One of the challenges faced by Republican NeverTrumpers is whether to suggest that the current president is an anomaly in their party or to acknowledge that the seeds of this fiasco were planted long ago. As Trump mangles this country’s response to the coronavirus, that question can at least be partially addressed by how leaders from previous administrations are responding to the crisis.
Bill Bennett has often been described as one of the “big brains” of the Republican Party. He served as Secretary of Education under Ronald Reagan and as Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy under George H.W. Bush. Following those positions, Bennett positioned himself as a national arbiter on questions of morality, trafficking in many of the same themes that have animated Christian nationalists for decades. Bennett’s hypocrisy in that arena became obvious when his gambling addiction was exposed.
None of that has stopped Bennett from being heralded in right wing media as a Republican thought-leader. During a recent appearance on Fox News, he pontificated about our response to the coronavirus.
Bill Bennett: Now they say 60,000 people will die. 61,000 is what we lost to the flu in 2017. Now we all regret the loss of 61,000 people if that’s what it turns out to be … we’re gonna have fewer fatalities from this, for this we scared the hell out of the American people. pic.twitter.com/juxrriQjt9
— Lis Power (@LisPower1) April 13, 2020
The most explosive thing Bennett said during that clip was to claim that what we are experiencing is not a pandemic, something even Trump has admitted and Brian Kilmeade felt the need to correct.
That interview was based on an article Bennett wrote with Seth Leibsohn for RealClearPolitics. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to identify the fallacy they used to make an argument against the mitigation strategies that have been employed during the coronavirus crisis.
Is it too much to ask for some perspective with numbers we do know about, numbers which have never shut down our country, much less a church or synagogue, much less entire industries; numbers which have never restricted travel or put this nation into one big frenzy? In any given month in America, we lose about 54,000 Americans to heart disease; 50,000 to cancer; 14,000 to asthma, bronchitis, and emphysema; 12,000 to stroke; 10,000 to Alzheimer’s; 7,000 to diabetes; 5,600 to drug overdoses; and 4,700 to influenza and pneumonia. Since February, in America, coronavirus: 9,500…Those deaths give us over 157,000 deaths a month. Given all that is being done about one cause of death, COVID-19, it turns out this is a very advantaged disease, indeed.
None of those 157,000 deaths per month are the result of an infectious disease, which is the glaring difference that exposes their straw-man fallacy. The idea of instituting social distancing to combat heart disease, cancer, or diabetes is, of course, absurd. But Bennett and Leibsohn don’t want you to actually think about what they’re saying. You are supposed to simply swallow it whole as the kind of “truthiness” that inspired Stephen Colbert back in 2005.
What is most interesting is that, while decrying the “elites” and lauding Trump’s instincts, Bennett and Leibsohn dot their piece with words like “maleficently” and “immuration,” which are a blatant attempt to house their arguments in words that sound intellectual. Bennett’s stock in trade has always been to come off as someone who is smarter and more moral than the peons he is addressing. That is precisely how he developed a reputation for being a big brain in the Republican Party.
As Bennett and Leibsohn write, they view the efforts of “elitists” to mitigate the spread of coronavirus as an attempt to “kill the heart and soul of our country.” What we have are two conservatives making a post-truth argument in order to further the one thing that has always been a priority for leaders of the Republican Party: free-flowing capitalism. Donald Trump might be more blatant in his mendacity than people like Bill Bennett. But the intent and message are the same.