Donald Trump’s presidency has brought its fair share of partisan and ideological inversions: The Democrats are now the party of Russia-hawkishness, free trade, and, rhetorically at least, fiscal probity. Republicans, meanwhile, now back conditions-free confabs with Stalinist dictators like Kim Jong-un and pass federal budgets whose deficits top $1 trillion — and this was before the coronavirus crisis brought the economy to its knees.
A lot of this is simply politics of course — partisan flip-floppery is hardly a novel concept. But the shifts at play during the Trump era go deeper and far beyond the occasional inconsistency on a specific policy issue.
During the Trump presidency there has been a profound shift in sensibility among many of those who call themselves conservative. The coronavirus catastrophe, and the Trump administration’s inept response to it, has betrayed a mindset that, while not strictly speaking liberal, can hardly be considered conservative.
Conservatism has been associated with a hard-headed realism, if not outright dourness and pessimism. (There was a reason that John Derbyshire, the erstwhile National Review writer, titled his treatise on conservatism “We Are Doomed.”)
Yet when it came to the coronavirus, the president and his defenders embraced the kind of fact-free optimism that Voltaire satirized in “Candide” with the declaration by parody-Enlightenment philosopher Pangloss that we “live in the best of all possible worlds.”
On Jan. 24, as China locked down 60 million people to stop the spread of the newly emerging virus, Mr. Trump tweeted, “It will all work out well.” On Feb. 10, he said, “Looks like by April, you know, in theory, when it gets a little warmer, it miraculously goes away.” Later that month, while taking minimal action to prepare the country for the scourge, he promised, “It’s going to disappear. One day — it’s like a miracle — it will disappear.”
Pangloss would have been proud.
Promising miracles, of course, has been a hallmark of Mr. Trump’s approach to COVID-19. Now that April’s warmth has arrived and coronavirus cases and fatalities continue to multiply, he has moved onto promoting a miracle cure in the form of a drug used to treat lupus and malaria called hydroxychloroquine.
At a White House briefing Saturday, Mr. Trump not only touted hydroxychloroquine as a possible cure, but even suggested taking it as prophylactic against the virus. “What do you have to lose?” he asked. “Take it.”
Mr. Trump’s own FDA says there is no proof of hydroxychloroquine’s efficacy and has further reported a “shortage” of the drug for lupus and arthritis sufferers — a shortage Mr. Trump’s exhortation is certain only to intensify. And by the way, “what do you have to lose?” has seldom been a hallmark of conservative sensibility.
Reverence for tradition, and those who embody it — the elderly — has been, on the other hand. But then COVID-19 came along and all of a sudden society’s elders were treated as so much detritus.
As Italy suffered, Heather Mac Donald, the once perspicacious Manhattan Institute scholar, sniffed that “approximately 89% of Italy’s coronavirus deaths had been over the age of 70, those victims were already nearing the end of their life spans. They might have soon died from another illness.” Candace Owens, a political activist who calls herself conservative, saw “good news” in the numbers coming out of Italy — downplaying the pandemic threat because it has “the oldest population in Europe.”
Texas’s Republican lieutenant governor, Dan Patrick, went so far as to suggest avoiding social distancing altogether and getting back to work. “Those of us who are 70-plus, we’ll take care of ourselves,” Mr. Patrick said.
I can’t remember: Was it Edmund Burke or Russell Kirk who suggested that the moral imperative to stock shelves at Best Buy outweighed the lives of the old?
But perhaps the greatest betrayal of the ideology they profess to embody has been Mr. Trump and his administration’s utopian notion that they can simply will an end to the coronavirus crisis.
Vladimir Lenin thought he could transform an industrial society along radically egalitarian lines through the sheer force of will. Mao Zedong thought he could destroy traditional Chinese culture the same way. Even moderate liberals like America’s own Lyndon Baines Johnson thought they could eradicate poverty — a universal and persistent scourge throughout human history — through the sheer force of the federal government’s will.
Now Mr. Trump promises he can “reopen the country” and “restart the economy” simply because he wants it to be so. He’d “love to see” NFL stadiums packed this fall. So would I! But opening up depends on the eradication of the virus. The virus will not respond simply to the president’s commands.
Conservatism has been a force for restraint and prudence throughout much of human history. Maybe one day it will reemerge in the United States. That would truly be the “best of all possible worlds.”
• Ethan Epstein is editorial editor of The Washington Times. Contact him at email@example.com or on Twitter @ethanepstiiiine.
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