OK, we may have more than 100,000 deaths, but we’re doing a great job and should reopen the economy.
You sometimes hear people say that Donald Trump and his minions minimized the dangers of Covid-19, and that this misjudgment helps explain why their policy response has been so disastrously inadequate. But this statement, while true, misses crucial aspects of what’s going on.
For Trump and company didn’t make a one-time mistake. They grossly minimized the pandemic and its dangers every step of the way, week after week over a period of months. And they’re still doing it.
Now, everyone makes bad predictions; God knows I have. But when you keep getting things wrong, and especially when you keep getting them wrong in the same direction, you’re supposed to engage in some self-reflection — and learn from your mistakes. Why was I wrong? Did I give in to motivated reasoning, believing what I wanted to be true rather than following the logic and evidence?
To engage in such self-reflection, however, you have to be willing to admit that you were wrong in the first place.
We all know that Trump himself is incapable of making such an admission. At a time of crisis, America is led by a whiny, childlike man whose ego is too fragile to let him concede ever having made any kind of error. And he has surrounded himself with people who share his lack of character.
But where do these people come from? What has struck me, as details of Trump’s coronavirus debacle continue to emerge, is that he wasn’t getting bad advice from obscure, fringe figures whose only claim to fame was their successful sycophancy. On the contrary, the people telling him what he wanted to hear were, by and large, pillars of the conservative establishment with long pre-Trump careers.
On Saturday The Washington Post reported that in late March Trump was unhappy with epidemiological models suggesting a death toll over 100,000 — which, by the way, now seems highly likely. So the White House created its own team led by Kevin Hassett, whom The Post describes as “a former chairman of Trump’s Council of Economic Advisers with no background in infectious diseases.” And this team produced an analysis Trump aides interpreted as implying a much lower death toll.
What The Post didn’t say was that aside from not having any background in epidemiology, Hassett has an, um, interesting record as an economist.
He first attracted widespread attention as co-author of a 1999 book claiming that stocks were greatly undervalued, and that the Dow should be 36,000 (which would be around 55,000 today, adjusting for inflation). It quickly became clear that there were major conceptual errors in that book; but Hassett never admitted error.
In the mid-2000s Hassett denied that there was a housing bubble, suggesting that only liberals believed that there was.
In 2010 Hassett was part of a group of conservative economists and pundits who warned in an open letter that the Federal Reserve’s efforts to rescue the economy would lead to currency debasement and inflation. Four years later Bloomberg News tried to reach signatories to ask why that inflation never materialized; not one was willing to admit having been wrong.
You might think that an economist would pay some professional penalty for this kind of track record — not simply one of making bad predictions, which everyone does, but of both being wrong at every important juncture and refusing to admit or learn from mistakes.
But no: Hassett remains, as I said, a pillar of the modern conservative establishment, and Trump called on him to second-guess experts in epidemiology, a field in which he has no background.
The moral of this story, I’d argue, is that observers trying to understand America’s lethally bad response to the coronavirus focus too much on Trump’s personal flaws, and not enough on the character of the party he leads.
Yes, Trump’s insecurity leads him to reject expertise, listen only to people who tell him what makes him feel good and refuse to acknowledge error. But disdain for experts, preference for incompetent loyalists and failure to learn from experience are standard operating procedure for the whole modern G.O.P.
Trump’s narcissism and solipsism are especially blatant, even flamboyant. But he isn’t an outlier; he’s more a culmination of the American right’s long-term trend toward intellectual degradation. And that degradation, more than Trump’s character, is what is leading to vast numbers of unnecessary deaths.
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