clock menu more-arrow no yes

The deep ideological roots of Trump’s botched coronavirus response

How the GOP’s decades-long war on expertise sabotaged America’s fight against the pandemic.

President Trump hugs the US flag at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) on February 29, 2020.
Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

Jared Kushner, the president’s wildly unqualified son-in-law, is apparently playing a leading role in developing the White House’s coronavirus response. As if that weren’t scary enough, Kushner himself seems to be turning to a novel source for policy ideas: a supermodel’s physician father.

“If you were in charge of Federal response to the Pandemic what would your recommendation be. Please only serious responses,” Kurt Kloss, father of Karlie Kloss, wrote in a Facebook group called EM Docs. “I have direct channel to person now in charge at White House.”

Kushner turned to Kloss not because he’s a leading expert on Covid-19 but because he’s family: Jared’s brother is married to Karlie, so he figured he’d keep it in the family.

This nepotism folded in on itself speaks volumes about the Trump administration’s faulty response to the coronavirus crisis — both the uniquely Trumpy incompetence at play and a deeper flaw in the specific kind of right-wing populism that has taken over the Republican party. While the White House has pivoted to somewhat more responsible messaging in the past day, it’s not clear how long that will last — and it can’t make up for botching the outbreak during the critical early stages.

Modern American conservatism has, as part of its intellectual DNA, a disdain for the country’s intellectual elite. In 1961, National Review founder William F. Buckley famously said, “I would rather be governed by the first 2,000 people in the telephone directory than by the Harvard University faculty.”

Buckley, a New York-born patrician, was no one’s idea of a populist. Yet his assaults on academia helped give rise to a political movement that rejects the intellectual authority of America’s credentialed elite altogether, leading to a creation of alternative conservative institutions and hostility toward mainstream research programs (like, say, climate science). In the Trump era, this vision has linked up to Trump’s swamp-draining, deep-state-blaming political style to produce a form of right-wing populism that treats the very idea of nonpartisan expertise as deeply suspect.

The result is not only a White House that’s outsourcing response ideas to the president’s son-in-law’s brother’s father-in-law’s Facebook group, but a right-wing media infrastructure that has worked overtime to cover for the president and paint the coronavirus as some kind of liberal plot to unseat him. Poll data shows that ordinary Democrats are both more likely to worry about the coronavirus than ordinary Republicans and more likely to change their behavior in ways recommended by experts (e.g., more hand-washing).

A public health emergency is not the sort of thing that can be muddled through by guesswork and politicians’ gut instincts. The stakes are clear, the consequences of failure dire. It is just about the worst moment for an anti-intellectual strain of right-wing populism to run our government — and yet, here we are.

The Trump-GOP war on expertise

There’s always been an awkward tension in American conservatism between its hostility to elite intellectual institutions on the one hand and its veneration for authority on the other. The right condemns academia as a hotbed of leftist authoritarianism and a corrupt racket in need of radical reform, while right-leaning intellectuals like economist Milton Friedman are treated as secular saints, their work quoted like chapter and verse at conservative gatherings like the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC).

The crucial intellectual move required to navigate this tension is to argue that Friedman et al are outliers, brave truth-tellers in enemy-occupied territory. But this logic requires assuming the truth of conservative political propositions, then deducing from that which thinkers are worth trusting.

President Trump, flanked by members of the Coronavirus Task Force, speaks to the media in the press briefing room at the White House on March 16, 2020.
Win McNamee/Getty Images

But what happens in policy areas when there aren’t any Friedman equivalents — intellectually serious defenders of the conservative position? The debate over climate change shows us the answer: The move is to simply deny the overwhelming evidence compiled by scientific luminaries, to dismiss climate science as a “hoax” or a “conspiracy.” The war on academia bleeds into a war on the very idea of expertise.

The roots of this modern conservative approach can be seen as early as Buckley’s 1961 comments about Harvard — the idea that liberal elites are conning you, that they’re less competent than an ordinary person. The modern conservative movement has been taken over by this cheap anti-elitism, a belief that people who study things professionally are not to be trusted unless they pass conservative political tests and are housed at institutions like the Heritage Foundation, Fox News, or Liberty University. The very idea of nonpartisan knowledge production is obliterated (a move ironically reminiscent of an undergraduate’s shallow read of Foucault).

“We will never have the elite smart people on our side,” as former US Senator Rick Santorum put it in a 2012 speech, “because they believe they should have the power to tell you what to do.”

This hermetic intellectual insulation created a movement scornful of elite credentials and basic ideas of expertise, a tendency that has led to disastrous responses to crises before. There’s a reason President George W. Bush felt comfortable appointing Michael Brown — a man whose pre-administration work centered on Arabian horses — to run the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Brown proceeded to horrifically botch the response to Hurricane Katrina; despite that, Bush stood up with Brown at a press conference and told “Brownie” that he was doing a “heckuva job.”

The Trump administration has escalated this hostility to a degree that puts Bush to shame. Trump’s well-known hostility to people who challenge his authority or puncture his myth of personal greatness has led him to not only surround himself with political allies but personal sycophants — people who will tell Trump exactly what he wants to hear. Conservative cabinet members who challenged Trump in one way or another, like former Attorney General Jeff Sessions or Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, were pushed out.

This is not a bug in Trumpism, but rather a feature. The idea that all elites — not just intellectual elites, but bureaucratic ones too — are untrustworthy has been central to the president’s political message from day one. “Drain the swamp” and the war on the “deep state” have served to position Trump as the ethical people’s champion; he puts his unqualified daughter and son-in-law in the White House because it’s important to have people who are, first and foremost, loyal to Trump.

In the war on expertise, Americans are currently becoming collateral damage

Experts aren’t infallible, of course. If there’s one thing we’ve learned in the past two decades, it’s that our elite class is eminently capable of catastrophic failure.

Yet blanket skepticism of elites in Trump’s style is no more justified than blind faith in their pronouncements. In fact, it’s arguably quite a bit more dangerous, particularly when it comes to something like a pandemic response, a difficult task that requires understanding and synthesizing conclusions from a variety of technical and deeply specialized intellectual disciplines.

The Trump administration is particularly ill-prepared for such an undertaking. Not only were they distrustful of elite warnings, thanks to decades of conservative attacks on the American intellectual establishment, but the president was personally unwilling to believe news that might be politically damaging and surrounded by a staff too scared or too incompetent to convince him otherwise.

The result is, for the past few weeks, an utterly botched response. The Trump administration quickly banned travel from China, to be sure, but failed to use any time that move bought to prepare for the inevitability that the disease would spread in the United States. They ignored the advice of public health experts warning them to ramp up testing, ignored warnings from doctors on the ground that things were getting bad, and failed to tell Americans that social distancing was necessary before it was (arguably) too late.

Don’t take my word for it; take the president’s. Here’s how my colleague German Lopez summarizes his comments from the past few weeks:

He previously tweeted comparisons to the common flu, which in fact appears to be less deadly and spread less easily than the coronavirus. He called concerns about the virus a “hoax.” He said on national television that, based on nothing more than a self-admitted “hunch,” the death rate of the disease is much lower than public health officials projected. And in February, he said of the coronavirus, “One day it’s like a miracle, it will disappear.” (As of March 16, the country has more than 4,100 confirmed cases and 71 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University.)

Trump wasn’t alone in this. Conservative media was quick to back the administration, dismissing concerns raised by public health experts as a plot designed to hurt the president’s reelection.

“Just as a hurricane is exaggerated and built-up, lied about before anybody knows its true strength and nature in order to advance a political agenda ― i.e., climate change ― coronavirus is being used to advance the agenda,” talk radio host Rush Limbaugh, most recently seen receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Trump during the State of the Union, said during a show last week.

“The chorus of hate being leveled at the president is nearing a crescendo as Democrats blame him — and only him — for a virus that originated halfway around the world!” Fox Business host Trish Regan, in a segment titled “Coronavirus Impeachment Scam,” said. “This is yet another attempt to impeach the president, and sadly it seems they care very little for any of the destruction they are leaving in their wake: losses in stock market.”

Sean Davis, the co-founder of the right-wing website The Federalist, wrote this widely circulated tweet:

There’s a more-or-less straight line between this pro-Trump populism and Buckley’s condemnation of rule-by-Harvard back in 1961. Both depend on the idea that the intellectual class is corrupted, its conclusions not to be trusted, and that anything they say is part of a plot against the GOP and the president.

Now, judging by Monday and Tuesday’s press conferences, the president might be finally revising his attitudes about the virus — admitting that it’s a serious problem and letting the guidance of public health experts shape his response. On Monday night, Fox News seemed to pivot to treating it seriously as well (and praising Trump’s handling, of course).

This is certainly a promising trend; we’ll see if it lasts. But the problem is that it may be too little, too late — on the level of both policy and individual attitudes.

One recent poll from NBC and the Wall Street Journal found that Democrats were 28 percentage points more likely than Republicans to say they were worried about a family member getting coronavirus. An IPSOS-Reuters poll found that Democrats were 10 points more likely than Republicans to say they wash their hands and use sanitizer more, and 14 points more likely to say they’ve changed their daily routine in general since the outbreak began.

The roots of this gap appear to be, at least in part, partisan. The Washington Post reported on a meeting of several churches in Arkansas, finding widespread belief that the virus was a Democratic hoax aimed at hurting Trump.

“One pastor said half of his church is ready to lick the floor to prove there’s no actual virus,” Rev. Josh King, the lead pastor at Second Baptist church in Conway, Arkansas, told the Post’s reporters. “In your more politically conservative regions, closing is not interpreted as caring for you. It’s interpreted as liberalism, or buying into the hype.”

It is not an exaggeration to say that these kinds of attitudes may already have contributed to the disease’s spread — and gotten people killed. One infected person in South Korea who went to church spread the coronavirus to around 2,250 others.

The initial distrust of intellectual elites and the “deep state” in Washington combined to produce a disastrously slow response at the crucial early stages. A late-breaking pivot can’t make up for lost time, even if the White House sticks with its current approach. Now it’s just a question of how bad things get — and whether Republicans finally learn their lesson about the failures of knee-jerk anti-elitism.