Right-wing populists obsessed with fanning xenophobia and distrust of intellectuals have been denying climate change for years, painting it as a “hoax” cooked up by China to undermine America’s way of life. It is scarily familiar to the coronavirus, huh? Authoritarian leaders bent on concealing reality and discrediting objective truth see every event as a contest between “them” (foreigners) and “us” (“real” countrymen who support the leader). Having attacked government as the “deep state” and the “swamp,” they are uniquely unprepared to harness the powers and resources of government when it cannot be directed at a foreign, largely invented threat.
President Trump’s use of “Chinese virus” (not even “China virus”) serves not only to cast blame elsewhere but to convert a science and math problem (stopping community spread, flattening the curve) into a political issue. Trump knows how to address the latter — by demonizing critics, enticing the mainstream media to cover his circus, presenting himself as the sole depository of truth, substituting spin and lies for results — because it mirrors his career.
At bottom, Trump has always been a huckster, a failed operator of everything from airlines to football who cons people (bankers, Trump University students) out of their money. He promises a coronavirus cure and millions of tests just like he promised customers delicious steaks and a university degree. It’s all showmanship; there is no real accomplishment. He has suffered from overselling and underperforming his entire life.
When the problem is concrete, factual, unspinnable, Trump is at a loss of what to do. He has no superior understanding of complex issues. He chases away bad news so the problem cannot be quantified and addressed properly. He has not even learned how the federal government operates. Trump is worse than useless; he stymies others from acting (as he did despite months of warnings about the pandemic from national security personnel) and misleads the public, undermining the cooperation we need to effectuate social distancing.
The question raised by the coronavirus is whether it will recalibrate the thinking of Republicans in any material way. Decades of demonizing government and the degree to which Trump’s anti-truth, anti-reality mentality (enabled by a right-wing echo chamber) have seeped into the Republican bloodstream are hard to ignore. They have placed us in grave peril. And now even Republicans must turn to science and to government.
Republicans are working on a massive stimulus bill (something they resisted under President Barack Obama) in recognition that only the federal government can stave off a brutal economic crash. Republicans just like Democrats look to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and scientific experts to guide us. The latter have grown in stature just as Trump and his virus-deniers have shrunk. Each day experts’ calculations regarding the spread and the severity of the virus look more astute.
Will all of this translate into the right’s willingness to acknowledge the reality of climate change, a process nudged along by extreme weather catastrophes in red states such as Texas, Missouri, Kansas and Oklahoma?
Several factors will determine whether Republicans step back from their know-nothingism — a massive Republican electoral defeat, an after-report from an independent commission explaining what we knew and how we knew it, and the ability of the next president to make clear that science denial cannot be a matter of partisan identification. How the next president navigates through the ongoing crisis and his ability to create government processes and structures that elevate scientists will make a huge difference. (Instead of a Space Force,” why not a “science force” or Department of Science?) If voters trust that scientists provide an earlier warning system and a solution to mass- causality events, Republicans may be required to renounce Trump’s war on facts, reality and science. Their political survival and our physical survival will depend on it.