It is by now beyond any question that President Trump has bungled the response to the novel coronavirus pandemic about as badly as one could possibly imagine. Senegal, a country with a per-capita GDP of about $3,500, is conducting mass tests for the virus and getting results within 4 hours, while the tiny handful of Americans who can even access tests have to wait days or even weeks. On Friday, a single Chinese oligarch announced he was donating to America on the order of 30 times more test kits than there had been tests conducted across the entire United States since the start of the outbreak up to that point.
It has been clear since 1980 that under Republican rule, the federal government decays. But under Trump, it has gotten full-blown administrative gangrene. Compared to what is needed to combat the crisis, Trump has done basically nothing. Meanwhile, he and his allies in conservative media have pushed an avalanche of misinformation that will only accelerate the spread of the disease. This is what the conservative movement has become: a gigantic public health hazard for America and the world.
There are two main ways in which conservatives have dissolved the bones of American government. The first is ideological. For decades, Republicans have been pushing a libertarian economic vision that can be summarized as "Government Bad." By this view, the government is a largely-pointless hindrance to private enterprise, and basically all regulations and social welfare programs should be done away with. (Prisons and the military can stay, of course.)
But there are many, many things, like public health emergencies, in which private businesses simply cannot handle things on their own. Nothing but the federal government can carry out the rapid and extensive actions needed to coordinate a response to a galloping nationwide viral pandemic, and the federal government is by far best able to finance one. As The New Republic's Alex Pareene writes, the right-wing extremists in the Trump administration have reacted with a sort of slack-jawed disbelief at the private sector completely failing to rise to the coronavirus challenge.
Second and more importantly, there is the conservative propaganda machine. The American right-wing media is without question the most unhinged, hysterical, irresponsible, and conspiracy-addled major press complex in the world. The right-wing media in the U.K. and Australia come close (probably because of shared language and ownership), but nobody beats Fox News in their combination of wide reach and utterly shameless propaganda.
On the one hand, Fox News, The Federalist, Rush Limbaugh, and so on are akin to the state media in a communist dictatorship. The movement is never wrong, Republican politicians are always right, and their political enemies are loathsome traitors who hate freedom, puppies, and apple pie. News that reflects badly on Trump is either made up or the product of a dastardly foreign or left-wing conspiracy. Aging white people across the country have turned their brains to pudding watching Sean Hannity yell insane racist nonsense at them night after night.
But on the other, a dominant faction of Republican politicians, including President Trump, are themselves melt-brained propaganda addicts. This is not how dictatorships usually work. In communist China, the top political leadership sets the party line coming out of the agitprop press, rather than the other way around. Leaders are influenced by party ideology, of course, but they still have wide latitude to change course — like when the initial line that the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan was in hand turned out to be drastically mistaken, the Chinese Communist Party turned on a dime and started mass quarantines and lockdowns.
Trump, by contrast, has been loyally watching and live-tweeting Fox News while the epidemic spreads like wildfire, and doing almost nothing to stop it. The line coming from that network and the rest of conservative media is largely that the coronavirus is either fake, a foreign bioweapon, or a Democratic Party/mainstream media conspiracy to undermine the GOP. Rush Limbaugh said the virus was just the "common cold" that was being "weaponized as yet another element to bring down Donald Trump." Hannity suggested it might be entirely a fraud. (To be fair, Tucker Carlson and Michael Savage have tried to raise the alarm, but they are outliers.)
In another alarming public address Friday, Trump insisted he and his cronies were doing an "incredible job," despite the ongoing failure to test remotely adequately or pass anything to deal with the developing economic crisis. (He did however boast that America has many large companies.)
The remarkable thing about the denial-and-downplay strategy is that conservative Americans, being disproportionately elderly, are also disproportionately at risk from novel coronavirus. Limbaugh himself is 69 years old and has lung cancer. It could be that, given how utterly incompetent Trump is, furious spinning is the only strategy available.
But there is another important part of the story: conservative media is run by horrible monsters who constantly grift their own viewers and listeners. Whipping up foaming hysteria about liberals is a great opportunity to trick elderly retirees out of a piece of their retirement savings, it turns out. Even as the coronavirus scythe blade descends towards thousands of nursing and retirement homes where Fox News is on every minute of the day, these disgusting scum are using it to hawk garbage investment guides and quack snake oil cures.
First, the conservative movement dissolved the brains of its membership, then those people ended up in charge and dissolved the American government. Now that destruction is going to create quite possibly the worst outbreak of coronavirus in the entire world. Perhaps if the conservative movement suffers thousands of casualties among its own ranks it will finally try some introspection. But I would bet they'll just blame Barack Obama instead.
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