Among the many weird and disquieting moments in Donald Trump’s rally in Tulsa on the weekend, the one that has really driven his opponents wild was his little riff on Covid-19.
“Testing is a double-edged sword,” he began, “we’ve done more testing than anybody else. Here’s the bad part. When you do testing to that extent, you’re going to find more people, you’re going to find more cases. So I said to my people, slow the testing down please! They test and they test… we’ve got another one over here! The young man’s ten years old, he’s got the sniffles, he’ll recover in about 15 minutes. It’s a case!”
It drew laughs from the audience, but condemnation from commentators, conservative and Democrat alike. Can you imagine saying something so stupid? Having already played down the need to wear a mask at his non-socially-distanced rally, at a time when multiple states are seeing alarming surges in Covid-19 case numbers, he appears both to diminish the importance of testing (which we know correlates with fewer deaths) and equate the disease with a case of “the sniffles”. Cynical. Reckless. Anti-science.
This apparent embrace of full-on Covid denialism doesn’t even seem to make sense as a political strategy. The percentage of American voters who describe themselves as “not worried at all” by coronavirus, the hard-cores, is stable at around 13% — and only 24% of Trump voters. That’s around 26 million adults: enough to half-fill a lot of stadiums over the campaign but nowhere near enough to win a general election. Add in the fact that Republican states are only now starting to get hit hard by the virus, and it seems distinctly like, having already shattered any remaining reputation he had for competence, Covid-19 will finally consign Donald Trump to electoral oblivion.
Except… what if it doesn’t? Is there a way that Covid-19 could become a net positive for Donald Trump — one that could even help carry him to re-election in November?
To find out, let’s go back four years ago to Philadelphia, when Hillary Clinton formally accepted the Democratic nomination. One line of her speech, part of a central credo section setting out what she believed, was received with a particularly rapturous cheer, both in the hall and online, for days afterwards: “I believe in science,” she declared, drawing a key distinction with her opponent, who on climate and much else, apparently didn’t.
Those four words encapsulate what many Democrats passionately believe is their mission in 2020, even more so than in 2016: to keep alive the flame of Enlightenment rationality and science against the threat of fake news and a dangerous post-truth President. It is a core part of what they will be campaigning for in this election.
In 2016, of course, this framing back-fired. The internal epistemology of the Clinton campaign, with all its data and ‘evidence-led’ policy plans, was almost unfalsifiable: to reject it was to be provably either bad or stupid. But, as the eventual defeat made painfully evident, that account of truth, and the world-order that went along with it, fell short on issues like culture and identity and meaning that are just as real to many voters as economics or science. In his intuitive, brazen way, Trump targeted this weakness and gleefully promised to bring the whole tilting edifice crashing down.
In the four years since that crash, the Democrats’ claim to be the sole keepers of the flame of Enlightenment rationality has got weaker, not stronger. The intersectional identity politics that animates their activist wing — gender pronouns, cancel culture, statue-toppling — seems even less rational than in 2016. The foot-washing and genuflection accompanying the recent BLM protests (not to mention the free pass given to protestors ignoring social distancing) has only added to the atmosphere of religious fervour surrounding the progressive movement.
If anything, the language of Enlightenment rationality is now more commonly invoked by those fighting on the other side of the culture wars — in 2018 Jordan Peterson and his ‘Intellectual Dark Web’ group famously claimed it as a defence against progressive tendencies towards humbug and censorship. Last week, Peterson’s friend and fellow IDW thinker the evolutionary psychologist Gad Saad made the argument in an interview with me that in a choice between Trump and Biden, he considers Trump to be the rational choice, on the grounds of resisting the fundamentalism of social justice warriors with something like low common sense. Whether or not you like his argument, the fact that he has arrived at that point is notable.
Gad Saad: cancel culture is dangerous and anti-liberal
It might seem overgenerous to associate Donald Trump with any coherent philosophy. Elements of Paranoid Narcissism and Nietzschean will-to-power have been detected. But alongside these we should include Scepticism: a tendency to question things that orthodoxy holds to be unquestionably true. This is itself a key strand of Enlightenment thought, and represents an allegiance to doubt that progressive idealists are distinctly less interested in, with their righteous certainties and plans to remake the world from first principles. Of course you can have too much Scepticism – some climate-sceptics, Euro-sceptics, Covid-sceptics are no longer rationally scrutinising and are simply following a different faith — but you can also have too little, and the progressive side of recent culture wars is vulnerable to that charge. Trump’s Scepticism has been politically effective.
So we entered this weird election cycle with both sides, if not necessarily the candidates themselves, already making different claims to be the defenders of common sense, keepers of the flame of Enlightenment rationality in a world gone mad.
Against this background, Covid-19 erupted. The different attitudes quickly started aligning with the political parties: Democratic governors were much more activist in response, issuing blanket stay at home orders (although it was primarily Democratic states that were initially hit), while Republican governors took their lead from a sceptical and chaotic President and have generally tried to minimise restrictions.
It is not yet clear exactly where, between these two poles, wisdom lies. While it is right to accuse the President and some Republicans of nonchalance and inconsistency, the progressives have been guilty of the same didacticism and lack of humility that put voters off last time. The official IHME models and forecasts, produced with all the spurious precision and data-richness that graduate progressives find so enthralling, have been woefully wide of the mark; arguments in favour of a more moderate policy response have been dismissed as irresponsible anti-science (with censorship duly enforced by the tech platforms); and states have rushed to close schools and other parts of society before evidence has proved them to be vectors of the disease (even the Norwegian prime minister now says she regrets closing schools). On these points and many more, while claiming the language of science, progressives have shown a shortage of, even hostility to, scientific scepticism.
Norwegian health chief: we advised against closing schools
So although Trump’s speech in Tulsa was typically free-wheeling and borderline incoherent, the target of his lampooning was well chosen. He is right that the emphasis on case numbers is misleading, as they are entirely contingent on testing (Oxford’s Prof Sunetra Gupta made the same complaint to us) so while many states have seen surges in case numbers, we have not generally seen surges in numbers of deaths (and the overall daily deaths continue to fall nationwide). He’s also right that for children Covid-19 is a very minor disease and often symptomless — and that the relative safety of anyone under retirement age has been bizarrely downplayed by the liberal media which sees its responsibility as only reinforcing the risks. This is fertile territory for Trump, even more so for its capability to outrage everybody.
If (and, yes, it’s a big if) the apparent second surges of Covid-19 turn out to be not too bad and overall deaths continue to decline over the summer, and if there is no big second spike in October, then Donald Trump’s scepticism would likely become more acceptable — and popular — as the months go by. Right now, only 13% of Americans are ‘not worried at all’ by the virus. But, equally, only 21% are ‘very worried’: that’s a lot of people in between, and they would surely become more relaxed if the pandemic dwindles.
An election campaign culminating in September and October in which Democrat voices are endlessly finger-wagging and calling for further restrictions, six months after the peak and with deaths right down, while Trump is promising freedom and a return to the ‘old normal’, sounds like a fight he is aching to have. Not even Make America Great Again – just Make America Normal Again.
As it stands, Trump sounds increasingly unhinged, is facing a tanking economy and couldn’t look less like a president who is about to be re-elected. But it’s worth bearing in mind that if the pandemic goes his way, Covid-19 could just about turn from being the thing that killed off his presidency into a re-animating mission that goes to the heart of Democrat epistemological overreach and puts him squarely back in the game.