It has been a disorienting few weeks for anyone interested in the relationship between knowledge and power. For months now, since the start of the pandemic, Americans have experienced the brutal consequences of an administration deeply distrustful of expertise. As we tracked the virus’ spread, and watched the death toll mount–especially in our most vulnerable communities and at-risk populations–many wondered: why are some of the most powerful people in the country so indifferent to science, and by extension, to human life?
At the end of May, Americans witnessed a still more vivid horror in the video of George Floyd’s killing at the hand of four Minneapolis police officers. In subsequent weeks, our streets were rightly filled with protests, as well as riots and more police violence. Of course, the reversal concerning public life was jarring, and led to more bewilderment. What about the pandemic? What happened to science’s authority? Does any of that matter anymore? With Trump set to start-in on campaign rallies again, the questions linger.
There are serious discussions to be had here–about racism and police brutality, the politicization of knowledge, the civic imperatives of scientists and experts, and how good political decisions are made. But before conceding too much to charges of liberal hypocrisy and the destruction of scientific credibility in the wake of the George Floyd protests–charges that are widespread on the right, and have taken shape across the media landscape since the protests began–it’s worth recollecting the broader context. After all, the Trump-supporting right has a distinctive set of ideas regarding the proper relationship between expertise and power. Sophisticated thinkers in Trump’s orbit made these plain throughout the coronavirus crisis.
When it comes to the pandemic, elite intellectuals on the right leveraged two particular insights to lend cover and legitimacy to the president. The first has to do with the uncertain nature of science, and the second is about the exceptional character of political action and statecraft. Taken together, these insights amount to the highbrow version of Trump’s perennial claims to political genius. But whether it’s Trump, or Laura Ingraham, or Peter Navarro, or Richard Epstein, the basic thought is always the same: I may not be a doctor or epidemiologist, but the science is uncertain, and I’ve got that certain je-ne-sais-quoi that gives me a superior understanding.
Unlike with full-on conspiracy theories, these clever arguments work, when they do, because they contain real kernels of truth. Science does need to be interpreted by political actors, after all, and some people have better political judgment than others. But a closer look at the most sophisticated versions of these claims can help us to see how little truths are sometimes put in the service of much bigger lies. This is a set of ideas that denigrates expertise and professes respect for dynamic political action, but which ends up empowering ignorance and denigrating civic virtue. As we form our judgements about ongoing events, we need to keep this stark reality in mind.
Truth and uncertainty
“Maybe you can, maybe you can’t. Again, I say, maybe you can, maybe you can’t.”Donald Trump
“There are numerous studies on this… Doctors disagree about things all the time.”Peter Navarro, Trump adviser
Statements showcasing the uncertain character of knowledge often serve to discredit science and expertise, but they echo a skepticism that real experts share. The scientific endeavor is, for all of its successes and achievements, complicated, multifaceted, and often quite fraught. It is the nature of modern inquiry to push forward into uncertain terrain, and it is always subject to critique and revision. Late in the 19th Century, Max Weber put it this way, “Every scientific ‘fulfilment’ raises new ‘questions’; it asks to be ‘surpassed’ and outdated.”
Furthermore, scientific disciplines operate on different dimensions of a given question, so experts often talk past one another. As Professor Sheila Jasanoff explains in a recent interview about the pandemic: “Someone who understands the dynamics of what happens inside a family when you’re cooped up together for week upon week—that person is not going to tell you very much about how a virus acts inside a body, or how quickly contagion spreads if you don’t self-isolate.” Back in 2000, Daniel Sarewitz speaks of a similar phenomenon, the “excess of objectivity,” arguing that “science is sufficiently rich, diverse, and Balkanized to provide comfort and support for a range of subjective, political positions on complex issues.” At bottom, science is always a human activity. Scientific evidence can be used in the service of false ideas, like biological racism, and, of course, some scientists are just plain corrupt.
Throughout the pandemic, the Covid-questioners exploited the all-too-human character of science to undercut the authority of epidemiologists and policy-makers (as others have observed, there is much here that resembles the climate-denier playbook). From the pages of The American Mind, we heard about the “hazy scientific evidence” surrounding mask-wearing, and learned that expert analysis “is often in dispute and uncertain,” to the point that “all “sides” arguing right now use models and numbers as they wish.” In First Things, we heard about how “expertise provides no immunity against the desire for power,” and that the “politics of science” is “no more innocent than regular politics.” At the height of the anti-lockdown protests, Sohrab Ahmari wrote about how “They Blinded Us With Science.” According to his “History of a Delusion,” most people in our “post-Enlightenment” culture believe that science explains everything, and it has taken Covid-19 to show them otherwise. “There is nothing quite like a sudden and unforeseen pandemic to puncture the confidence of confident men,” he writes with satisfaction.
None of this will surprise anyone who follows elite conservative thinking, where disdain for mainstream experts (or “liberalocrats,” or the “technocratic elite,” or “urban-gentry liberals”) is something of a sacramental duty. But in each case we can see a distortion. It’s true, I think, that scientism (the belief that science will solve everything) is blinkered, but that doesn’t make everyone a “post-Enlightenment” ideologue. Few indeed are immune to power’s allure, but that doesn’t make everyone equally likely to pursue it. And it’s true that science involves uncertainty, and epidemiological modeling notoriously so, but that does not preclude the possibility of arriving at meaningful agreement and consensus.
Compared with most social and political phenomena (the climate crisis, say, or racism, police brutality, and widespread civic unrest), the pandemic is relatively concrete and tangible. Daniel Sarewitz is hardly one to flatter the scientific community, but even he put it like this, back in March: “COVID-19 is a hard problem, but not a complex one. We know what COVID-19 is because we see it around us.” This does not make dealing with a pandemic simple. It does mean that experts understood, at the outset of the crisis and along the way, which concrete actions could have alleviated the devastation caused by the virus.
Trump’s intellectual defenders on the right waved away this knowledge and minimized these options, further eroding public trust in science and good government.
From denial to political triumphalism
There’s a little bit of a God complex… They’re all about science, science, science, which is good, but sometimes there’s a little bit less of a consideration of politics when maybe there should be.Senior administration official, speaking to The Washington Post
With the climate crisis, science talk on the right begins and ends with denialism; with Covid-19, though, it’s more like a throat-clearing exercise. Once the scientists, technocrats, and policy wonks have been dismissed, the real heroes are welcomed onstage – the hypothetical Statesmen, Rulers, and Mensch who will lead us into greatness. Overall, the message among intellectual elites on the right tends to be quite hopeful: we need not attend to elite experts because there’s something out there that’s way better. Science is dreadfully uncertain, but politics doesn’t have to be.
Pierre Manent gives us a textbook example of this mode of thinking in an alarmist interview that appeared in First Things at the end of April. Manent is sometimes thoughtful about liberalism and modernity, and was very critical of the European lockdowns. When the interviewer leadingly suggests that politics should stand “on its own,” so as to “triumph” above expertise, Manent takes the opportunity to expound upon what real leadership – in contradistinction to the European reality – would look like: “It is up to elected officials to make decisions because they are the ones who are in charge of the whole, that is, the body politic; it is up to them to take all parameters into account and to envision all the consequences of their actions. Aristotle was right: Politics is the queen of the sciences!” Having denigrated the actual politicians in charge, during a deadly pandemic, Manent appeals to this higher, classical notion of politics as an alternative. The prudent Aristotelian would have acted differently, enjoying a more synoptic view; they would not have deferred to the technocrats.
I do not begrudge Manent his concerns about civil liberties. What is more, I find Aristotle’s insights into political action highly appealing. Aristotle suggests that political knowledge is the most authoritative (or “architectonic”) kind of knowledge because it has the biggest scope, and can do the most good for human beings. It’s a high-minded and dynamic depiction of political agency–one that makes a clear case for the power of synoptic understanding, and likely to speak to anyone frustrated by bureaucracies, gridlock, and wonks. It’s always worth reminding ourselves that political actors have to make challenging, impactful decisions in a way that scientists and technocrats typically do not. Aristotle teaches that good political thinking is flexible: decisions and judgments must be made with partial knowledge, as circumstances change.
But none of it is an excuse to scrap the science. There is a universe of difference between “I hear and appreciate all of these insights, and will make my decision keeping all of these important considerations in mind” and “This information is complicated and uncertain, so I’m just going to go with my gut.” There’s a world of difference between thoughtful incorporation of trusted information, and the hasty rejection of it. And there’s a vast chasm separating fair-minded political critique from sophistry that gives cover to idiocy.
I don’t think Manent falls into the latter category. However, it’s hard to reconcile how a thoughtful person wouldn’t understand why dramatic–if imperfect–action was a necessary response to the Covid crisis. When it comes to Trump’s defenders here at home, however, it’s hard to be charitable. Like Manent, the most sophisticated among them have been eager to discuss the proper role of the statesman in times of pandemic. They all seem to agree that science and technocratic expertise don’t contribute much to that role.
Among the clearest examples of this anti-intellectual view of statesmanship come from The Claremont Institute (the group that published Michael Anton’s “The Flight 93 Election,” and has been giving intellectual succour to Trump ever since). Writing in the Institute’s flagship publication, the Claremont Review of Books, Professor Charles R. Kesler has spoken of Trump in terms befitting a high-level statesman, and speaks positively of the president’s dislike for “the airs and claims of experts, detached from and above the subjects of their experiments.” Early in the pandemic, Matthew Peterson – the Institute’s VP for education – showed high hopes for Trump’s pandemic leadership precisely because the president is unbound by “calcified ideological frameworks” and willing to flout conventional expertise. Writing in American Mind – the institute’s lesser publication, Peterson declares that this is “A Time for Statesmanship.” He bemoans America’s lack of statesmanship in terms that recall Manent’s anti-technocratic gambit (“We don’t believe in statesmanship anymore, really. We don’t know what that is. But “data-driven decision making” can’t substitute for it, or evade politics in the broadest sense”). Then, with a gesture to Machiavelli (“leaders harness fortuna”), he describes his ideal type of political man. We need someone with the “competence, courage, and vision to lead us decisively to victory.” Only Trump, Peterson concludes, can “bring us into a new century of greatness”–and eventually he will, we learn,“because he must.”
(Last week the noble leaders of The Claremont Institute took it upon themselves to pronounce that “America is Not Racist.” That is just a lie peddled by elites who are determined to destroy the country.)
And the gentlemen at Claremont aren’t alone in their high hopes for Trump’s performance during the pandemic. Victor Davis Hanson was enthusiastic about the president’s potential in the crisis – again, precisely because of his skepticism of expertise. In March Hanson remarked that the president ought to model himself on the ancients, and make a display of his “terrific strategic foresight” to defeat the coronavirus. Hanson said: “Trump must have the right information but also the instincts to determine which expert advice is suspect and which is inspired, and which orthodox recommendation is wrong and which unorthodox alternative is right.” In a more serious article for First Things, Nathan Pinkoski writes about what true political decision-making should entail. Pinkoski worries that “managerial experts” lack “an adequate understanding of the hierarchy of human goods.” He counsels deference to those “non-managerial, non-expert leaders” who hold political office, and therefore provide “a more integrated account of the good, one that is based on wisdom, not expertise.” We should trust the political leaders, not the experts, since they are the ones with real values and wisdom.
There is a lot to say here – about policy-making, the appropriate role of contentious views, different kinds of political virtue, and wishful thinking. Suffice it to say that Trump’s Covid-19 response did not live up to these vaunted expectations.
From triumphalism to fatalism
It is not hard to imagine what responsible, energetic American leadership through the Covid-19 crisis would have looked like. It would have begun with a leader who had listened to epidemiologists’ warnings and started to prepare the country for a potential health crisis back in January. A responsible person would have been upfront about the problems that lockdowns pose for civil liberties in free societies. She would have moved early to protect vulnerable populations, as well as the 2020 elections. A good, respectable leader would understand that politics, the economy, and the pandemic are intertwined, and so would have sought ways to reopen that maximally protect people’s health and freedoms. Trump’s elite entourage is right that this would have required her to have great foresight, courage, and energy, and I’ll be the first to admit that it’s unfair to hold our president up to such a fantastical imaginary ideal. But it’s helpful to know, in a concrete way, that things might have gone quite differently, and how.
In the end, Trump’s elite enablers understood that he isn’t a perfect vessel, and so they dodged and hedged their bets. They did this by staying quiet, or by returning to the theme of uncertainty and indeterminacy – not only in science, but also now in political and metaphysical affairs. Peterson made sure to note that “Big decisions are hard because they are risky—and their outcomes will be messy regardless of what is decided.” Princeton historian Allen C. Guelzo suggested that it was unreasonable to expect Trump to have much of a role in the pandemic at all, since some of his predecessors didn’t exert themselves about such things. For a while, Professor Hanson was convinced that America’s approach to the pandemic was working. One month later, though, he was blaming America’s high-level experts for all kinds of confusion, and soon was putting the onus for recovery squarely on the public: “Americans must master their fears of the virus and dare to go back to work.” In this, he echoed the brutal fatalism of R. R. Reno, who warned early on against an “ill-conceived crusade against human finitude and the dolorous reality of death.” So much for political virtue or statesmanship. Que sera sera.
Today, we face 115,000 dead souls – a number that, if more Americans had listened to the president’s instincts instead of their own good sense, could have been far higher, and which continues to rise. As any sensible person must acknowledge, we are likely to see new spikes in cases as a result of the massive protests that have roiled the country. But that doesn’t mean that liberals and leftists have suddenly rejected science and expertise. For one thing, the civil protests have launched an agonized but good-faith discussion among scientists and in the media about the interplay of scientific expertise, human values, and political action. This is an entirely necessary conversation that parallels ongoing debates throughout civil society about the moral valence of modern (typically “neutral”) professional life.
More importantly, the protests themselves – massive, mostly peaceful protests, in every state, and around the world – have been a global exercise in the kind of dynamic, political reasoning that the intellectual right is constantly professing to admire. While there has been destruction and violence – by rioters as well as the police – mostly we have seen a powerful expression of political solidarity and a moving call to justice. Meanwhile, today’s right is so entranced by their caricature of coddled, data-obsessed liberals that they could not see the protesters for what they are: not a bunch of flip-flopping technocrats, but civic-minded people taking discernable risks in the fight for a better, antiracist future. Similarly, the right’s views on political authority are so fusty, authoritarian, and delusional, that they can hardly conceive of free-thinking people making real political judgments of their own.
This is a worldview in which experts are reviled and authoritarians coddled, a way of thinking that regularly pits raw force against truth, against knowledge, and against our equal freedoms. It’s a universe where lying projections of MAGA greatness and real state-sanctioned violence are prized more highly than the informed actions of a free-thinking citizenry.
It’s closed off from what is best in politics. Don’t fall for it now.