Sunday, September 19, 2021


A few days ago, Chris Hayes tweeted this:

In a column-length response, Ross Douthat writes:
Here’s a quick case that [Hayes is] right. At the pandemic’s outset, skeptics of a sweeping response argued that public health authorities were overestimating the disease’s dangers, and many conservatives were eager to believe them. The Hoover Institution’s Richard Epstein famously predicted Covid would claim only 5,000 lives in the United States.
(Actually, Epstein's initial prediction was a mere 500 deaths.)
... on the fundamental question of how bad the disease would be, the authorities were more right than their more optimistic critics. Even with rapidly developed vaccines, we’ve had 670,000 reported coronavirus deaths and counting....

In that sense we’ve already run a version of Hayes’s counterfactual. Covid has been deadlier than many people on the right hoped or predicted, and yet the partisan divide that took shape last spring hasn’t really budged, with Republicans still taking the libertarian side in debate after debate — closures, masks, now vaccine mandates.
However, Douthat thinks something might have changed if the death toll were even worse.
But I’m still not sure Hayes is right about the Covid 10-times-worse scenario being basically identical to this one in its divisions. As bad as the coronavirus has been, most people who get it still come out OK, children are especially unlikely to be hospitalized or die, and deaths are concentrated in a population, the elderly in nursing homes, that (to our shame) we already keep somewhat out of mind.

... if the fatality figures ... were 10 times higher I think there might have been more red-state support for public-health restrictions of all kinds.
Well, maybe. Douthat continues to wonder
whether there’s a world where Donald Trump went all-in for strict disease-fighting measures and liberals turned anti-lockdown in response....
Douthat can't let go of that idea. Last October, he wrote that Trump
had a worldview that the cosmopolitan community considered archaic and dangerous — a worldview that emphasized national borders, played up foreign threats and treated travel bans and immigration restrictions as essential tools of state. He also had certain personal tendencies, like his famous germaphobia, that would presumably have made him favorable to masking and social distancing at a time when the expert of experts, Dr. Anthony Fauci, was still dismissing mask wearing and telling healthy Americans that it was safe to take a cruise.

In other words, Trump, much more than a typical president, was ideologically and personally well-positioned to get out ahead of the experts, to break early with their church-of-cosmopolitanism assumptions and to set an example of extreme caution long before that became the official wisdom — even to “own the libs,” if you will, by taking steps that would have been denounced as authoritarianism in late February and then recognized as wisdom by late March.
But Trump didn't do this because he's also a person who regularly engages in magical thinking -- how many times did he tell us that the virus would simply "go away"? Would he have said that in the face of a virus that was on track to kill nearly 7 million Americans, rather than the current figure of nearly 700,000? I wouldn't put it past him.

Also, the right's propaganda infrastructure is financed by billionaires who wanted the economy to reopen as quickly as possible. It's not a coincidence that the estimate of 500 U.S. COVID deaths came from the Hoover Institution, an important and well-funded source of right-wing influence. Right-wing billionaires funded the "reopen" movement that took Trump's pandemic denialism and turned it into right-wing dogma.

If the death tolls had been ten times worse, would the billionaires still have wanted to reopen everything right away? They'd have wanted a sense of normality as rapidly as they could get one. Maybe they'd have demanded quick fixes: Seal off hot spots and don't let anyone leave. Round up infected people who stray outside the hot zones. I can imagine that the culture war would have involved right-wingers arguing for containment in the "bad" places (conveniently, the Northeast and a few other liberal enclaves) while doing little or nothing elsewhere. It would fail, but New York would have replaced China as the scapegoat.

Douthat agrees that we wouldn't have pulled together as a nation:
... there would be more regional fractures, more governors trying to close borders and restrict travel, more vicious interstate fighting over medical resources, more frenzied culture wars over which drugs to try experimentally, more total panic and meltdown around schools.
And in the middle would be Trump touting sparsely populated, low-infection rural areas as the real America, even as the rest of the country succumbed to infection and death.

However it played out, I think Chris Hayes is right in the broadest sense -- the politics of all this wouldn't be appreciably different. It would still be us vs. them. And Ross Douthat seems to agree.

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