Last week, Anthony Fauci conducted a long, probing, and sometimes controversial interview with David Wallace-Wells, a science writer at New York Just. Your exchange is insightful, but I was struck by that snarky response Wall Street Journal Opinion columnist Kimberly Strassel:
Strassel takes the floor something in Fauci’s admission, “Something clearly went wrong.” The American right has an elaborate list of Faucian crimes that make “something” an ironic understatement, and at least some of the counts in the indictment are legitimate complaints. But if you scroll down to the context of this confession, you’ll find this:
David Wallace Wells: Three years ago, in March 2020, you and many others warned that Covid could result in as many as 100,000 or 200,000 American deaths and advocated some rather drastic interventions in the way we went about our daily lives. At the time, you thought “worst-case scenarios” of more than a million deaths were pretty unlikely. Here we are, three years later, and having done quite a bit to stop the spread of the virus, we have surpassed 1.1 million deaths. What went wrong?
Anthony Fauci: Something has clearly gone wrong. And I don’t know exactly what it was. But the reason we know it went wrong is because we’re the richest country in the world, and on a per capita basis, we’ve done worse than virtually every other country.1 And there’s no reason a rich country like ours has to have 1.1 million deaths. Unacceptable.
In this case, Fauci was pressured to be dramatic underestimated death toll from COVID. To his credit, he has at least acknowledged the mistake and updated his understanding of the deadly reach of the pandemic. But underestimating the pandemic is a sin Republicans are far more guilty of.
More importantly, the soul-searching Fauci and other liberals are currently engaged in has absolutely no parallel on the right. Conservatives have gotten COVID extremely wrong. Where’s the accountability? Where is the course correction? The answer is that they don’t exist because the conservative movement is unable to embrace them.
Start on the subject of Strassels Snark, the COVID fatality rate. Donald Trump threatened to take Dr. Nancy Messonnier, a senior CDC official, for telling reporters in February 2020 that the virus was likely to spread to the United States. Trump insisted this month that China is “getting it under control that the United States only has 15 people [with COVID], and the 15 will drop to near zero within a few days.” He kept repeating, “Just keep calm. It will go away” (March 10). “It will go away, hopefully by the end of the month. And if not, hopefully soon after.” (March 31). “It will go away. It goes away.” (April 3). “I always say, even without [a vaccine], it goes away.” (June 16). And on and on.
Perhaps, like many conservative elites, you believe that Trump’s positions do not reflect the conservative movement or the Republican Party. (Trump is the subject of an elaborate, year-long denial complex by the right-wing intelligentsia.) But even well-respected conservative intellectuals have made utterly absurd claims about the pandemic’s likely death toll. Hoover Institute scholar Richard Epstein predicted that COVID would only kill 500 Americans before correcting a minor miscalculation and revising the prediction to 5,000 (still a gross underestimate given that more than a million Americans are infected with COVID-19 died).
In March 2020 the diary ran an op-ed arguing that the standard models of the projected COVID death toll were “orders of magnitude too high” and suggested the actual death toll would be 20,000 or perhaps 40,000. Prominent voodoo economist Kevin Hassett created a model that convinced White House staffers that COVID deaths would drop to zero by mid-May 2020.
The pipe dream that COVID posed little serious health risk generated other delusions. Hydroxychloroquine would cure it! The vaccinations were unnecessary or even harmful! Those mistakes were the product of ingrained mental pathologies on the right, which is why a figure like Hassett is now gleefully assuring Republicans that a default on the national debt would be no big deal.
Far from examining the epistemic bubble that spawned these bizarre beliefs, conservatives have rallied around them. Trump is now running away from Operation Warp Speed because it represents a political obligation for him. Ron DeSantis, the diary‘s preferred candidate, has turned the anti-vaccination movement into a powerful wedge against Trump. DeSantis featured and promoted anti-vaccinationists and recruited a headstrong vaccine skeptic, Joseph Ladapo, to run his state’s health department. Florida is “affirmatively opposed” to making the COVID-19 vaccine available to children, making it the only state to take such a position. Ladapo recently modified a study to exaggerate the vaccine’s risks.
The diary Randi Weingarten roasted in an editorial for downplaying her role in closing schools. And more honesty from Weingarten would be nice, but at least she deviates from her previous attitude. The Biden administration has been more or less successful in pushing for schools to reopen.
The Democratic Party certainly has its problems with scientific groupthink. A vocal faction on the left continues to insist that it was right to call the Lab Leak hypothesis a racist conspiracy theory. But there are still enough healthy antibodies in the system to overcome this tendency. The Biden administration has rightly taken a neutral stance on the origins of COVID.
Right orthodoxy has now penetrated the right so thoroughly that the very idea of confronting its scientific errors is unthinkable. Conservatives don’t think about it, much less grapple with their incompetent denial of COVID risk or their assumption of quack or vaccine hesitancy. Fauci got some things wrong and is at least entertaining with criticism. The Republican Party has underestimated the death toll by orders of magnitude and urged people to cure it with horse dewormers, and it only sinks deeper into complacent errors. It’s a revealing synecdoche of the current state of the two parties.