The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The state of the conservative intelligentsia is weird

You know it’s hard out there for a Trumpian intellectual.

Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr., seen in November, recently decided to bring his students back to campus despite obvious health risks. (Emily Elconin/AP)

The hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts has been around long enough to see the rise and fall of several conservative intellectual movements. In the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the neoconservatives were ascendant. In the wake of Barack Obama, the reformicons had a brief moment of attention.

Donald Trump and conservative intellectuals had a rocky relationship at best during his early years. His political success has fractured the conservative intelligentsia into pieces, none of which seems to be doing terribly well. Last month, the New Republic’s John Ganz assessed the state of the #NeverTrump conservatives and found it wanting. The Atlantic’s Anne Applebaum did the same for the national conservative movement and was left with little but despair.

Part of the problem here has been the culmination of trends welling up in the Ideas Industry for quite some time. In a world in which trust in expertise is low and political polarization is high, the only thing conservative intellectuals need to care about is whether their readers and donors are happy. In such an environment, substantive engagement with other quarters of the public sphere is unnecessary. Much like Trump, all they need to care about is the base.

This seems like a pretty depressing state of affairs for the marketplace of ideas. It’s worth considering, however, whether the Trumpiest intellectuals are about to face their reckoning with the novel coronavirus.

Consider the idiocy of Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. Elizabeth Williamson of the New York Times wrote about Falwell’s haphazard decision to bring his students back onto campus despite obvious health risks. In less than a week, close to a dozen students have been tested for the coronavirus. Falwell responded to one critical parent by calling him a “dummy” on Twitter. A Liberty University student told Williamson that Falwell is “being way more conservative than even Trump is being right now. Trump is at least allowing doctors to say their piece. Jerry is not. It kind of shocks me at this point.” It is hard to see how this ends in anything other than community spread of the virus across the Lynchburg area.

If Falwell has always seemed like a buffoon, law professor and Hoover Institution senior fellow Richard A. Epstein has not. After the coronavirus broke out, Epstein wrote a controversial essay suggesting that the health risks posed by the virus had been wildly exaggerated. Epstein’s essay got some play within the Trump administration even though he acknowledged it had an error in it.

Epstein talked to the New Yorker’s Isaac Chotiner about his argument. Space constraints prevent a complete rundown of all the intellectual own-goals Epstein committed. For a taste, here’s a snippet. (The bolded parts are Chotiner.):

Admit to it. You’re saying I’m a crackpot.
I’m not saying anything of the—
Well, what am I then? I’m an amateur? You’re the great scholar on this?
No, no. I’m not a great scholar on this.
Tell me what you think about the quality of the work!
O.K. I’m going to tell you. I think the fact that I am not a great scholar on this and I’m able to find these flaws or these holes in what you wrote is a sign that maybe you should’ve thought harder before writing it.
What it shows is that you are a complete intellectual amateur. Period.
O.K. Can I ask you one more question?
You just don’t know anything about anything. You’re a journalist. Would you like to compare your résumé to mine?
No, actually, I would not.

It’s safe to say that Epstein’s reputation took something of a hit, although I bet his hubris remains intact.

Epstein’s contrarian resistance to the danger of covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, matches Falwell’s. It also matches the Federalist’s Ben Domenech. Last week, he claimed the economic costs of the national emergency were based on a hyperbolic estimate of the loss of life from an Imperial College assessment that was subsequently revised downward. Except that it turns out the assessment was revised downward not because it was wrong, but because it incorporated the social distancing and shutdown strategies Domenech had blasted.

Writing in the Bulwark, former Federalist contributor Robert Tracinski noted that Domenech erred by relying on some Federalist essays that had made the interpretive error based on tweets rather than actually reading the relevant papers. Tracinski further observed that this was indicative of the outlet’s devolution: “In the past few years, it has transformed from a fresh and vibrant platform representing a diverse spectrum of ideas on the right to a conspiracy-mongering partisan rag that has now become a menace to public health.”

Falwell’s power at Liberty remains unchallenged. Epstein has a cushy sinecure at Hoover and tenure at New York University. Someone funds the Federalist, but the source of that money is unknown. If that donor is happy about its current state, it is likely to persist.

Can anything cause the coronavirus truthers on the right to face a comeuppance? A pandemic might not fundamentally affect world politics, but it does have the potential to shake up the Ideas Industry. Simply put, viruses do not really care about sophistry. If these intellectuals continue to insist that health concerns are exaggerated and people get sick and die following their lead, it will be difficult (but not impossible) to wash away that legacy.

Consider the next few months a tough test of whether the deeper forces shaping the modern marketplace of ideas will persist. If Falwell, Epstein and Domenech continue to command an audience, then these forces can withstand the shock of a pandemic. If they suffer for their hubris, maybe the marketplace of ideas is on the mend.