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The Coronavirus and the Republican War on Knowledge

Despite Anthony Fauci’s best efforts, conservatives will stake an untold number of American lives on the all-in wager that ignorance is bliss.

Mandel Ngan/Getty Images

In his appearance before the hearing of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, or HELP, on Tuesday, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases, reiterated what experts have said about reopening the economy for months: A steady recovery won’t be possible if states can’t monitor and handle new coronavirus cases. “It’s the ability and the capability of responding to those cases with good identification, isolation, and contact tracing,” he said, “that will determine whether you can continue to go forward as you try to reopen America.”

As Fauci knows, the president has done practically nothing to ensure that states will have the resources to perform widespread contact tracing anytime soon, and the country remains well behind where we ought to be in terms of basic testing. Nevertheless, like the other members of the administration who testified, Fauci was predictably hesitant to criticize Trump’s leadership, despite the best efforts of the Democrats on the committee to goad him into candor. The Republicans on the panel, including Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, didn’t hesitate to question his expertise.

“As much as I respect you, Dr. Fauci, I don’t think you’re the end-all. I don’t think you’re the one person that gets to make a decision,” Paul told him. “We can listen to your advice, but there are people on the other side saying there’s not going to be a surge and that we can safely open the economy, and facts will bear this out.” On his show Tuesday night, Fox’s Tucker Carlson was more aggressive, calling Fauci the “chief buffoon of the professional class” for statements dismissing masks and the risk of infection in the early days of the outbreak. “We are not singling him out or attacking him, we’ve certainly made a lot of wrong predictions on this show,” he said. “But we’re not in charge of the entire country.”

Of course, the president, Fauci’s boss and the man truly in charge of the country’s coronavirus response, has repeatedly failed to deliver on promised responses to the outbreak, intentionally mismanaged resources in order to settle political scores, and undermined the recommendations of health officials with his own moronic advice. To cover for him, the right has settled into a familiar posture: petulance against the supposed arrogance of experts, who, we’re told, have hatched a nebulous conspiracy against the freedoms of good, level-headed Americans.

That petulance, fed by capital’s propagandists, has long been enshrined in policy—from the 20-year funding ban preventing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health from studying the impact of gun violence to the Bush and Trump administrations’ myriad efforts to suppress and distort climate science. The pandemic is already producing its own cover-ups. On Thursday, Rick Bright, former director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, told the House that he was fired from his post for his opposition to President Trump’s effort to authorize hydroxychloroquine as a coronavirus treatment. And on Wednesday, Indiana Senator Mike Braun, another HELP Republican who criticized Fauci this week, blocked a resolution demanding the release of CDC guidelines on safely reopening businesses, which have reportedly been suppressed in favor of the White House’s less restrictive recommendations. “This is not about transparency,” said Braun in a floor speech. “This is about the minority leader trying to use the bureaucracy at the CDC to bog down the economy.”

The dominant critique of the right’s drive to reopen the economy has been that commentators and protesters don’t understand the risks reopening too early might pose to themselves and their communities. But it’s likely that some are rejecting the advice of experts like Fauci precisely because they’ve meaningfully assessed the risks: They understand that those who would be most hurt by a rushed return to full activity would be the working poor, minorities, and the elderlynot the business owners, militiamen, and middle-class suburbanites showing up at statehouses to insist that they may well be fine if things open back up.

This calculus is buried underneath the right’s defenses of local control. “A scientist may know a virus’s characteristics, but he doesn’t know a community’s characteristics: how they feel, eat, shop, work, and operate businesses,” Representative Justin Amash tweeted Wednesday. “These items constitute the most useful kind of knowledge—available only locally, and crucial to limiting the virus’s spread.”

One can engage this argument on two levels. You can note simply that states and localities can ultimately take or leave the advice that federal health officials are offering, and that both the White House’s guidance and the CDC’s stricter, suppressed guidelines were tailored to the severity of the outbreaks particular places might be facing. But more abstractly, Amash’s statement can be read as an argument against giving medical professionals a role in advising policy interventions at all, given how wantonly he believes they impinge on the freedom and judgment of everyday people. It should be said, too, that the alternative to federal recommendations isn’t having the American public convene, community by community, to democratically decide what the best course for all might be. Absent guidance, those with the most capacity to exercise choice in the way they conduct their lives, and who are least vulnerable to the ravages of the virus, will do as they please. Many of the rest will get sick and die.

Public health experts like Fauci are being attacked largely because they’re approaching our situation from a fundamentally different set of premises. It is their professional responsibility to understand and talk about our crisis holistically. Day in and day out, they sketch the outlines of a collective problem that demands collective action to the benefit of the American people in the aggregate. They haven’t deferred to the privileges and superior wisdom of any particular class of Americans; they’re not thinking aloud about whether we should expedite expendable people into the afterlife. To the extent they do draw up cross-sections of the public, it’s to point out how poorly the underprivileged have fared and will continue to fare as the pandemic continues.

All of this is anathema to the right, which prefers experts—usually neoclassical economists—who reinforce socioeconomic hierarchies without exposing them.

Practically everything else that comes from knowledgeable people is of dubious value—this is the animating principle behind the right’s unending assault on the universities, which should be understood as an extraordinary campaign of mass projection. The most consequential blows against truth and epistemological authority being leveled today are coming from the White House and the conservative movement, not po-mo professors. We see it in the president promoting insufficiently tested drugs and bleach injections as treatments. We see it in “Obamagate” and other shape-shifting conspiracy theories he and the conservative press have invented about the last administration. (While acknowledging that President Obama was “almost assuredly” innocent of what Trump alleges this week, National Review’s David Harsanyi insisted nevertheless that “the mounting evidence of wrongdoing would spark an outpouring of journalistic curiosity,” in a better press.)

We see it, too, in the responses to the death of Ahmaud Arbery, an unarmed black male pursued by two men who, in the fullest possible exercise of human freedom and with total confidence in their own judgment, picked him out as a burglary suspect without a scrap of evidence and shot him dead for daring to resist them. “It’s a really disturbing situation to me,” the president told Fox News on Friday. But, he added, the confrontation might have been justified by “something we didn’t see on tape.” These are all instantiations of the same doctrine. The things most convenient to the right, the president, and the people they believe they represent may well be true and visible just out of frame. But all else is wholly unknowable or false. They might not be able to bind us all to their rendering of reality, but they can refuse to be bound by anyone else’s—no matter how much the voices in opposition might know, or how high the stakes of getting things right might be.