The Coronavirus Truther Elite

New York intellectuals provided an elevated rationale for disregarding measures like social distancing that could have saved lives.
April 7, 2020
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The Army Corps of Engineers have established a temporary field hospital at Jacob Javits Convention Center in New York City in response to the COVID-19 pandemic on March 30, 2020. The temporary field hospital will help ease the burden on New York City hospitals, many of which are now overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients. (Photo by John Lamparski/Getty Images)

As the Coronavirus spreads, the ranks of the dead in New York City continue to grow. As of this writing, thousands have already perished. Thousands more are expected to die in the weeks ahead. The victims include the old and infirm, but also the young and the perfectly healthy. The city remains the hardest hit among cities in the United States and, perhaps soon, the world.

New York’s extraordinary population density has turned it into a kind of petri dish of infection. The crowded mass transit system, with passengers packed cheek to jowl in buses and subway cars, provides a superconducting means of viral transmission. In the city’s prisons and homeless shelters, and in impoverished neighborhoods where housing is shared by multiple families, social distancing is an impossibility.

Those might be considered the natural factors, the inalterable givens of New York’s geography and demography. But there are man made political drivers as well, which span the ideological spectrum.

New York’s feckless leftwing mayor, Bill de Blasio, was slow to close the city’s schools, causing immeasurable damage. It did not help that as social distancing began to be encouraged in the city, he demonstratively flouted its strictures, showing up at his favorite Brooklyn gym for a workout.

On the right, is New York-based FOX News. Before they were instructed by management to perform an about-face, a chorus of Trump-loyal anchors and pundits and hosts downplayed the lethality of the infectious disease. Typical was Judge Jeanine Pirro, who explained to viewers that it was nothing to be worried about: “It’s a virus, like the flu. It actually can be mistaken for the flu—a sore throat, a cough, a fever. And by the way, it is flu season….So all the talk about coronavirus being so much more deadly doesn’t reflect reality.”

Comedy Central’s Daily Show has produced a devastating montage of FOX personalities making light of the COVID-19 disease: 

Occupying a special place in this story are New York intellectuals who provided an elevated rationale for disregarding measures like social distancing that could have saved lives.

Writing on March 14 in the Trump-friendly blog American Greatness, Roger Kimball, chief editor of the conservative publishing house, Encounter Books, waxed sarcastic about the “widespread irrationality” stalking the land:  “As I write, the news has just come in that a total of 60 people—60!—have died from the scourge of the Wuhan virus…This really is a pandemic akin to the Black Death. Do you realize that in this country you have a 0.000000155963303 chance of contracting and dying from this dread disease?”

Venturing a prediction, Kimball observed that “There has been a great hue and cry for more widespread testing.” If that happens, he concluded, “the number of diagnosed cases will go up, maybe dramatically. What won’t go up much is the number of fatalities.”

In a similar vein, writing in mid-March at the Kimball-edited New Criterion, Heather Mac Donald, a fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute, condemned politicians like Andrew Cuomo for being possessed of “an overwhelming impulse to be irrationally risk-averse” that caused them to shut down New York. “Even if my odds of dying from coronavirus should suddenly jump ten-thousand-fold, from the current rate of .000012 percent across the U.S. population all the way up to .12 percent, I’d happily take those odds over the destruction being wrought on the U.S. and global economy from this unbridled panic.”

Adding a theological dimension to the discussion, R. R. “Rusty” Reno, editor of the conservative religious-affairs magazine First Things, explained that saving life at any cost is the work of a “Satan” who acts through “sentimental humanists.” The “mass shutdown of society to fight the spread of COVID-19 creates a perverse, even demonic atmosphere.” Thanks to what Reno called a “disastrous sentimentalism,” we have been “whipped” by the media into a “frenzy” about the epidemic. The media “bombard the public with warnings about the danger posed by the coronavirus, when the truth is that only a small percent of the population of New York is at risk.”

What explains such insouciance? One thing these intellectuals all have in common is that they are all ether ardent Trump loyalists or ardent Trump apologists. Kimball has gone so far as to call the Trump presidency “salubrious and morally uplifting.” 

This herd of independent conservative minds seems to follow closely hoofbeats heard in the White House. Consider how closely their arguments map those of the president they revere. After all, it was on March 9 that Donald Trump took to Twitter to minimize the danger: “So last year 37,000 Americans died from the common Flu. It averages between 27,000 and 70,000 per year. Nothing is shut down, life & the economy go on. At this moment there are 546 confirmed cases of CoronaVirus, with 22 deaths. Think about that!”

Trump, of course, has shifted into reverse gear and is now predicting that if the death toll is less than a staggering 200,000, that will be his own incredibly tremendous accomplishment. FOX News has furiously backpedaled and attempted to erase its discreditable recent history. The conservative intellectuals, for their part, have thus far retreated into a cowardly silence. 

We are witnessing the culmination of a tendency that has been evident (and growing) over the last four years, in which the Trump intellectuals have become willing to justify ever-worse behavior. Those who started by excusing Trump for his boorishness (“grab them by the….”) have wound up in a far darker place.

These thinkers don’t have as wide an audience as the grotesquely mutable personages at FOX News, but they do influence the thinking of others, including Trump and those in his entourage. In the end, ideas, including perverse and dangerous ideas, really do have consequences. The question now is: will anyone hold these COVID-19 deniers responsible for groundlessly dismissing the all-too-accurate warnings of epidemiologists, for offering false reassurance to untold numbers and thereby spreading death? 

As the bodies pile up inside refrigerated trucks in makeshift New York City morgues, one also begs to know if, in the age of Donald Trump, there are any limits to moral and intellectual recklessness?

Gabriel Schoenfeld

Gabriel Schoenfeld, a senior fellow at the Niskanen Center and an opinion columnist for USA TODAY, is the author of Necessary Secrets: National Security, the Media, and the Rule of Law.