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Opinion The second-most-dangerous contagion in America: Conservative irrationality

President Trump speaks during the coronavirus response daily briefing at the White House on April 10. (Yuri Gripas/Reuters)

The most dangerous contagion we now confront is the coronavirus, which has killed more than 20,000 Americans and thrown more than 16 million out of work. The second-most-dangerous contagion is the conspiracy-mongering, hostility to science and outright irrationality promulgated by President Trump and his loudmouth media enablers. It will take intensive contact tracing to follow the spread of crackpot ideas: Is Trump infecting the cable news hosts, or are they infecting him? Suffice it to say, the president and his media fans are both afflicted with perilous misconceptions that are making the threat from the coronavirus far more acute.

At first, both Trump and his media toadies dismissed the threat from the coronavirus, claiming it was no worse than the flu and that it would miraculously disappear by April. Any suggestion that Trump was mishandling the threat was dismissed as a “hoax.” Then on March 13, Trump finally declared a national emergency, and the tone among the Fox News propagandists instantly changed — from deriding concern about the coronavirus among liberal bed-wetters to lauding Trump’s heroic wartime leadership.

The new resolve did not last long: Within days, the drum beat on the right evolved into “the cure cannot be worse than the disease.” Conservative talking heads argued that the economy had to be reopened even if it meant sacrificing the lives of the aged and infirm who are most vulnerable to covid-19. Trump was listening: On March 24, he announced that he would “love” to restart the economy by Easter.

Thank goodness Trump did not follow his instincts: Can you imagine how much devastation would have ensued if the economy were being reopened just as the United States was overtaking Italy for the most confirmed coronavirus deaths on the planet? Mercifully, after being shown models predicting that millions of Americans could die from a premature reopening, Trump agreed on March 29 to extend his social distancing guidelines until the end of April.

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Thanks in part to his decision, which encouraged more red-state governors to impose lockdowns in their states, there is evidence of the curve “flattening.” On March 29, Trump had spoken of 100,000 to 200,000 deaths as a likely scenario. Now an influential model from the University of Washington projects “only” 61,545 coronavirus deaths. (Other models are more pessimistic.) But instead of concluding that social distancing works, many on the right are now arguing, with characteristic illogic, that the threat was overhyped all along and that we can all go back to work.

Full coverage of the coronavirus pandemic

There is even a budding subculture of coronavirus truthers who claim that death figures are exaggerated by a liberal media conspiracy to make Trump look bad. Rush Limbaugh, Mark Levin, Tucker Carlson, Brit Hume and “Diamond & Silk,” among others, have all claimed that, as Hume put it, the “fatality numbers are inflated.” In fact, the official death toll is likely a vast underestimate because so many people are dying without being diagnosed with covid-19. In the 31 days ending April 4, New York City had 5,330 more deaths than normal, but only 3,350 of those were officially ascribed to the coronavirus.

But because the Trumpified right lives in a world of “alternative facts,” we are back to where we were a few weeks ago, with many conservative commentators and administration officials once again braying for the economy to reopen. Trump — Fox viewer No. 1 — is listening intently, and he is receptive to the message because he is seeing his poll numbers fall as the unemployment numbers rise. The Post reports that Trump is now aiming to restart the economy by May 1. Luckily, he does not have the “absolute authority” to do that, as he claimed on Friday, but, unfortunately, he does have the ability to persuade many of his followers — including red-state governors — to go back to business as usual.

Doing so prematurely would be extraordinarily dangerous. The University of Washington model that so many conservatives cited to minimize the risk explicitly states that it is premised on maintaining “full social distancing through May 2020.” Internal government projections, reported by the New York Times, show that “if the administration lifts the 30-day stay-at-home orders, the death total is estimated to reach 200,000.”

The consensus of experts — you know, the people whom right-wingers don’t listen to — is that it will be impossible to lift social distancing requirements until much more widespread testing and contact tracing are in place. One study from two Microsoft researchers estimates we will need to perform millions of tests a day. U.S. testing levels have increased but are still far short of that goal. Only 137,297 tests were reported on Saturday.

But will Trump listen? It’s hard to talk sense into a president who thinks that a virus can be defeated by antibiotics. Public health officials such as Anthony S. Fauci and Deborah Birx are like the passengers in a car that Trump is slowly driving down a winding mountain road: Can they convince the president that we won’t get to our destination faster by simply going straight off the cliff?

The coronavirus pandemic is too serious to let the president hold freewheeling press briefings in real time, says Post media critic Erik Wemple. (Video: The Washington Post)

Read more:

Max Boot: Now we know: The conservative devotion to life ends at birth

Danielle Allen: The best way out of this pandemic is to massively scale up testing. Here’s how to do it.

Eric Topol: How digital data collection can help track covid-19 cases in real time

Megan McArdle: My dad has covid-19. All we can do is wait.

Max Boot: The right-wing media’s contempt for truth has never been more dangerous

Coronavirus: What you need to know

Where do things stand? See the latest covid numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people.

The state of public health: Conservative and libertarian forces have defanged much of the nation’s public health system through legislation and litigation as the world staggers into the fourth year of covid.

Grief and the pandemic: A Washington Post reporter covered the coronavirus — and then endured the death of her mother from covid-19. She offers a window into grief and resilience.

Would we shut down again? What will the United States do the next time a deadly virus comes knocking on the door?

Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 5 and older get an updated covid booster shot. New federal data shows adults who received the updated shots cut their risk of being hospitalized with covid-19 by 50 percent. Here’s guidance on when you should get the omicron booster and how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections.

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