Paul Krugman: Paranoid politics is scarier than any coronavirus

Vice President Mike Pence, joined by President Donald Trump, pauses while speaking about coronavirus at the White House in Washington, Saturday, Feb. 29, 2020.(AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

We still don’t know how much damage COVID-19 — the coronavirus disease — will do, but it’s reasonable to be very concerned. After all, it appears to be highly transmissible, and it is probably a lot more lethal than ordinary flu.

But not to worry, say right-wing pundits and news organizations: It’s all a hoax, a conspiracy by the liberal media to make Donald Trump look bad. Administration officials and Trump himself have echoed their claims.

These claims are, of course, crazy. Among other things, COVID-19 is a global phenomenon, with major outbreaks ranging from South Korea to Italy. Are the South Korean and Italian media also part of a conspiracy to get Trump?

This craziness was, however, entirely predictable to anyone who has been following right-wing politics. It’s just the latest battle in a long-running war on truth, on the very idea that there exists an inconvenient objective reality.

In the case of COVID-19 the usual suspects were, in part, engaged in projection. After all, they themselves engaged in a concerted effort to politically weaponize the 2014 Ebola outbreak against Barack Obama, whose response was in reality smart and effective. By the way, in the aftermath of that outbreak, the Obama administration put in place measures to deal with future pandemics — all of which Trump scrapped.

But as I said, virus denial is just the latest battle in a long-term war on truth.

Remember, conservatives have spent decades denying the reality of climate change, insisting that it’s a gigantic hoax perpetrated by a vast international scientific conspiracy. And as the signs of climate catastrophe multiply, from wildfires in Australia to drought in California, climate denial has only strengthened its grip on the GOP. On the eve of the 2018 midterms, a survey found 73% of Republican senators denying the scientific consensus that man-made climate change is happening.

Or consider how many on the right reacted after their dire predictions of hyperinflation under Obama failed to pan out — not by admitting that they were wrong, but by insisting that the numbers were being cooked. And I’m not talking about fringe figures, I’m talking about people conservatives consider leading intellectuals.

Now, this kind of conspiracy theorizing isn’t exclusively the province of the right. You can, for example, see some similar tendencies in Bernie Sanders’ team. It was dismaying to find a senior Sanders adviser declaring that all those disagreeing with proposals for a wealth tax — which, by the way, I support — “are the types of groups and academics that are funded by the powers that be, the establishment, the billionaire class.”

The thing is, while corruption by big money does happen — it’s the main force keeping zombie ideas alive — it doesn’t lie behind every policy dispute. Sometimes serious analysts just disagree. And it’s worrying that some of the Sanders people can’t tell the difference.

But the right is where the paranoid style goes hand in hand with real power, and can do real damage. Indeed, it can be deadly.

This is obvious when it comes to climate change, where conspiracy-theory-fueled denial plays a big role in blocking action, and hence poses an existential threat to civilization.

At first, it wasn’t clear whether right-wing paranoia was also hampering the response to COVID-19. But recent reporting makes it clear that one major reason the U.S. has lagged far behind other countries in testing for the coronavirus — an essential step in containing its spread — was that Trump didn’t want to believe that there was a crisis. After all, recognizing that we face a serious problem might hurt his beloved stock market.

This desire to minimize the danger to the market distorted the whole government response to the outbreak. Some have drawn parallels to the runup to the Iraq War, when the Bush administration’s evident desire to be given a rationale for war skewed intelligence toward seeing nonexistent weapons of mass destruction.

In today’s case, analysis was skewed toward not seeing a threat — and the skew was enabled, in part, by claims that all the evidence that there was, indeed, a threat was a hoax perpetrated by the liberal news media.

And there is little evidence, even now, that the Trump administration is taking the reality of COVID-19 seriously. While the administration is finally asking for additional funds to fight the disease, the sums it has suggested seem grotesquely inadequate.

Trump allies are already denouncing his critics for “politicizing” the outbreak; Donald Trump Jr. has accused Democrats of wanting to see millions die. But it was actually Trump who politicized the virus, by downplaying the danger.

It’s true that Democrats are criticizing Trump’s actions, suggesting that his refusal to accept responsibility for, well, anything is putting America at risk. Last time I checked, however, criticizing America’s leaders was still legitimate.

But that’s the thing about political paranoia: You see even the most normal criticism as part of a sinister conspiracy. And the fact that this kind of paranoia has infected our ruling party is scarier than any virus.

Paul Krugman

Paul Krugman, Ph.D., winner of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics, is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.