemic are difficult to predict with confidence. As with climate change, the uncertainty interval encompasses utter cataclysm. As with climate change, any serious effort to mitigate or stave off this disaster will require major economic disruptions. And, as with climate change, such efforts to save the world must be put in place before any of the experts’ doomsday warnings could ever be proved true.
So we see the same pattern of skeptical response from Republican elites. Whether it’s driven by self-interest (corporate profits, a president’s hopes of reelection) or by small government ideology, the approach sends a powerful signal to the party’s voters. If you take this problem seriously, you must be one of them, not us.