Way back in January, during those carefree days when we could leave our houses without catching a terrifying disease, something would occasionally bother me.
There was this disease in China, but the worldwide health authorities didn’t seem to consider it a global threat, and most of the important people were telling us that actually prejudice was a bigger danger than the virus.
Yet some of the smartest people I follow on Twitter, almost all of them in the United States, kept on warning about what a disaster this was going to be. It bothered me, because I follow a lot of, erm, unorthodox people and it seemed sort of conspiratorial and low status. If this coronavirus was so much of a threat, why were hundreds of flights from China still landing in Europe and North America each day? Why were US politicians holding rallies, inviting people to show their solidarity with the Chinese community?
Because I read and follow quite a few weirdos, I’m always worried that one day I’ll catch my reflection and realise I am in fact actually a crank.
On top of this, the more popular and well-known conservatives, led by the US President himself, didn’t seem to think the virus was a big deal. In fact people on the Right were overall less worried, and even two weeks ago there was a big political division in the US in people’s attitudes to Covid-19. (I mean, everything causes political divisions in America, so that’s not surprising.)
Meanwhile, liberal officialdom and its media appendages were more likely to play down the threat, out of fear of giving aid and comfort to sinophobia or populism. This period was the high-water mark of “it’s just the flu” reassurances in liberal outlets, of pious critiques of Donald Trump’s travel restrictions, of deceptive public-health propaganda about how masks don’t work, of lectures from the head of the World Health Organization about how “the greatest enemy we face is not the virus itself; it’s the stigma that turns us against each other.”
But then, somewhere in February, the dynamic shifted. As the disease spread and the debate went mainstream, liberal opinion mostly abandoned its anti-quarantine posture and swung toward a reasonable panic, while conservative opinion divided, with a large portion of the right following the lead of Trump himself, who spent crucial weeks trying to wish the crisis away. Where figures like Bannon and Cernovich manifested a conservatism attuned to external perils, figures like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity manifested a conservatism of tribal denial, owning the libs by minimizing the coronavirus threat.
One reason might be that conservatism is a strange alliance between some very high and low IQ people, while liberalism tends to attract more people in-between. Conservatism is quite basic — it’s our natural setting — but it also involves a lot of paradoxes that attract some clever people, and smart people are also more attracted to heresies. This also matches our development in life: childhood is conservative, adolescence radical, youth and middle age liberal and maturity conservative again.
So lots of very clever people perceived the threat of coronavirus quite early, but then many more conservatives will also just follow the tribal leader because tribalism is a very powerful force. Unfortunately, it just so happens that in the United States that tribal leader is a narcissistic sociopath who’s dangerously unsuited to the position.