There used to be a time when non-negligible numbers of Republican politicians recognized the reality of climate change and the need for public policy to combat it. That time is long past. Today it’s very hard to find a Republican politician who will admit to believing that anything serious needs to be done about climate change. The utter resistance of a whole political party to the overwhelming consensus of the world scientific community is a testament to the remarkable power of ideology and economic interest to blind people to glaringly harsh realities. The right in America refuses to acknowledge climate change for two closely related reasons. First, a serious assault on climate change would require massive government intervention in the economy, in contravention of right-wing ideological aversion to “big government.” Since the solution is ideologically unacceptable, the problem must be denied. Second, the fossil fuel industries, whose profitability would be undermined by any such assault on climate change, are important donors to the Republican Party and to the right-wing movement more broadly. As Upton Sinclair put it in one of my favorite ever quotes, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”
Today there is another dangerous form of denialism going around, less absolute than the denial of climate change but, in its immediate effects, more pernicious. Republicans tend to be reluctant to acknowledge the magnitude of the coronavirus crisis. This is a relatively soft denialism: everybody now acknowledges that the epidemic is real (though for a time this wasn’t the case). Unlike climate change, the effects of coronavirus are tangibly obvious on a daily basis as the deaths mount. Still, right-wingers by and large tend to resist the medical community’s recommendations for radical measures to mitigate the plague. The Republican governor of Georgia wants to lead the way back to normalcy—he is now set to permit gyms, barber shops, tattoo parlors and bowling alleys, among other businesses, to reopen on Friday, though they would be required to follow social distancing guidelines and screen their employees for signs of fever and respiratory illness. Theaters and restaurants would be permitted to resume activity on April 27. Meanwhile, a statewide shelter-in-place order expires at the end of the month. Other Republican governors clearly want to move in the same direction. Democrats are generally more restrained in talking about re-opening.
To an extent, coronavirus denialism, like its climate change counterpart, is ideologically motivated. The large-scale shutdown of normal life to prevent the spread of the disease represents a massive assertion by government of its right to curtail economic activity to protect the public interest. That just doesn’t go down well with free-market conservatives.
But I think the more important explanation of coronavirus denialism is that the Republican Party, along with the broader right-wing movement, has become a cult in thrall to a charismatic leader. Trump for his own reasons is loath to recognize the crisis for what it is, and cult members respond accordingly. The pandemic thus shows more starkly than ever how very dangerous Trump is, apart from the many noxious policies he has put in place. Trump is a genuinely charismatic* figure, unlike any previous president in American history. I’m sure that there has never been a US president with a grip on his party and its base comparable to what Trump enjoys. Directly or indirectly, Trump exerts real influence over the behavior of millions of people. As a result, people will die.
* Some readers may chafe at my characterization of Trump as “charismatic,” since that term is often used to connote attractive personal qualities. In a stricter sociological usage, “charismatic” is a value-neutral term; it describes the kind of allegiance a leader commands from his followers. Trump, who is a dunce in so many ways, is a tremendously talented demagogue and consequently a truly charismatic leader.