Krugman points out that, while the Republican party’s COVID denial was in many ways foreshadowed by its (ongoing) climate change denial, the latter actually made a certain amount of perverse sense, in comparison to the florid lunacy of the former.
Climate change denial made plenty of sense 30 years ago, if you were totally indifferent to the state of the world a half century hence, and obsessed with current profit margins. It was also much easier to support with plenty of pseudo-empirical skepticism: the rate of climate change was slow, at least in terms of news cycles, so if it was cold on a spring day that meant Republicans had won the morning according to Politico. Finally, climate change was and is a catastrophe for free market ideology, so naturally libertarians had every incentive to be in denial about it.
Monied interests, intellectual shallowness and stupidity, and libertarian ideology all lined up to make climate denialism eminently understandable, although no less deplorable. (Every time I see the word deplorable I instantly think: Emails! Hillary Clinton’s email server was by far the biggest single issue of the 2016 presidential campaign. Meanwhile, there were no questions about climate change asked at the Clinton-Trump presidential debates).
None of this logic applies to COVID denial. Because of their relentless pursuit of immediate profit above all other considerations corporations are often wellsprings of destructive short-term social thinking — but in this case the short-term profit motive embraces universal vaccination, because a vaccinated society is a profitable society. Unlike climate change, the waves of a pandemic come so fast that the glib it’s cold today response doesn’t work at all in this context: even the stupidest and shallowest version of empiricism can’t plausibly deny that the COVID crisis is here and now. And safe and effective vaccinations are so overwhelmingly supported by all rational considerations that even most libertarians are capable of breaking away from their typical terrier staring at a rathole level of focus on Individual Freedom to embrace the logic of collective social action.
And yet none of this makes any difference. Krugman points to the most obvious explanation why:
Trying to limit a deadly pandemic, even via vaccines that convey huge benefits at little risk, has become a deeply partisan issue.
How did that happen? I’d tell the story this way: America’s rapid vaccination pace during the spring was very good news for the nation — but it was also a success story for the Biden administration. So influential conservatives, for whom owning the libs is always an overriding goal, began throwing up roadblocks to the vaccination program.
This had far-reaching consequences. As I’ve written before, the modern G.O.P. is more like an authoritarian political cult than a normal political party, so vaccine obstruction — not necessarily denunciation of the vaccines themselves, but opposition to any effort to get shots into people’s arms — became a loyalty test, a position you took to prove yourself a loyal Trumpist Republican.
Presumably, the politicians who made this calculation had no idea that reality would strike back this hard and this fast — that Florida would so quickly find itself with almost nine times New York’s rate of hospitalizations, that cities in Texas would find themselves virtually out of I.C.U. beds. But it’s almost impossible for them to change course. If Ron DeSantis were to admit the deadliness of his Covid mistakes, his political ambitions would be over.
So Covid denial has turned out to be even worse than climate denial. We’ve gone from cynical catering to corporate interests to aggressive, performative anti-rationality. And the right’s descent continues, with no bottom in sight.
This is clearly correct, and on the day to day pragmatic level the most important factor. But I think there’s something deeper and more disturbing happening here, that goes beyond “vaccination is good for the liberals, which means it must be opposed.”
What Krugman calls performative anti-rationality on the American right wing is no longer merely a tactic, to be embraced when politically convenient. The American right wing, and most especially its institutional manifestation as the Republican party, has now been taken over completely by its most irrationalist and radical reactionary elements.
These people have always been around, and are always an important factor in any right wing coalition. In America today, however, they have overwhelmed both the money men and the true believer libertarians, and genuinely taken over, to the point that the Republican party is now an authoritarian death cult, that is destroying liberal democracy, and, much more disturbingly, cutting into day to day corporate profit margins.
The radical reactionaries reject science, empiricism, evidence, and even simple logic on principle, even when doing so costs a lot of rich people a lot of cash money. This latter fact is probably the best hope we have of surviving the ongoing devolution of the Republican party into an authoritarian death cult dominated by eschatologically-minded religious lunatics: Eschatological religious lunacy eventually becomes bad for business, which is the one sin that America cannot forgive.
At the bottom of the Republican COVID craziness, which leads to the amazing spectacle of the governors of the nation’s largest red states banning public schools and even private businesses from taking anti-pandemic measures, is something that goes beyond owning the libs. It is the open embrace of anti-modern irrationalism for its own sake. This is what fascist ideology and fundamentalist religion have always had in common, which is why fascism, when it came to America, was always going to be a movement led by evangelical Protestants and reactionary Catholics.
So here they are, and here we are.