Over the past few days there have been noisy, threatening demonstrations at various statehouses demanding an end to COVID-19 lockdowns.
The demonstrations haven’t been very big, with at most a few thousand people, and involve a strong element of astroturfing — that is, while they supposedly represent a surge of grassroots anger, some of them have been organized by institutions with links to Republican politicians, including the family of Betsy DeVos, the secretary of education.
And polls show that an overwhelming majority of Americans — including half of Republicans — are more worried that restrictions will be lifted too soon than that they will be kept in place too long.
But the demonstrators have received huge favorable coverage from right-wing media; President Donald Trump called them “very responsible people”; and they were praised by White House economic adviser Stephen Moore, who compared them to Rosa Parks.
That last bit caught my eye, and not just because some of the demonstrators were waving Confederate flags. The grotesqueness of the comparison aside, why are we still hearing from Stephen Moore?
After all, Moore — whom Trump tried but failed to install as a member of the Federal Reserve Board — isn’t just a bad economist with a history of misogynistic outbursts. More to the point, he’s a quack, with a long history of misrepresenting or inventing facts to support his ideological agenda.
Among his greatest hits was a number-filled screed about the relationship between tax cuts and jobs — framed, as it happens, as an attack on yours truly — in which not a single number was remotely close to the truth.
On second thought, however, Moore fits right in. One thing the coronavirus has thrown into sharp relief is the centrality of quackery — confident pronouncements on technical subjects by people who have no idea what they’re talking about — to the whole enterprise of modern conservatism.
We know, for example, that Trump’s call for an early end to the economic lockdown was inspired in part by the writings of Richard Epstein, a conservative legal scholar who decided that he understands epidemiology better than the epidemiologists and confidently predicted that COVID-19 would kill no more than 500 people. (It’s currently killing four times that many every day.)
Or consider how Fox News responded to the unwillingness of Dr. Anthony Fauci to do what it wanted and support an early reopening of the economy. To provide an alternative view, the network turned to … Dr. Phil, whose expertise, if he has one, is in pop psychology.
Now, much of this is familiar to anyone who has followed the debate, such as it is, over climate change. Faced with the overwhelming scientific consensus that man-made climate change is real and frightening, the right has long promoted the contrarian views of a handful of quacks — some with actual scientific credentials, but generally in fields other than climate science, and with a shared unwillingness to accept evidence that challenges their preconceptions. And there’s a strong overlap between organizations that promote climate denial and those that promoted virus denial.
But why is there such a close alliance between modern conservatism and quackery? One answer is that a political movement that demands absolute loyalty considers quacks more reliable than genuine experts, even if those experts currently support the movement’s policies.
As I’ve noted in the past, there are quite a few serious economists who also happen to be conservative, but they have been largely frozen out by the GOP in favor of people like Moore. Why? Because serious economists might turn out to have principles, rejecting outlandish policy claims or changing their views in the face of evidence. And we can’t have that.
Another answer is that the modern right is driven in large part by the grievances of white men who don’t feel that they’re getting the respect they believe they deserve, and Fox-fueled hostility to “elites” who claim to know more than guys in diners — which, on technical subjects like epidemiology, they do — is a key part of the movement.
Finally, there has historically been a strong association between right-wing extremism and grifting, including snake-oil and get-rich-quick schemes. Alex Jones may attract an audience by peddling conspiracy theories, but he makes money by selling nutritional supplements, which he is now claiming offer protection against the coronavirus.
All of these factors making modern conservatism a happy hunting ground for fake experts have reached a kind of apotheosis under Trump, a grifter president whose whole political strategy is based on catering to white male grievance, and who both disdains expertise and always values loyalty above competence. And one result is the wildly premature push to reopen the economy.
The good news is that many governors will probably ignore this bad advice. But others won’t, and the result will probably be many additional, avoidable deaths. If that happens, understand it for what it is: death by quackery.