The first, practiced most vigorously by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, uses an ongoing pandemic as a stage for the display of ideological zeal. In this view, the covid-19 crisis — rather than being a story of remarkable but flawed scientists and public health experts deploying the best of science against a vicious microbe — has been an opportunity for the left to impose “authoritarian, arbitrary and seemingly never-ending mandates and restrictions.” Never mind that U.S. public health officials are not part of the left, and are authentically confused about the equation of their advice with ideology.
In the name of freedom, politicians such as the Florida governor employ the power of their office to prevent other social institutions from taking responsible, lifesaving steps in the midst of a pandemic. This is an effort by populists to prove that their MAGA commitments outweigh all common sense, public responsibility and basic humanity.
A second type of the Republican romance with death comes in the vilification of those most dedicated to preserving the lives of Americans. Public officials such as Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) invent a conspiratorial backstory to the covid crisis and depict the most visible representatives of the United States’ covid response as scheming, deceptive deep-state operatives. Any change in emphasis or strategy by scientists — an essential commitment of the scientific method — is viewed as rich opposition research.
Paul talks of jailing Anthony S. Fauci in the midst of our public health crisis on the basis of imaginary claims. But the fundraising appeals to MAGA loyalists that immediately follow such attacks by Paul and others are real. And for a subset of true believers, Paul’s acts of dehumanization provide cover and permission for threats of violence against scientists and their families. This is the ultimate destination of conspiracy thinking — toward direct acts by unbalanced people against supposed conspirators. Some GOP leaders are willing to feed the most dangerous social passions — to play crackpot roulette — for their own gain.
A third category of Republican death wish is the practice of strategic ignorance. In a case such as Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) — America’s most reliable source of unreliable information about covid-19 — such ignorance might not be feigned. He might well believe that gargling with mouthwash call kill the coronavirus, and that thousands of people are regularly dying from vaccine side effects, and that a pandemic that has taken more than 800,000 lives in the United States is “overhyped.”
Says Johnson of the vaccines: “We now know that fully vaccinated individuals can catch covid. … So what’s the point?” Well, the point is to prevent serious expressions of the disease and avoid the filling of hospitals and morgues. Johnson’s brand of home-brewed epidemiology will inevitably result in added suffering, tragedy and grief.
He offers his lack of intellectual seriousness as an element of his political appeal — similar to handing out a résumé with the firings and felonies highlighted. Even when comprehensively refuted, he takes the pose of a brave man willing to question the repressive experts. This is what leads a conduit of myths and lies to claim: “I’m just one of those truth tellers.” Such an assertion must be narrowed to a particular version of “truth.” It is the “truth” found in the glow of a computer screen at 2 a.m. while wandering the far reaches of the Internet. It is the “truth” of secret knowledge about conspiracies granted to an intrepid few.
Johnson is not only making dangerous statements about the coronavirus. He is using his willingness to cite stupid things as the evidence of his independence from the rule of professionals and experts. He is defining democracy, in the words of Tom Nichols, author of “The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters,” as “unearned respect for unfounded opinions.” Johnson is practicing strategic ignorance.
This would be bad for democracy at any time. It encourages the development of not merely alternative views but alternative realities. And this makes the pursuit of a common good nearly impossible.
During a pandemic, however, the celebration of ignorance is an invitation to death. Public health depends on social cooperation. If a significant group of Americans regard the musing of a politician such as Johnson as equal in value to Fauci’s lifelong accumulation of expertise, the basis for rational action is lost. And the result is needless death.