Why has the Republican response to the pandemic been so mind-bogglingly disastrous?
Last October, the Nuclear Threat Initiative and the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security compiled a ranking system to assess the preparedness of 195 countries for the next global pandemic. Twenty-one panel experts across the globe graded each country in 34 categories composed of 140 subindices. At the top of the rankings, peering down at 194 countries supposedly less equipped to withstand a pandemic, stood the United States of America.
It has since become horrifyingly clear that the experts missed something. The supposed world leader is in fact a viral petri dish of uncontained infection. By June, after most of the world had beaten back the coronavirus pandemic, the U.S., with 4 percent of the world’s population, accounted for 25 percent of its cases. Florida alone was seeing more new infections a week than China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Australia, and the European Union combined.
During its long period of decline, the Ottoman Empire was called “the sick man of Europe.” The United States is now the sick man of the world, pitied by the same countries that once envied its pandemic preparedness — and, as recently as the 2014 Ebola outbreak, relied on its expertise to organize the global response.
Our former peer nations are now operating in a political context Americans would find unfathomable. Every other wealthy nation in the world has successfully beaten back the disease, at least significantly, and at least for now. New Zealand’s health minister was forced to resign after allowing two people who had tested positive for COVID-19 to attend a funeral. The Italian Parliament heckled Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte when he briefly attempted to remove his mask to deliver a speech. In May — around the time Trump cheered demonstrators into the streets to protest stay-at-home orders — Boris Johnson’s top adviser set off a massive national scandal, complete with multiple calls for his resignation, because he’d been caught driving to visit his parents during lockdown. If a Trump official had done the same, would any newspaper even have bothered to publish the story?
The distrust and open dismissal of expertise and authority may seem uniquely contemporary — a phenomenon of the Trump era, or the rise of online misinformation. But the president and his party are the products of a decades-long war against the functioning of good government, a collapse of trust in experts and empiricism, and the spread of a kind of magical thinking that flourishes in a hothouse atmosphere that can seal out reality. While it’s not exactly shocking to see a Republican administration be destroyed by incompetent management — it happened to the last one, after all — the willfulness of it is still mind-boggling and has led to the unnecessary sickness and death of hundreds of thousands of people and the torpedoing of the reelection prospects of the president himself. Like Stalin’s purge of 30,000 Red Army members right before World War II, the central government has perversely chosen to disable the very asset that was intended to carry it through the crisis. Only this failure of leadership and management took place in a supposedly advanced democracy whose leadership succumbed to a debilitating and ultimately deadly ideological pathology.
When the coronavirus began spreading in American cities, the Republican Party turned to a trained store of experts whose judgment conservatives trusted implicitly. Unfortunately, their expertise and training lay not in epidemiology but in concocting pseudoscientific rationales to allow conservatives to disregard legitimate scientific conclusions.
The cadres who leapt forth to supply Trump and his allies with answers disproportionately came from the science-skeptic wing of the conservative-think-tank world. Steven Milloy, a climate-science skeptic who runs a think tank funded by tobacco and oil companies and who served on Trump’s environmental transition team, dismissed the virus as less deadly than the flu. Libertarian philosopher Richard Epstein, who had once insisted, “The evidence in favor of the close linkage between carbon dioxide and global warming has not been clearly established,” turned his analytical powers to projected pandemic death tolls. He estimated just 500 American deaths, an analysis that was circulated within the Trump White House before Epstein issued a correction.
It was like watching factories mobilize for war, only instead of automakers refitting their assembly lines to churn out tanks, these were professional manufacturers of scientific doubt scrambling to invent a new form of pedantry. Some skeptics took note of the connection, though they seem to have drawn the wrong conclusion. “While they are occurring on vastly different time scales, the COVID-19 panic and the climate-change panic are remarkably similar,” wrote one of the climate-skeptical Heartland Institute’s pseudo-experts.