Why the “Herd Immunity” Strategy Was So Appealing

Last Wednesday, Politico shared internal emails from Paul Alexander, a top Trump appointee to the office of Health and Human Services, who, on July 4th, urged his bosses to adopt a “herd immunity” pandemic strategy (emphasis added):

“There is no other way, we need to establish herd, and it only comes about allowing the non-high risk groups expose themselves to the virus. PERIOD… Infants, kids, teens, young people, young adults, middle aged with no conditions etc. have zero to little risk….so we use them to develop herd…we want them infected…

A spokesman for the HHS said that Alexander’s urging “absolutely did not” shape department strategy, and that may be true. But to say that the ideas he was pushing did not shape the overall strategy of significant parts of the federal government is demonstrably false. The message from the White House from the moment that we knew COVID-19 had reached our fair shores has been remarkably consistent: There is no problem, go about your business as usual.

Trump’s assortment of lackeys, acolytes, and toadies in both politics and media quickly picked up that self-same message and ran with it, disseminating it to the extent of their own reach.

There’s a reason, despite the strident warnings of the best infectious disease experts in the world, that the so-called “herd immunity” strategy was and is so appealing to a certain segment of the population. It basically means that they don’t have to do a damn thing.

Nothing hard is required of them or anyone they care about. It’s a path that places all of us at the (nonexistent) mercy of the virus, eschewing any sense of responsibility or culpability along the way.

This abomination of a strategy rests upon the idea that those who have decided to implement it, and those who willingly go along with it, will be insulated from its effects — and that those who take the brunt of it were expendable to begin with. Furthermore, it’s dependent on the premise that we already know everything we need to know about this virus, while simultaneously using the vast number of unknowns as shields against accountability.

And really, it’s so easy! All you have to do is practice a little “never mind.”

Never mind that there are real world consequences for real people. Never mind that, as this is a novel virus, we still don’t know what kind of long-term effects it can have. The ones we already know about are pretty alarming.

Never mind that it’s nearly impossible for the average at-risk person to adequately isolate themselves from this disease if it’s running rampant through the rest of the population.

Never mind that, while most people who become infected survive, a number of people become sick enough to require hospital care. Never mind that, even if we had enough hospital space for everyone, it still represents an untenable burden on our health care providers.

Never mind that, as being overweight is considered a risk factor for COVID-19, upwards of 40% of American adults are therefore classified as “at risk.”

Never mind that, even though the virus goes easier on kids, children by necessity must come into close, frequent contact with adults — some of whom are “at-risk” individuals.

Never mind that spreading the virus encourages it to mutate, thereby leading to a greater number of different strains… thereby making it more difficult to ultimately treat. Never mind that we have multiple confirmed cases of reinfection.

While we may not have gone whole hog for the misnamed “herd immunity” strategy here in the U.S., we’ve had enough people actively or passively pushing it that we’ve seen some of its effects, and they’re not pretty. Hundreds of thousands are dead. Many more are suffering from organ damage, nerve damage, and/or cardiovascular damage, some of which is occurring in ways we can’t yet treat or even understand.

The degree of permanence of this damage is unknown — it may take these people months or years to recover, if they ever can at all. What we know from our last major coronavirus outbreak, though, isn’t good. According to the WHO, studies have shown that in the aftermath of the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreak of 2003, there was “persistent and significant impairment of exercise capacity and health status in survivors of SARS over 24 months,” and that, “[h]ealth workers who had SARS experienced even more marked adverse impact.” Moreover, “40% of people recovering from SARS still had chronic fatigue symptoms 3.5 years after being diagnosed.”

And never mind that many of the people who are reporting long covid symptoms are among those who had “mild to moderate” cases. Never mind, too, that “mild to moderate” here doesn’t mean you’ve got the sniffles and a sore throat for the weekend. It only means that your case isn’t so bad as to warrant hospitalization.

Through indulging in this extensive game of “never mind,” active or passive proponents of so-called “natural herd immunity” have made things very difficult for anyone who does not want themselves or their loved ones to be numbered among the seriously ill or the dead. We get in the way, you see, of the “just go back to normal, everything will be fine” mentality, for the simple fact that, to the best of our respective abilities, we aren’t going back to normal. We’re staying home. We’re not eating out. We’re not going out.

This messes up the narrative, and so we must be punished for it. When we wear masks and keep our distance, we’re “weak” and “fearful.” If we ask others to do so, then we’re “selfish,” or “inconsiderate,” and need to mind our own business. If we pull our children out of school and keep them home, we’re perpetuating abuses against them. If we isolate from family members, we must want them to be lonely. If we stay home from church, then we must not be very faithful. And then, of course, even if we do as many of these things as we can, if we were to still catch it because we haven’t gone full hermit-in-the-woods, we know that the very people pointing and sneering at us will be first in line to tell us that it’s all our fault.

Do you see? Do you see how this “strategy” coarsens and degrades us as a people? How it encourages people to view those weaker than themselves not as fellow citizens worthy of protection, but as annoyances and inconveniences to be ignored or gotten rid of? Setting aside for a moment the appalling cost in lives and suffering that we have seen thus far, think about what it does to the souls of the people who have been pushing for such measures, and to those others who have chosen to trust that their leaders know what they’re doing.

It is, at its heart, “might makes right” as public health policy. That should give everyone pause.

A common complaint against virus mitigation measures is that we, as a free people, are not responsible for the health and well-being of those around us. This is true: we are not, no more than we as individuals are responsible for making sure that every other car on the road is in working order and has a competent driver.

But wearing a mask, washing your hands, and social distancing aren’t about being responsible for your neighbor’s health. They’re about doing your best to ensure that you yourself are not an active hazard to the people around you. And this, just like following the rules of the road when you’re behind the wheel of a vehicle, is your responsibility.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that there were 36,096 traffic fatalities in the United States in 2019. Those who wish to behave as though COVID-19 is no big deal will point to such statistics and tell you that we, as a people, engage in risky endeavors every day. Thus, going about our business during a pandemic is no different.

What they will fail to acknowledge, however, is the many rules and laws we have on the books to make something like driving as safe as possible. We have lines painted on the roads to designate who is to drive where and in what direction. We have signs, we have traffic lights, we have speed limits. We have laws against driving while impaired. We have seat belts and airbags and crumple zones and car seats.

Imagine for a moment that the United States saw a sudden, significant uptick in traffic fatalities because a group of people decided out of the clear blue that the rules no longer applied to them. Condemnation would be swift, vehement, and pervasive. Anyone positing the theory that those of us who wished to remain safe should just avoid the roads would be rightfully pilloried.

It may be true, broadly speaking, that a certain number of accidents due to things like human error and weather conditions are unavoidable. That doesn’t excuse anyone from making the situation more dangerous by conscious choice.

The same principle holds in this pandemic. The virus will do what nature programmed it to do: if it finds itself in a host, it will use that host’s cells to replicate itself. That’s what it does, and there’s nothing we can do about that. We cannot reprogram it, nor negotiate with it. We also can’t intimidate or bluster it into submission. What we can do, however, is to take certain basic steps to avoid becoming its vector.

This isn’t a call to be your brother’s keeper — it is a call to love your neighbor as yourself.

From a historical perspective, we as a people have had it amazingly good for longer than most of us have been alive. Our food comes from the store, our water comes from the tap, our garbage goes to the dump, and our waste gets flushed away. Our fabric is woven or knitted by machines, our homes are climate-controlled, and our transportation can span miles in minutes (or whole continents in a matter of hours). Our favorite artists can, via photos and recordings, entertain us at our whim. Medical conditions that were crippling or deadly in our grandparents’ lifetimes are now curable or manageable. Even our wars are fought far away, in places most of us rarely if ever think of.

In short, we are not, as a people, used to hard things happening to us, at least not on this sort of a scale. Even with vaccines on the way (which is amazing), we still have several months between now and their broad deployment. In that time, we need to do the hard things — many of which, from that same historical perspective, aren’t even that hard. And we do them because we care about those who are at higher risk than we ourselves are.

It’s what civilized people do.




Casting Responsibility as Fear… to Own the Coronavirus

The other day, I was looking for something on my family’s wall calendar (yes, the Dalys still use a wall calendar), and came across an old event on March 15th of this year. It was a birthday party for one of my 13-year-old daughter’s schoolmates — a party my daughter had been looking forward to for weeks, because it was going to be at an indoor trampoline park, and lots of her other friends were invited.

I remember the occasion well, because it was quickly approaching at a time when anyone paying even moderate attention to the news understood that the COVID-19 pandemic had reached America, and was moving through our country at an alarming pace.

Here in Colorado, an infected tourist who’d flown in from Italy had been identified as patient zero in a major outbreak unfolding in the high country, while separate cases were popping up throughout other parts of the state. Our governor had already declared a state of emergency, and President Trump had recently addressed the nation about the spiraling threat.

You might recall that the White House speech Trump made was an absolute mess. In announcing what the federal government was doing to manage the crisis, the president botched the details of four new policies (including on travel restrictions). The result was widespread confusion among Americans at home and abroad. It certainly didn’t help that just two days earlier, Trump was still grossly downplaying the situation and contradicting the public warnings of his health experts, insisting on Twitter that the coronavirus was no more dangerous than the common flu (a statement we now know he knew to be false more than a month earlier).

Still, one would think that soaring infection numbers and a President of the United States somberly advising Americans (from the Oval Office no less) to social distance, practice good hygiene, avoid large gatherings, stay at home when they’re sick, avoid nonessential travel, and support school closings, would have served as a wake-up call to the country.

Sadly, it wasn’t. To my disbelief, the trampoline park (a germ fest for children and adults even when there isn’t a pandemic) remained open, the party went on as scheduled, and of the 12 girls who were invited to the celebration, mine was the only one whose parents wouldn’t let her go. It was the first time during this health crisis that, in the interest of keeping people safe, I broke my daughter’s heart. It wouldn’t be the last. Heck, it wouldn’t even be the last that week, as we cancelled our family’s Spring Break plans as well.

The mindset of too many others reminded me of a book title I’d seen featured prominently on Barnes & Noble shelves, a few years ago, when I was in the middle of a book tour: The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck. I’ve never bothered to research what the book is actually about, but the mantra seemed applicable to the situation.

I wasn’t all that concerned about myself at the time (though at 47, I’d probably have a harder struggle with the disease than many others). It was the experts’ warnings to those with pre-existing conditions that had me particularly worried — worried about my family, and anyone else we came into contact with.

Longtime readers may recall that my teen-aged son, who’s been prone to pneumonia throughout his life, had a serious battle with scoliosis a few years back; he won it, but the experience left his lung capacity at a permanent 75%. My wife was a relatively recent breast cancer survivor. My parents and parents-in-law were in their 80s. Even people I’d never met, and knew nothing about, deserved my family’s consideration for their health.

I figured my view was one of common sense, and that before long, there would be a national consensus on the importance of taking (at minimum) reasonable, easy measures to help mitigate the virus. But as the weeks went on, I was continually astonished by just how cavalierly a lot of people were still taking the crisis. Social distancing just wasn’t something a lot of people were interested in, despite the dire warnings. And whenever I’d go to the grocery store, most shoppers wouldn’t wear masks.

I understood the confusion very early on. The CDC and other high-ranking health officials devalued masks as an effective mitigation tool, doing so because they had supply concerns for front-line medical workers. I believe, as I’ve written in the past, that this deception was a big mistake. But by early April, the CDC was recommending that everyone cover their face when out among others.

One didn’t have to fully understand the proven science behind the effort to recognize the prudence of covering one’s nose and mouth to blunt a deadly virus that is transmitted through people’s noses and mouths. Additionally, donning a mask or bandana for limited periods of time shouldn’t have been that huge of an ask or inconvenience, especially when it would facilitate a faster and safer re-opening of our economy.

Instead, refusing to comply with that basic measure became a badge of honor to many people — an act of defiance against the intellectual elites of the medical world. It was, and continues to be, perhaps the stupidest culture battle of my lifetime.

For example, the county I live in, for a while, had the highest COVID-19 infection rate in the entire state. And yet, back in July, a few thousand of its citizens decided they’d had enough:

What’s particularly egregious is that such demonstrations of not giving a f*ck have been inexplicably and unforgivably fueled and legitimized by the President of the United States and his enablers.

It takes a special level of depravity for the leader of our country to casually work to discredit the simplest, cheapest, and most effective device we currently have for mitigating this deadly virus. And yet, that’s what Trump has done — time after time — and continues to do so while shaping a stigma of weakness and fearfulness around the practice.

Also depraved: the ignoring of his health experts’ emphatic warnings (and his administration’s own guidelines) not to hold large, in-person events, where social distancing and mask wearing are neither required nor even encouraged. But the president has taken self-serving, celebratory pride in doing exactly that… time after time.

When the nation’s commander-in-chief makes it crystal clear that he doesn’t give a f*ck about such things during a pandemic, the 40% of the country (according to the national polls), that still trusts him to get us through this crisis, is going to have an awfully hard time giving a f*ck too.

In sane political times, inflection points like America’s pandemic death toll surpassing 200,000, or Herman Cain dying from COVID-19 after attending an indoor Trump rally, or the president himself contracting and being hospitalized for the virus, would have put an end to all this nonsense. (Actually, in sane times, just the known facts and the nature of the disease would have kept this level of indifference from ever taking hold).

But even after numerous attendees at a breathtakingly reckless White House event (including the First Lady and people with obvious risk factors) tested positive for the virus, and even after our president suffered serious health concerns (high fever and enough difficulty breathing to require oxygen), before being flown away on a helicopter to Walter Reed (to be treated with antivirals, anti-inflammatories, an experimental antibody cocktail, steroids, and several other drugs), we’re back to the same asininity as before.

Returning home a few days later, and feeling better (but by no means out of the woods health-wise), Trump took to social media to effectively run a victory lap.

“Don’t be afraid of Covid,” he tweeted. “Don’t let it dominate your life. We have developed, under the Trump Administration, some really great drugs & knowledge… I feel better than I did 20 years ago!”

Next came a Bruckheimer-esque, slow-motion video trailer (complete with soaring music) celebrating his arrival back at the White House. “Don’t let it dominate you,” came the president’s recorded words. “Don’t be afraid of it. You’re gonna beat it.”

As Philip Klein of the Washington Examiner argued, Trump’s grandstanding and suggestion that his medical treatment and supposed triumph over the coronavirus (the jury’s still out on that one) was somehow representative of the experience of average citizens who become infected, was “ultimately a slap in the face to the hundreds of thousands of Americans who have died from the illness, and many others who have recovered only to suffer longer-term health effects.”

The next day, Trump returned to Twitter with a statement that echoed his totally absurd take on the coronavirus way back in March: “Flu season is coming up! Many people every year, sometimes over 100,000, and despite the Vaccine, die from the Flu. Are we going to close down our Country? No, we have learned to live with it, just like we are learning to live with Covid, in most populations far less lethal!!!”

So, despite everything that’s happened over the better part of a year, the White House is right back to where it started: suggesting, against everything we know, that COVID-19 is no more dangerous than the common flu, and therefore shouldn’t be feared or treated any differently.

No lessons learned. No personal responsibility for past recklessness. No new tone, or change in behavior. No calls on those who’ve been irresponsible to start acting responsibly.

Regarding those conscientious measures that thoughtful citizens have taken since March to help protect the people around them: well, those acts were pretty much pointless — fearful deeds from fearful people who never bothered to consider that Trump-like, cinematic bad-assery is how you really beat a super-virus into submission.

“Learning to live with Covid” may be what the president typed, but what he’s really talking about is the simple art of not giving a f*ck. And on this particular issue, he has perfected that art.

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On COVID-19, Trump Knew More Than He Still Lets On

On January 28 of this year, national security adviser Robert O’Brien told President Trump, “This will be the biggest national security threat you face in your presidency.”

The conversation took place during a top-secret intelligence briefing at the White House, and the threat O’Brien spoke of was the coronavirus. This is according to a new book by journalist Bob Woodward.

Deputy national security advisor Matthew Pottinger, who was also in the Oval Office for the briefing, agreed with O’Brien’s assessment. He told the president that the imminent health emergency would be similar to the 1918 flu pandemic (which accounted for around 50 million deaths worldwide).

Ten days after the meeting, on February 7, Trump spoke to Woodward on the phone. In a recorded conversation (that’s now all over the Internet), the president conveyed a message that stood at stark odds with what he was saying publicly (and continued to say for weeks).

“It goes through the air,” the president told Woodward, referring to the virus. “That’s always tougher than the touch. You don’t have to touch things. Right? But the air, you just breathe the air and that’s how it’s passed. And so that’s a very tricky one. That’s a very delicate one. It’s also more deadly than even your strenuous flus.”

Trump added that the virus was, in fact, at least five times more deadly than the flu. “This is deadly stuff,” he reemphasized.

What makes this revelation so curious is that over a month later, Trump was still publicly suggesting that COVID-19 was no worse than the common flu:

Personally, I had believed for some time that Trump’s downplaying of the nature of the health crisis had come from a position of denial. I figured he wasn’t quite on-board with what the experts were telling him, because his ego and political fortunes wouldn’t let him accept the situation for what it was. I also believed that Trump’s rejection of reality is what has been fueling his continued failure to promote responsible mitigation practices, like mask-wearing and not hosting huge, packed, political rallies.

But as Woodward’s reporting and recordings seem to reveal, Trump actually had a surprisingly good understanding of not only the virus, but also the impending crisis here in America. He just consciously, deceptively, and in my view — dangerously — downplayed it to the public.

You don’t have to take my word for it. Trump said it himself in another recorded conversation with Woodward on March 19: “I wanted to always play it down. I still like playing it down, because I don’t want to create a panic.”

Also, in that exchange, Trump contradicted his long-pushed narrative about younger people not being susceptible to the virus: “Now it’s turning out it’s not just old people, Bob. But just today, and yesterday, some startling facts came out. It’s not just old, older. Young people too, plenty of young people.”

Now, I’m actually pretty sympathetic to the notion of an American president not wanting to start a panic. Panic during a crisis isn’t helpful. And that’s the angle some prominent Trump defenders are already taking to defend the president’s decision to play it down:

But let’s try to keep some rational minds among us. One can convey a serious public health concern, as well as responsible measures for people to take, without “telling everyone they’re going to die.” One can put forth a calm, important message without causing a national panic.

At least, a leader can… if he wants to, and if he thinks it’s important.

Trump failed in that leadership role. He claimed the virus was “totally under control.” He said he “pretty much shut it down,” and later suggested that it would “go away in April with the heat.” He claimed that the number of infected people was “going very substantially down” at a time when it was growing exponentially. He said it was going to disappear “like a miracle.” He promised a vaccine was right around the corner when it clearly wasn’t. He said coronavirus tests were available to anyone who wanted one, when that wasn’t the case at all. He continued to compare it to the common flu. He pushed miracle drugs that didn’t hold up to the science. He belittled mask-wearing, and blew off social distancing at his political events.

And before anyone brings up the Dr. Fauci interview from Wednesday (as many Trump defenders currently are), where the good doctor (who always tries so hard to be apolitical) told Fox News’s John Roberts that he didn’t think Trump was misleading the public, it’s important to keep in mind that Fauci was referring specifically to the task-force press briefings. At those briefings (which didn’t start until mid-March), Trump pretty much towed the line of the experts he shared the stage with. And whenever he strayed, they reeled him back in.

It was at separate events and meetings with the press, and on social media, that Trump has spread the bulk of his coronavirus untruths.

To state the obvious, COVID-19 was going to hit our country pretty hard, regardless of who was sitting in the Oval Office. But imagine how much needless confusion and additional spread of the virus (including deaths) could have been prevented if Trump had talked to America similarly to how he talked to Bob Woodward in that early-February phone call.

In that call, he spoke quite rationally about the virus being highly contagious, airborne, and significantly more dangerous than the flu. He knew the crisis was headed our way, and that it amounted to the “biggest national security threat” of his presidency, the likes of what the world hadn’t seen since 1918.

But instead of preparing Americans for it, Trump stoked indifference and ignorance, assuring public and institutional flat-footedness. Through Twitter and elsewhere, he energized (and continues to energize) the conspiracy crowd into scoffing at the virus, and vilifying “traitorous” epidemiologists and the science they put forth. Heck, he even helped turn mask-wearing into one of the stupidest battles in the history of the culture war.

During a crucial time in this country’s history, when Americans desperately needed trust in, and guidance from, their elected leaders, the country’s most powerful leader made matters needlessly worse. Plenty of others did as well, but Trump is our nation’s top executive. He should be held to a higher bar. Sadly, even as we approach the grim milestone of 200,000 American deaths from the coronavirus, I don’t think he will.

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If Only Whataboutism Could Defeat the Coronavirus

Supporters attend President Trump’s RNC speech on the South Lawn of the White House.

Last Thursday, on the final night of the Republican National Convention, President Trump broke longstanding American tradition by transforming the White House into a purely political venue… complete with platforms, stage lights, campaign banners, and rows and rows of seating on the South Lawn

It was a controversial move for its inappropriate use of the people’s house, but it also wasn’t terribly surprising. If we’ve learned anything from Trump over the past few years, it’s that he loves creating splashy, norm-defying public spectacles that bring him maximum attention. And if those spectacles get his political opponents riled up in the process, that’s all the better (at least to the president and a good chunk of his supporters).

But rather than spend a dozen or so paragraphs carrying on about this latest indignity to the office, and detailing the type of meltdown Republicans assuredly would’ve had if Obama had turned the White House into a Democratic Party convention hall, I wanted to write about something that bothered me about the event even more.

CBS News’s Mark Knoller tweeted about my concern earlier in the day:

The result of the setup was a mass gathering of attendees (more than 1,500 people) crammed together in one area. There also wasn’t a mask requirement, and very few people elected to wear one.

Now, as we all know (or at least should know), outdoor events are less dangerous than indoor events of the same nature. I’ve written about this topic numerous times; it has to do with airflow. And for that reason, it’s fair to argue that Thursday’s episode didn’t quite reach the level of inanity as Trump’s Tulsa rally back in June. Still, it was bad enough, with the strong potential of that many people (in such close proximity to each other) creating a super-spreading event for the coronavirus.

There are several things that have angered me about the response of our political leaders to the global pandemic that continues to kill our citizens, devastate people’s lives, and cripple our economy. At the top of that list has been the societal disregard for the most basic (and thus far, most effective) of mitigation practices.

It’s one thing for a mask-less Grease Monkey employee to suddenly open your car door while you’re parked in line for an oil change, stick their head into the cab of your vehicle just a few inches from your face, and loudly ask what type of oil you prefer… (I’m using this obscure example because it unfortunately happened to me this morning; ugh).

It’s another for the President of the United States, who swore to defend our nation, and whose leadership the country needs during a national health crisis, to repeatedly (and very publicly) defy not only the CDC’s crisis guidelines, but also his own administration’s. It is the height of public irresponsibility, and it stokes needless confusion and carelessness (not to mention conspiratorial sentiment) in many of those watching.

Simply put, there is no legitimate excuse, six months and 185,000 American deaths into this crisis, for the president to be failing Pandemic Management 101 so badly. There is, however, a really terrible excuse for it — one that I’ve been hearing over and over again by those who feel obligated to defend the president on this matter. In fact, Lara Trump presented it earlier this week on Fox News Sunday

When Chris Wallace asked and pressed about the lack of social distancing and mask wearing at Thursday’s convention speech, here’s what the president’s daughter-in-law brought the argument down to:

“… I’ll remind everybody that the folks that were spitting in the faces of our people leaving the convention that night were not social distancing. It was an absolutely disgusting display. The next day, there were thousands of people on the National Mall packed together as well. So look, we either say that everybody has to play by the rules, or we have to stop talking about it. Because whenever you’re talking about the president’s campaign, and how people weren’t specifically social distant, but the next day, thousands of people were on the National Mall, and that’s not a problem for anybody… It seems a little hypocritical.”

It’s the same sentiment that’s been shared by many on the political right, in regard to the mob violence we’ve seen in major U.S. cities this summer:

The logic may sound good to a particular type of partisan, but it’s really a garbage argument.

Let me rephrase that… It’s a garbage defense.

As a separate argument, it’s completely fair and appropriate to point out that many liberals in politics, the media, and even the medical profession have indeed been hypocrites on the issue of social distancing and mask wearing… specifically in regard to protesters whose views they happen to agree with. If the cause is righteous enough, in their view, they tend not to voice any concerns about scores of individuals congregating together in the streets. Some have even outright encouraged it, as we saw in the wake of George Floyd’s death.

These same folks weren’t nearly as kind, however, to the business owners and others who protested lockdowns and stay-home orders just weeks earlier, portraying such individuals as immoral and even “murderous.” And of course, they’ve done the same type of thing with Trump.

So, if the argument is purely about hypocrisy, the case for people on the right is actually pretty strong. But whataboutism is never a legitimate defense of anything, and its deployment as a rationalization of Trump’s recklessness during a global pandemic is particularly idiotic.

The fact of the matter is that COVID-19 doesn’t care about partisan hypocrisy, or partisanship of any kind. It doesn’t discriminate on who it infects based on the societal merits of whatever scenario led to that infection. From an epidemiological and public safety standpoint, a large gathering of church members helping to feed the poor is no different than a large gathering of drunken attendees at a Smash Mouth concert.

When Lara Trump says, “we either say that everybody has to play by the rules, or we have to stop talking about it,” she’s describing an abdication of leadership and public responsibility across the board, but most strikingly from the Oval Office. She and others who share her view are conceding that the president’s behavior isn’t qualified by what’s in the country’s best interests, but rather by partisan hypocrisy.

It’s basically the child’s argument of “They’re doing it, so why can’t I?” And the obvious answer to that question is: Because he’s the President of the United States during a global pandemic.

Trump should be practicing the sermons of his own administration’s guidelines. He should stop encouraging needlessly reckless behavior from those who believe in him. He should put the well-being of Americans before his personal ego and desire to make headlines.

Those would be the responsible and normal things to do. But Trump’s brand is largely built on shattering norms (even when it comes to simple stuff like preserving the sanctity of the White House during campaign season); it’s one of the things his base loves about him. Thus, there’s no reason to believe he’ll ever change.

This leaves Trump’s loyal defenders relegated to rely entirely on whataboutism at times like this. Unfortunately, whataboutism can’t cure the coronavirus. And that’s a shame, because we have such an ample supply.

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The Digital Acceleration of Herd Mentality

“A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky dangerous animals and you know it.”

It’s a memorable, often quoted line from the 1997 sci-fi comedy, Men in Black, where Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) explains to his apprentice (Will Smith) why it would be a very bad idea to reveal to the public that space aliens are living secretly among them.

While there are many great one-liners in the film (that still draw a laugh), that particular one has been remembered for the inherent, societal truth it spoke. When an individual alone is presented with new, consequential information, that person is more likely to process it logically and rationally than if he or she had consumed it in a group setting.

This paradox goes by lots of different names, but for the sake of this column, I’ll use the term herd mentality.

Herd mentality is a product of peer influence. It compels people to adopt behaviors and sentiment, not from autonomous reason, but from the passion and emotions of those who surround them. These emotions, in turn, lead to impulsive (and often bad) decisions that wouldn’t have otherwise been made.

It’s been pretty easy to spot herd mentality throughout this nation over the past few months, most graphically in the rioting, looting, and vandalism we’ve seen in major U.S. cities. What began as protests in the name of social justice have turned into an excuse to spread violence, destroy businesses, and destroy lives.

We’ve also seen it with the uptick in the cancel culture, where dissenting, objectionable views are increasingly treated as infectious diseases deserving of eradication.

And we’ve of course seen it in the way mask-wearing (to mitigate the spread of COVID-19) has been turned into a ridiculous culture war, with one side insisting that it’s a heinous violation of their freedoms.

Herd mentality has a far wider reach today than even 20 or 25 years ago because of the virality and boundlessness of the Internet and the 24-hour news cycle. In virtually no time at all, something as simple as a contextless image or video clip can create and accelerate a deeply misleading narrative among a population.

We were reminded of a pretty famous example of this last week with the settlement of Nicholas Sandmann’s defamation lawsuit against the Washington Post. Sandmann was the kid we all remember wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat in front of the Lincoln Memorial, “smirking” as a Native American man (Nathan Phillips) beat a drum and sang a chant just inches from his face. The two were surrounded by other students from Sandmann’s school, who joined in with the chant, smiling and laughing.

I would argue (and did at the time) that a smart, reasonable person watching that video for the first time — even if he or she had a preconceived notion of someone who would wear a MAGA hat — would want to know more about the incident before forming an opinion of what they were seeing. A reasonable person would wonder (not merely assume) what it was that brought those people together, and why they were acting as they were.

But blasted across the Internet at light-speed, filtered through the political instincts of millions, and recklessly reported on by media outlets (who suffer from their own form of groupthink), Sandmann quickly became a national poster-child for racial intolerance. Even after the facts came to light, and it was clear Sandmann hadn’t done anything wrong or even inappropriate, herd mentality kept many from ever accepting that truth.

Another example from last week had to do with the aforementioned war on protective masks. Dr. Anthony Fauci was the target this time, after he threw out the first pitch at the MLB season opener. Fauci, who has been vilified by many on the right for putting forth COVID-era health recommendations that are often politically and economically unhelpful, was later captured in the stands by photographers not wearing a mask.

Being that Fauci has been expressing the importance of masks for months (while acknowledging that he downplayed it in the early days of the health crisis out of a supply concern for medical professionals treating the infected), detractors decided that the photographs had exposed the effectiveness of masks (which has been proven in study after study) to be a hoax:

It didn’t take long before I saw these same photos (accompanied by the same sentiment) popping up all over my Facebook feed.

Fauci’s a fraud!

Look, even he knows masks don’t work!

Why do I have to wear a mask if he doesn’t have to?

I suspect it’s not coincidence that this stuff came from the same friends and acquaintances who’ve been insisting from the beginning that COVID-19 is no biggie, and that every societal sacrifice (or even mere inconvenience) we’ve endured for the health crisis has been based on a delusion created by the power-hungry elite. Even as tens of thousands of new cases of the virus are reported each day, with the death count now around 150,000, these folks keep feeding the narrative to each other, and stoking conspiratorial doubt in others.

As a different buddy said to me, about the reactions to the Fauci photos, “Don’t you love how people suddenly can’t discern any obvious details when they smell a gotcha?”

As Agent K might respond, “A person would pick up on the details… but people? Not so much.

Those “obvious details,” in this case, would include the fact that Fauci and his two companions were outside (where the virus is far less transmissible), that no one else was seated around them (aka socially distanced), that the woman to his left was his wife (who he lives with and breathes the same air as every day), and that the friend to his right was still wearing a mask.

Additionally, a reasonable person might also consider the length of time Fauci was without his mask. Could it have been just a few seconds, perhaps right before or after he took a swig from that water bottle pictured on his lap? According to Fauci, that’s exactly what happened. He also revealed that he had tested negative for COVID-19 just a day earlier.

But when people are frustrated or scared (as many of us are right now), herd mentality impedes the ability of individuals to take a step back, and look at things in an open-minded, rational way. Perhaps this is why Fauci, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams, and the CDC felt they couldn’t be upfront with the general public about masks when they were concerned about shortages in March. I still think it was the wrong thing to do, and created unnecessary confusion (that’s unfortunately still being used by others as political propaganda), but perhaps I’m a little more sympathetic to their predicament than I once was.

Regardless, what makes herd mentality on the Internet particularly concerning right now is that, with physical gatherings remaining potentially dangerous for the foreseeable future, the pre-existing cultural trend of social media replacing our traditional institutions has been accelerated. Many of the more focused organizations and establishments in our lives, that bring us together and keep us grounded (whether it be church, sports, live music, community celebrations, etc.) are on indefinite hold. That means people are spending more time online, latching onto viral themes and joining righteous revolts against all kinds of perceived injustices.

It’s not healthy, and in several cases (some described above), it’s contributing to the prolonging of this crisis by promoting reckless behavior that only adds to the spread of the coronavirus.

If there were ever a time when people (especially those with time on their hands) needed to further explore their own individuality, it’s right now. Maybe that means taking up a new hobby, going on some camping trips, or doing some (safe) volunteering in the community.

If it keeps people from subjecting themselves to countless hours of social media and cable news, it’s almost certainly a good thing.

Order John A. Daly’s novel “Safeguard” today!