A few days ago, the testimony of a nurse from South Dakota made international headlines. In a tweet, Jodi Doering recounted the harrowing experience of having to deal with patients dying from COVID-19 complications while denying that the virus is real: “The ones who scream at you for a magic medicine and that Joe Biden is (g)oing to ruin the USA. All while gasping for breath on 100% Vapotherm. They tell you there must be another reason they are sick. They call you names and ask why you have to wear all that ‘stuff’ because they don’t have COVID because it’s not real.”
By now, North and South Dakotas have earned the distinction of being among the states hit hardest by the second wave of the pandemic — and least prepared for its impact. As in so many of America’s red states dominated by the Republican Party, the good citizens of the Dakotas largely ignored reality, and this is putting it graciously. As a recent article in The New York Times put it, “Deep into the coronavirus pandemic, when there was no doubt about the damage that Covid-19 could do, the Dakotas scaled their morbid heights, propelled by denial and defiance.” Public officials did their part reinforcing the illusion, adamantly refusing to mandate basic safety measures, such as the wearing of masks and keeping social distancing rules.
Live Free or Die
“Live Free or Die” — ironically enough, the motto of the blue state of New Hampshire in New England — assumed an entirely new meaning in the Dakotas. At the end of November, the Bismarck Tribune reported that a quarter of North Dakotans had known somebody who had died of COVID-19. At the start of this month, just three weeks after reporting the highest mortality rate in the world, North Dakota hit a new record: One in 800 residents here has died of COVID-19.
In South Dakota, where the governor refused to mandate safety measures, things were equally bad. Intensive care units in small towns were quickly getting overwhelmed as the pandemic ravaged the very fabric of civil society, which observers such as Alex de Tocqueville have considered essential to the health of American democracy. And yet, as Annie Gowan writes in The Washington Post, “anti-maskers” have continued to agitate, “alleging that masks don’t work and that the measure was an overreach that would violate their civil rights.” Given the fact that wearing a mask is above all a means to protect others against infection, this is a rather specious argument.
There has been widespread resistance to following the most basic safety precautions. Clinging on to a false sense of liberty is one reason, but arguably not the most important one. Instead, what infuses the refusal to take COVID-19 seriously among a substantial part of the American public is a profound suspicion toward health care experts, the scientific community and science-based evidence in general.
This is part of a larger populist syndrome, which has suffused significant parts of the United States over the past several years and which was instrumental in propelling Donald Trump into the White House four years ago. Populism represents above all a revolt against the established elite — economic, political, social, cultural — in the name of ordinary citizens and their allegedly superior “common sense.” Populists promote the virtue of personal experience and observation — Trump famously asked how global warming could be real if it was so cold outside — and the rule of thumb.
Add to that the impact of right-wing influencers and opinion leaders like Rush Limbaugh, who in early spring claimed that COVID-19 was nothing more than the flu and who has insisted that masks are a symbol of fear and therefore “un-American.” No wonder that in the land of the free, that vast landmass between the two coasts, disparaged by the “coastal elites” as “flyover country,” they rather believe in the wisdom of Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and the Great Man himself than the “disaster” Anthony Fauci and his “idiots” in the scientific community.
As a result, according to a recent Pew survey, in the United States, public opinion about COVID-19 has been far more divided than in comparable advanced liberal democracies. In October, more than 80% of Biden supporters said that COVID-19 was “very important” for their vote; among Trump supporters, less than a quarter. At the same time, there was a large partisan divide on trust in scientists. In September, more than two-thirds of liberal Democrats expressed trust in scientists; among conservative Republicans, less than 20%.
Under the circumstances, the health care catastrophe that has invested the Dakotas and other parts of the American Midwest should come as no surprise. It is part of the disastrous legacy four years of President Trump have left, a legacy that has poisoned the political climate to an extent never before seen in the United States.
Human, All Too Human
Over the past several months, COVID-19 — what it is, what it means and how to respond to it —has become part of the polarization that has consumed American politics way before the onset of the pandemic. Polarization means that almost everything political is defined in partisan terms. Extended to its most extreme, it means that the other side is no longer seen as legitimate, but as the enemy that needs to be destroyed since it poses a fundamental threat to the common good.
This, of course, is the fundamental dictum of Carl Schmitt, the brilliant 19th-century German legal and political theorist whose posthumous influence has significantly grown over the past few decades, both on the left and on the right. Schmitt was a great supporter of the Nazis, infamous for his defense of Hitler’s order in 1934 to eliminate his adversaries (the Röhm Purge) in an article with the cynical title, “The Führer Protects the Law.” Central to Schmitt’s thinking was the notion that democracy meant both to treat equals as equals and to treat not-equals as not-equals. For Schmitt, democracy required homogeneity as well as the exclusion, even “destruction of the heterogeneous.” No wonder Carl Schmitt has found enthusiastic acolytes among China’s patriotic intelligentsia.
It is within this context that the dismissal of the threat posed by COVID-19 as, at best, negligible and, at worst, as a hoax designed to undermine the Trump administration becomes understandable.
Throughout his presidency, Donald Trump has been obsessed with China. Trump’s pet project of making America great again only makes sense in the face of the challenge that the fulminant rise of China has posed to America’s claim to be the greatest country in the world. The way the slogan is phrased already reveals its weakness. Making America great “again” implies a recognition that it no longer is. There are numerous reasons why this might be the case. Most of them — such as decrepit infrastructure or the opioid crisis — have nothing to do with China.
But, as Friedrich Nietzsche once put it, it is human, all too human to blame others for one’s own shortcomings. This might explain why Trump has insisted on referring to COVID-19 as the “China virus,” most recently in a tweet acknowledging that Rudy Giuliani, his personal lawyer who had “been working tirelessly exposing the most corrupt election (by far!) in the history of the USA” had been tested positive for the “China Virus.” Giuliani has done no such thing, i.e., exposing massive election fraud. Giuliani once was a respectable politician, arguably one of the best mayors New York City has ever had. By now, he is reminiscent of Wormtail, Voldemort’s pathetic factotum.
Trump’s obsession with China not only explains his nonchalance toward COVID-19 but also his take on climate change and global warming. It deserves remembering that at one time, Trump was adamant about his concern regarding the climate. In 2009, Trump, together with his three oldest children, signed an open letter to the Obama administration that stated, “If we fail to act now, it is scientifically irrefutable that there will be catastrophic and irreversible consequences for humanity and our planet.” Among other things, the letter called for “U.S. climate legislation, investment in the clean energy economy, and leadership to inspire the rest of the world to join the fight against climate change.”
I Don’t Believe It
A couple of years later, all was forgotten. By 2012, the focus was on China’s rapid ascent. In this context, global warming assumed a new meaning in Trump’s narrative. As he put it in a tweet at the time, the “concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.” Three years later, he referred to climate change as a hoax, and, once in office, he dismissed the warnings of his own government’s scientists with a simple “I don’t believe it.”
Trump’s denial of climate change had a significant impact among his support base. In 2018, more than two-thirds of Republicans considered concerns about global warming to be exaggerated; among Democrats, less than 5% thought so. Around a third of Republicans thought global warming was caused by human activities; among Democrats, some 90%. And when asked whether they thought global warming would pose a serious threat in their lifetime, a mere 18% of Republicans voiced concern among Democrats, about two-thirds.
A month before the November election, an article in Nature sounded the alarm bell. As the election approached, the author warned, “Trump’s actions in the face of COVID-19 are just one example of the damage he has inflicted on science and its institutions over the past four years, with repercussions for lives and livelihoods.” In the process, his administration, across many federal agencies, had “undermined scientific integrity by suppressing or distorting evidence to support political decisions.”
In November, Trump spectacularly lost his bid for a second term. At the end of January, Joe Biden will be inaugurated as the new president. There is great hope that this will be the beginning of a “new dawn for America.” Don’t bet on it. Trump’s legacy is likely to linger on, some of the harm his administration has caused potentially exerting its impact for years to come. One of the most deleterious legacies is that by now, belief in science — at least with respect to certain issues — has become overridden by partisanship.
Climate change is a prominent example, so is COVID-19, and so is likely to be the question of vaccination as anti-coronavirus jabs become available over the next few months. In late November, among Democrats, 75% said they would get vaccinated; among Republicans, only half. Under the circumstances, it is probably prudent to be wary.
Professor Hans-Georg Betz is a Senior Fellow at CARR and an Adjunct Professor of Political Science at the University of Zurich. See full profile here.
© Hans-Georg Betz. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).