Raging Against ‘Mere Life,’ The Federalist Has Declared War On Public Health Orders

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May 13, 2020 3:29 p.m.
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String together coverage of COVID-19 “stay-at-home” orders in The Federalist, the conservative website, and it begins to resemble an ode to death itself.

Imagine for a moment that the nation were ruled by dictatorship of doctors…”

Is it right for the nation to require our children’s futures be destroyed to keep alive less than 1 percent of our population until the next flu season?”

It seems harsh to ask whether the nation might be better off letting a few hundred thousand people die.”

So the barbaric, panicky elevation of mere life as the only good worth conserving is becoming increasingly shameful.” 

Is death the worst thing that could happen to you?”

So sings the chorus of conservative PhDs, right-wing think tankers, business owners and scientific contrarians narrating the impact of COVID-19. The Federalist is their echo chamber, publishing dozens of articles in recent weeks largely focused on the need to “reopen” society.

As public health experts warn that the pandemic will require long-term sacrifices in order to keep infection rates down, a TPM review of three months of coverage found that The Federalist has pursued a different route. For weeks, the site has been at the vanguard of the backlash against COVID-19 public health orders. 

After early attempts to interrogate the media’s “hysteria” about the virus — and amid an ongoing obsession with what to call it — the site has pushed to “reopen” despite the growing death toll. That’s meant instructing readers to buck up, avoid “cowardice,” and fight back.

Or as executive editor Joy Pullmann put it in a critique Wednesday of House Democrats’ latest stimulus proposal, “Americans shouldn’t hide in our homes fumbling in our childrens’ pockets for money like drunkards.”

“Like the greatest generation, we owe it to our nation to face danger bravely,” Pullmann wrote. “Our ancestors risked much worse to give us the best country in the world: cholera outbreaks, amputations without anesthesia, hand-to-paw combat with bears and panthers, natives who ruled territory through slavery and torture, establishing homes in a forbidding wilderness amid outbreaks of starvation and disease, volunteering to fight from poisoned foxholes, perilous trips in rickety ships across a dark ocean.”

‘A Political Talking Point’

This isn’t a fringe blog. The Federalist, though frequently a platform for the off-color and unscientific, is also read by those in power. A spokesperson for Republicans on the House Oversight committee, for example, lauded an article last month on “How Cowardice and Class Privilege Shift Support For Lockdowns.” And members of Congress often publish Federalist op-eds. A five-word blog post from Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) on Friday captures the message of many of them: “We were right about everything,” the congressman wrote. President Donald Trump has boosted that post and several others from the site to his millions of Twitter followers. And popular conservative voices like talk show host Mark Levin regularly spread The Federalist around. 

At first, The Federalist’s coronavirus coverage was pretty straight-laced. In late January, the site’s first post on the then-Wuhan-based outbreak focused on “implications for international security and for the global economy.” Senior contributor Helen Raleigh subsequently amplified voices from inside Wuhan as the city battled the virus. Generally, coverage focused on criticisms of the Chinese government and the World Health Organization. 

But as President Donald Trump began speaking more frequently in public about the virus, The Federalist changed its tone. 

“The Coronavirus Has Mutated—Into A Political Talking Point,” political editor John Daniel Davidson observed on Feb. 27, the day after Trump held his first press conference on the virus. 

And boy did it: In the days and weeks that followed, The Federalist plugged the disease into its existing battles: For a border wall, against environmentalism and gender studies. Even “Big Porn” got put on notice.

“Like the coronavirus, pornography use is silent but deadly, a powerful disease that has had devastating effects across our society,” wrote Terry Schilling, executive director of the American Principles Project, a conservative political group.

Given its conservative audience, the site’s authors mostly preach to a relatively defined choir: Readers interested in “politics, religion, and culture from a conservatarian angle,” with a healthy dose of the culture wars on the side. But as the COVID-19 takes grew more daring — notably with the late-March call for “chickenpox parties” to voluntarily spread the disease and establish herd immunity — the criticism grew sharper.

A few days prior to the “pox parties” article, for example, Dr. David Gorski, a surgeon and editor of the anti-quackery website Science-Based Medicine, called out Pullmann, the site’s executive editor, for “citing pseudoscientific best case scenarios from ideology-deluded hacks at [The Hoover Institution] as ‘competing projections.’” Pullmann had pointed to a Hoover article from the conservative legal scholar Richard Epstein, who wrote that “the total number of cases world-wide will peak out at well under 1 million, with the total number of deaths at under 50,000.” (Emphasis hers.)

“We don’t know if that estimate is accurate either, but that’s the point,” Pullmann wrote. 

The global case count exceeded Espstein’s estimate within two weeks of Pullmann’s citation, according to Johns Hopkins University; U.S. fatalities alone reached 50,000 three weeks after that.

‘The Media Are Embarrassing Themselves’

Those optimistic projections, once face-to-face with the devastating scope of the pandemic, gave way to a less empirical crusade. In March, after Trump and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) began calling it the “China Virus,” The Federalist enlisted in a new fight.

Sure, the World Health Organization dubbed it COVID-19 all the way back on Feb. 11, creating a convenient international shorthand (rather than “novel coronavirus disease of 2019”) uniformly used by scientists, doctors and policymakers.

But when President Trump and Republicans in Congress tried to change the label in March — in an effort, they acknowledged, to shift blame to China — the website couldn’t stay away. In the weeks that followed, Federalist writers posted more than a dozen articles arguing for a name that pinned the pandemic to its country of origin. 

The only thing they couldn’t agree on was a replacement: Across the site, the viral disease is referred to as “Chinese coronavirus,” “Chinese virus,” “Wuhan virus,” “Wuhan Flu,” “WuFlu” and “ChiCom flu.”

Perhaps a bit ironically, Federalist staff contributed to the debate while at the same time performatively bemoaning the effort. 

“Yesterday, amid the ongoing economic and social disruptions caused by the coronavirus, rising numbers of infections and deaths globally, and widespread closures of schools and other extreme measures imposed across the country, the mainstream media decided we should have a national debate about whether it’s racist for President Trump to call it the ‘Chinese virus,’” Davidson wrote on March 19, in a piece titled “The Media Are Embarrassing Themselves Over Trump’s Use Of ‘Chinese Virus.’” 

The most inventive contribution to the clicky naming debate genre came from a Lutheran pastor in a satirical interview with the virus itself — “currently living in an undisclosed location on the East Coast and everywhere else on the planet.” 

“I’m very proud of my Chinese heritage,” the virus said. “But I’m also really into the whole international thing these days.”

‘Preliminary Scientific Evidence’

It should come as no surprise: the science behind the site’s coverage hasn’t exactly been pristine.

That, again, appears partially the result of Trump’s proclamations: In March, the President started hyping the anti-malarial medication hydroxychloroquine as a potential wonder cure for COVID-19, despite almost no evidence showing it was effective. Federalist writers quickly joined the effort. 

On March 23, for example, senior contributor Margot Cleveland wrote that “preliminary scientific evidence suggests the drug chloroquine provides a therapeutic benefit to people with the coronavirus.” She argued reporters were being real downers by pointing out to Trump that the drug wasn’t actually proven to be effective.

“[W]hat seems clear now is that President Trump is hopeful, while the media come off as rooting for a failure,” Cleveland wrote. “That doesn’t just make the press terrible reporters—it makes them terrible Americans.” 

Reached Monday, Cleveland was adamant. “As my article made clear, the reporters weren’t ‘wary,’ they were giddy for a failure,” she wrote. 

The site’s call for “chickenpox parties,” which a formerly licensed dermatologist figured could help establish herd immunity, was widely mocked on the web and led to a temporary suspension of The Federalist’s Twitter account. Writer Douglas Perednia told The New Yorker afterward that he’d pitched the piece to a number of medical journals, blogs and news sites, all of which had turned him down. The Federalist accepted the piece no questions asked, he said.

The site’s speculation that saltwater gargling or smoking could help ward off infection, by contrast, slipped mercifully under the radar.

‘Comparatively Weak People’

Yet as the virus rages on and social distancing rules remain largely in place for the majority of Americans, denunciations of society’s cowardice have also figured prominently. A characteristic article last week, for example, chastened readers, “Our Ancestors Would Be Amazed At Our Cowardly Coronavirus Hysteria.” Theology professor Keith Stanglin wrote that he respected medical workers and was not dismissing the pain of thousands who’ve lost loved ones, but also that medieval time travelers “would realize we are a comparatively weak people.”

“What I am talking about is the general fear that so quickly and easily overtook our politicians, media, and then citizens at large, resulting in an overreaction of total lockdown and now, presumably, a permanent health emergency,” Stanglin wrote. “All of this led to the unnecessary wrecking of the economy and need for trillions of dollars in government funding — and all of this for a virus with an infection fatality rate that is probably under 1 percent.”

In emails to TPM, Stanglin compared “lockdown” orders to “shutting down all automobile traffic because tens of thousands of people die in auto accidents in this country every year.” 

“But we will continue to drive our cars, and pretty fast, too,” he added. “We will mourn those who die in car wrecks, and we will get in our cars and drive to attend their funerals.”

In the face of those lockdown orders, the Federalist has adopted the role of enforcer, focusing its efforts on an everyday annoyance: Snitches.

The impulse is understandable. Ratting out your neighbors for breaking quarantine rules “encourages a police response, which means an implicit threat of violence,” Davidson, the political editor, wrote last month. “[M]ind your own freakin’ business,” regarding your neighbor’s black market hair cutting operation, New York correspondent David Marcus instructed readers recently.

But some at the website chose to get a bit more dramatic to illustrate the point. 

Christopher Skeet, in his April 21 masterwork, “The Snitches Tattling On My In-Laws’ Pickleball Game Don’t Care About The Virus,” knew how to really turn up the volume. 

“Bosnian and Rwandan ditches are full of corpses whose betrayers were lifelong neighbors a week prior,” Skeet wrote, just a few paragraphs after detailing the demise of his in-laws’ street ball game.

Key Coronavirus Crisis Links

TPM’s COVID-19 hub.
Josh Marshall’s Twitter List of Trusted Experts (Epidemiologists, Researchers, Clinicians, Journalists, Government Agencies) providing reliable real-time information on the COVID-19 Crisis.
COVID-19 Tracking Project (updated data on testing and infections in the U.S.).
Johns Hopkins Global COVID-19 Survey (most up to date numbers globally and for countries around the world).
Worldometers.info (extensive source of information and data visualizations on COVID-19 Crisis — discussion of data here).
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