Why does the United States have the worst coronavirus outbreak in the developed world? Part of the answer is surely that our basic state functions have been allowed to rot, or been deliberately destroyed, over the years. State capacity and competence have been shown around the world to be a key factor in whether nations can get a handle on the pandemic.
But another reason is conservative media. A small but nevertheless very loud and angry minority of Americans have had their ability to reason dissolved in a corrosive bath of crack-brained propaganda.
The flood tide of conservative lunacy is so overwhelming that it can be hard to process or even notice. A dozen things that would be a major scandal in any other rich country, or the U.S. itself in previous ages, fly by practically every day.
Let's review a few events just from the start of this week.
On Monday, President Trump retweeted a viral video in which crackpot doctors falsely asserted that hydroxychloroquine was a "cure for COVID," and that masks were not necessary to contain the virus. Among others, the video featured Dr. Stella Immanuel, who has previously claimed "gynecological problems like cysts and endometriosis are in fact caused by people having sex in their dreams with demons and witches," and "the government is run in part not by humans but by 'reptilians' and other aliens," reports The Daily Beast.
On Tuesday, Twitter temporarily suspended the accounts of Donald Trump, Jr., and Kelli Ward, a former doctor and the chair of the Arizona Republican Party, for sharing the same video. (Arizona currently has probably the worst coronavirus outbreak in the country.) The president defended Immanuel at a press conference that day.
On Wednesday, Rep. Louis Gohmert (R-Texas), a frequent Fox News guest who has stubbornly refused to wear a mask while in the Capitol building, tested positive for COVID-19. He told his staffers the news in person, inside the House's Rayburn office building. An anonymous aide reported that workers in the office had previously been "berated" for wearing masks.
And that is only a tiny portion of the radioactive sludge that has been pumping through the veins of the Republican Party and the conservative propaganda machine. For instance, Sinclair Media Group, an extreme right-wing media conglomerate that owns local TV stations reaching about 40 percent of the country, recently recorded an interview with another conspiracy crackpot, Judy Mikovits. She falsely alleged that Dr. Anthony Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, had actually created the coronavirus, and that the same lab had created the Ebola virus that caused the 2014 outbreak. As journalist Judd Legum explains, the resulting outrage eventually pushed Sinclair into canceling the planned airing of the segment on its stations last week — but not before it had been widely published online. And that's just one of dozens of instances of Sinclair pushing dangerous coronavirus misinformation.
In raw political terms, this is strange behavior indeed. Trump's catastrophic mishandling of the pandemic has badly harmed his approval rating — and he craves approval more than anything else — yet he keeps repeating conspiracy nonsense that will only enable the spread. He plainly can't help himself, and neither can the millions of propaganda-drunk followers who eagerly create, repeat, and share this stuff.
On some level, it makes sense. Inflammatory accusations get attention. Narratives about some secret evil conspiracy are exciting and interesting, and also provide a more compelling explanation for vast events than boring, mundane reality. Perhaps most importantly for American conservatism, conspiracy hogwash is the only way to reconcile the belief that Donald Trump is the heroic savior of history with his monstrously incompetent performance — it must be because Deep State villains are undermining him at every turn.
Most of those other factors, however, would also be true in other rich countries. While there are fringe websites and various conspiracy loons in all of them, none have this problem to nearly the same degree, much less a full-blown crackpot as the leader of the country. Our ultra-consolidated media industry, which gives enormous sway to a handful of right-wing media barons like Rupert Murdoch and Christopher Ripley, probably enables it. The structure of behemoth social media companies, which have little incentive to police dangerous misinformation, and are so large that they probably couldn't do it well even if they tried, probably enables it further.
Whatever the reason, the conservative propaganda machine is going to make this country very difficult to govern so long as it continues to operate in its current fashion. Just as economic markets do not work when they are under the thumb of monopolist robber barons, perhaps it is time to bring some regulation back to the marketplace of ideas.