There’s an old song by The O’Jays that seems especially apropos to this moment. The refrain goes: “Those lies done caught up with you this time.”
The song was about a faithless lover getting her comeuppance. But it also works as a verdict on so-called conservatives in an age of looming pandemic.
At this writing, there have been, according to a New York Times database, 747 diagnosed cases of COVID-19 — caused by the novel coronavirus — in the United States; 26 of the afflicted have died. Meantime, the stock market has dropped like a boulder from a cliff, colleges are canceling classes, sports leagues are preparing to play in empty arenas. Internationally, 114,000 people have been stricken. All of Italy is on lockdown, Spain has shuttered every nursery school, high school and university in and around Madrid and a St. Patrick’s Day parade has been called off — in Dublin.
Those are the grim facts. But the view from inside the facts-resistant bubble that passes for conservatism these days is quite different.
If you live in there, you’ve heard Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient Rush Limbaugh assure you that the virus that has galvanized doctors around the world is really just “the common cold” weaponized to hurt Donald Trump. You’ve seen Rep. Matt Gaetz mock concerns over the virus by wearing a gas mask in the Capitol; he has since had to self-quarantine after a possible exposure. Meantime, King Liar himself, Trump, keeps doing what comes naturally.
He said a vaccine will be ready in just a few months. It won’t.
He said the number of Americans afflicted is going down. It isn’t.
He said anyone who needs a test can get one. They can’t.
He said that the World Health Organization gave “a false number” in predicting a global mortality rate of 3.4 percent. And on what basis did he question a respected international organization of medical professionals? Trump said he had a “hunch.”
Then there’s this recent tweet from writer Jelani Cobb of The New Yorker: “Overheard from the person in front of me on line at CPAC last week: ‘I don’t believe anything the CDC says about this virus. It’s full of deep staters who want to use this to create a recession to bring down the president.’” As it happens, it was at CPAC — the annual Conservative Political Action Conference — that Gaetz was apparently exposed.
You can’t make this stuff up. But that doesn’t stop right-wingers from trying.
It was in 2005 that Stephen Colbert coined the word “truthiness” to describe the then-new phenomenon of Americans prioritizing information they “felt” to be true over that which objectively was. Though restricted to no ideology, truthiness was much more common and — through a nexus of cable news, the internet and various integrity-free politicians — much more encouraged on the political right.
In 2005, the danger of this may have felt somewhat abstract — a decline in the quality of political discourse. But by 2016, when a North Carolina man fired an assault rifle inside a Washington pizzeria because he believed a debunked anti-Hillary Clinton conspiracy theory, it was already glaringly clear that “alternative facts” could have dangerous, real-world implications.
Now there is this. One wonders if it will be the breaking point; if, faced with direct risk to their own lives, conservatives will finally quit suckling at the teat of mass delusion. Let’s hope so, for all our sake. A virus, after all, respects no ideological borders, so the right wing’s refusal to respect reality puts everyone at risk.
With apologies to The O’Jays, those lies done caught up with us all.
Leonard Pitts’ e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.