Coronavirus: Common Cold or Bioweapon?

Well, neither. But Trump’s henchmen are trying to call it both at once.

Dear Reader (Especially the ever-vindicated Orb-touchers)

As a Fox News contributor, I can report from experience that harshly criticizing folks at the network is frowned upon. I am unaware of any policy about criticizing regular guests. But I suppose I’m about to find out. 

So I ask my friends at Fox: Please stop putting Jerry Falwell Jr. on TV. I spent most of my professional life defending the Christian right against what I believed—and largely still believe—to be unfair attacks (and I think David French’s work of sifting the wheat from chaff on such matters is one of The Dispatch’s most important contributions to the national conversation). 

But Falwell makes it so much more difficult. He’s a national embarrassment for both “Christians” and the “right”—never mind the Christian right. 

This morning he was on Fox and Friends to explain that classes will remain open at Liberty University to own the libs. He didn’t cover all of his greatest hits.  He didn’t say a Christian can’t condemn the maltreatment of children unless they started a business or "made payroll.” He didn’t compare Trump to King David or praise his man-of-the-people status that he attained by serving him Wendy’s cheeseburgers. And he didn’t repeat his claim that Trump is the Churchill of our times. His cabana boy didn’t come up at all. 

But he did run through some of the current chart toppers, and I’m not even counting his “majority of Virginians … by landmass” remarks. 

Falwell insisted that the news coverage of COVID-19 is overblown and strongly suggested that this was another way to get Trump since impeachment and “Article 25” (he meant the 25th Amendment, the one that allows for the president to be benched if he demonstrates an “Inability to discharge the Powers” of the office) didn’t work. He didn’t peddle the claim it’s just the common cold, but he did suggest it’s no worse than the flu and the hype is politically motivated to get Trump. But then, he segued to the idea, proffered by a “restaurant owner” he knows that COVID-19 could be a bioweapon engineered by the North Koreans. This is similar to the theorizing from Rush Limbaugh that the virus might simultaneously be the common cold and a “Chicom laboratory experiment.”

In short, if you are a fan of vintage Saturday Night Live skits, you might recognize this as the “Shimmer” of diseases: Both a nothing-burger bug the media is shamefully exploiting to “get Trump” and a sinister modern-day manifestation of the Yellow Peril’s effort to infect our precious bodily fluids. 

Of course, I suppose it could be both a floor wax and a dessert topping, but you have to wonder why the Chinese or the North Koreans (tomayto, tomahto, apparently) would be trying to weaponize the common cold in the first place. Or why they would create a disease that mostly kills the very old. Not to be glib, but a Logan’s Run virus is not the ideal weapon to unleash on your enemies. And if it was the North Koreans, why did they “attack” China first to get us? 

You can tell someone is flailing when they invoke two theories simultaneously that are—absent some heroic hypothesizing—entirely contradictory. 

Listening to clowns like Falwell, I’m reminded of computer hacking programs that just run through thousands of passwords until they stumble on the right one. Falwell just runs his mouth like a broken waste pipe at a cattle yard in the vain hope that some flotsam of bullsh*t catches on. 

But I’m here to tell you: Going around theorizing that this is a deadly bio weapon and/or the common cold is not what political pros call “consistent messaging.” 

But it is what medical professionals call incredibly irresponsible and dangerous. 

Bending the narrative.

In my first column this week, I wrote that the problem for Trump is that he is uniquely ill-suited for dealing with a crisis like this. He has certain political and media superpowers that have served him well in the past. Most of the challenges he’s faced over the last three years have been surprisingly amenable to his natural skill set of bluster, bullying, and B.S. More amenable than I would have predicted. 

But this is different. Despite the fact his uncle was a physicist, he doesn’t understand scientific issues well. As he demonstrated Wednesday night, he doesn’t have any natural instinct for how to reassure the country. As a result, I wrote, he is desperate to “squeeze a global outbreak into the same narrative structure that has sustained” him.

Trump’s henchmen.

To carry the superpower metaphor beyond where mature editors would let me go, a corollary to Trump’s powers is that he has many minions, like Falwell, eager to amplify his abilities: Attack those bringing to bear inconvenient facts, attack facts themselves as fake, focus on hypocrisy—real or alleged—as if it is a rebuttal to substantive charges, invoke Trump’s infallibility or unknowably brilliant strategic sense, conjure conspiracies that justify missteps, and deny or ignore missteps while focusing on those of others. 

The best defense of the objectively disgusting way so many voices on the right have responded to this pandemic is that they were victims of their own momentum. If you’ve had great success treating every problem like a nail, you can understand why you’d keep hammering. It’s conceivable that some people were just on a glide-path of their own inertia. 

This is not a particularly noble or admirable defense, but it is a human one. Man’s capacity to suspend disbelief in defense of a proven, serviceable, and remunerative narrative is well documented. 

But we’ve already passed the point of woeful irresponsibility and entered a realm that’s simply otherworldly. Even if the mainstream media behaved exactly the way Jerry Falwell & Co. wanted (which is impossible because they need the media to be the bogeyman), it wouldn’t change the fact that most of Europe is shutting down to deal with the virus. MSNBC didn’t scare China into building all those pop-up hospitals. The New York Times could spend all day attacking Joe Biden and praising Donald Trump, and the facts on the ground would remain the same. 

(Parenthetical Update: I caught Trump's Rose Garden press conference after this went to the editors. It was much better than his Oval Office address. I thought he misstated some things and had some petty and ridiculous answers during the Q&A. But if he had done something like this, in both tone and substance, Wednesday night he would have saved the country a lot of turmoil and himself a lot of problems. And if these options were wise and well-advised on Friday, why were they nowhere to be seen on Wednesday? Because, contrary to his constant claims of early action and smooth running processes, he’s still playing catch-up. That he needed to see a 10 percent overnight drop in the market to announce things that should have been announced days, weeks, or months ago, is not quite the stirring defense many are already spinning it as. )

When the grinder greets the baloney.

Postmodernists like to talk about the “Social construction of reality.” And sometimes they have more of a point than conservatives—including myself—have wanted to concede. Many of our ideas and conflicts are arguments about how we should perceive the world. That’s the underlying dynamic of much of the culture war—it’s an argument about how to describe reality. 

Part of Trump’s superpower is his ability to frame how we see reality. This ability makes him very dangerous to fellow Republicans who need the approval of his fans to win primaries. It makes his good favor very desirable to radio and TV hosts who need his fans for ratings. And so they join in the game of constructing a reality that becomes, in a way, self-fulfilling. 

As a result, smart people can actually be convinced that the same man who gave the worst nationally televised address since the invention of the television is a victim of bad staffing while simultaneously believing he is a brilliant manager and an even more brilliant communicator (“Stupid stock market! Be more reassured!). When things go well, it’s a direct result of his managerial and policy genius. When they go poorly, it’s because of the Deep State, the media, the globalists, and the rest of the Legion of Doom unfairly undermining him. Tails, Trump wins. Shut up, NeverTrumper.

But here’s the problem: The coronavirus doesn’t give a crap about any of this. The math is the math, the science is the science. And however terrible the New York Times or MSNBC may or may not have been on the issue of the Mueller probe, it doesn’t change the infection rate if we do nothing. Just ask the families of all those dead Italians. 

Sometimes the social construction of reality runs head-on into generic reality. I’m reminded how my wife once reviewed a book called The Frailty Myth in which the author argued that female “frailty” was a social construct. If women were raised to value physical strength and athleticism the way men are, they could bench press as much or run as fast as any man. The only problem with this theory was that it wasn’t true, and no matter how passionately you claimed otherwise you couldn’t bend actual reality to some contrived social reality.

The social reality Trump & Co. constructed isn’t powerful enough to paper over the underlying facts this time. 

And just to put a fine point on it: The Trump we see now is the same Trump we’ve seen all along. I’m not above saying “I told you so” because if I don’t no one else will and I’ve had to endure a lot of crap for saying it all this time. “To see what is in front of one's nose needs a constant struggle,” as Orwell said. And I’ve struggled a lot. 

The sad thing, for me, is that I thought being vindicated would be more fun. 

Biden vs. Trump.

In my Mittwoch Korrespondenz I warned how we should all get ready for an outbreak of Codger Hypocrisy Disease (COHID-20). The fight will not be about whose nominee is more corrupt or mentally unfit for office. That would be an utterly defensible argument. Rather, one side will claim that the other side’s candidate is entirely unfit for office while their own candidate is entirely fit. It’s going to spectacularly stupid. Reasonable observers, it seems to me, cannot deny Trump’s manifest defects nor can they deny Biden’s. They can minimize, rationalize or contextualize them. But if you can’t concede that both of them are deeply flawed, it seems to me you have partisan blinders on. Though I suppose if you deny that either of them are flawed, you’ve got a problem I am at a loss to come up with a description of. 

I personally believe that Trump is abnormal outside our average parameters, while Biden is abnormal within them—but I am open to contrary arguments. I’m also open to the argument that differences between the parties are more important than the differences between the men. But that’s a conversation for another day. 

Instead, I’d like to hear from you folks in the comments on the question: By what objective measure do you think one is better or worse than the other in terms of their mental and characterological shortcomings? Please try to keep it civil. 

Various & Sundry

Hey folks, we're still looking for an executive editor. If you're interested or have a good nomination, here are the specs.

I’ll be on ABC’s This Week this Sunday.

We had two fun episodes of The Remnant—both make for great listening while self-quarantining. The first episode was with my friend David Bahnsen. We covered everything from the market reaction to COVID-19 to the future of the conservative movement. On the second episode I talked to Ross Douthat about his new book, civilizational decay, and his newfound germophobia. 

We also released a new episode of The Dispatch Podcast which, according to feedback, was the best episode so far

Daughter update: Lovely Lucy—daughter of the Fair Jessica—has been living in Spain for most of the last year, spending her junior year of high school in Zaragoza, Spain. They’ve closed down the school, her program, and—thanks in part to Trump’s misstatements Wednesday night—we were told she had 48 hours to get home. As I write this, she’s en route over the Atlantic and I am simultaneously giddy to see her, relieved she’s getting out while the getting is good, and disappointed she’s ending the school year prematurely (she’ll have to finish coursework online). 

Canine update: So, things have been on edge at Chez Goldberg. The Fair Jessica went out to visit Lucy in Spain last week and then had to leave from there to her brother’s funeral. I couldn’t go for a work commitment that ended up getting canceled because of COVID-19, which is very frustrating. As often happens when the mater familias is absent, the animals were on edge. They all—with the exception of Ralph—demandmore and more of my attention and they get jealous of each other. The real problem is the longstanding cold war between Gracie and Zoë. The dingo doesn’t like to see me favoring the feline. And, I must say in the spirit of non-partisanship, Gracie is very good at trolling Zoë. She uses her dark arts to jump on surfaces Zoë cannot police and she quite deliberately walks toward Zoë’s food bowl and prized possessions in an effort to get a rise out of her. 

But Tuesday night tensions escalated, in part because I was absent myself until fairly late, which meant everyone was hungry not just for attention but for actual food. Gracie taunted Zoë at ground level inadvisably—it had something to do with Zoë going for Gracie’s treats—and Zoë growled and snapped at her. I have zero tolerance for that. Zoë is too big and too strong to allow even a hint of physical violence between them even if, as Zoë insists, Gracie started it. Also, as I learned from the early days after Pippa’s arrival, the only thing that Zoë truly respects is force. It was only after I grabbed Zoë and slammed her to the ground and held her there menacingly that she finally understood that Pippa was a member of the pack. So I did the same thing with Zoë this time. In fact, I yelled at her so loudly—I was very angry—that I nearly lost my voice (as you can tell on all of this week’s podcasts). Pippa was so frightened by the family drama she ran off to her kennel and hid there like I was a drunk dad taking off his belt. I didn’t hurt Zoë, but I made myself clear. She got the message, she sulked for the rest of the night, and slept by herself elsewhere. I found Gracie, and inspected her very closely. She was fine. Oh and Pippa’s waggle-gears are fully functional too. 

Things are mostlyback to normal now, except for the fact Gracie is still very angry with Zoë. If ZoZo gets close, Gracie hisses at her. She keeps her distance otherwise. I’ve had to move her treat dispenser thing to a table for the time being and there’s a general sense of disorder at treat time. I’m hoping the return of the Fair Jessica and (soon) Lovely Lucy will improve things even further. And we can get back to regular order.

And once again, being vindicated is less satisfying than I thought it would be. 

ICYMI

The week’s first Remnant, with return guest David Bahnsen

One word for Trump’s coronavirus response: Braggadocio

(Hump Day Epistle) What’s more worrisome, COVID or Boomer politicians?

The week’s second Remnant, with converted doomsday-prepper Ross Douthat

What’s in a name?

And now, the weird stuff

Key-shifting happy songs to sound vaguely terrifying

The comedic power of sound effects

Using bad means for good ends: Dog edition

One of the rarest, most expensive bourbons in the world has a ridiculous name

Tech nerds have clearly gone insane from too much "social distancing"

Epidemiologist says you'd need blood alcohol of ... 60 percent to kill COVID internally

Photograph of Donald Trump by Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images.