The COVID-19 death toll in the U.S. has now surpassed the 600,000 mark. The nationwide tragedy is on par with the Civil War for the number of Americans who have died, and while the Biden vaccination program has led to a dramatic drop in infections and deaths since the year began, many more will still die before the virus completely recedes.
And Republicans are doing a victory lap.
Why? Because they have once again scored another propaganda victory, by allowing their framing of the “lab leak theory” about the virus’ origins to take hold not just in the fevered swamps of right-wing media but in the national discourse as a whole.
As scientists have indicated, a lab leak of some sort is a possible scenario for how the virus came into the world, among many other theories. But the underlying reality is really besides the point as far as the conservative movement is concern.
What they want is plausible deniability, an alternate story to explain away why so many Americans died on Donald Trump’s watch. The truth is that the virus never had to get this bad, that Trump and his underlings downplayed the outbreak, lied about its reach, and completely mangled the deployment of national assets in service of arresting the virus’ spread. Hundreds of thousands of Americans died because of Trump’s mistakes.
But saying “lab leak theory” often is a well-designed way of brushing all of that culpability off.
Conservatism searches for another “side” in every issue, well aware that the vast majority of the mainstream media will present reality as two competing “sides” of an issue in service to the god of both-siderism.
For the right, “lab leak” is now an alternate explanation for why so many people died. It wasn’t Trump, it was China’s fault completely. The right has sold its supporters on the idea that China created a virus and intentionally released it, sometimes taking the story further by saying it was specifically released in service of winning the election for President Joe Biden.
But even the version of the story that doesn’t seem as conspiratorial has been weaponized for this purpose. It is the conspiracy theorist’s gambit: There are always multiple “theories” of everything, and if this one – in their view – happens to exonerate Trump, all the better.
Liberals may look at this all and scratch their heads at the illogic of it all. How does China releasing a virus into the world absolve Trump’s mismanagement of the virus response? After all, more than 600,000 Americans died on his watch and he still screwed up, regardless of the virus’ origins, right?
Not really. Conservatism isn’t based on logic. As conservative leaders like Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) have already begun to assert, in their view the leak vindicates Trump. He was just a helpless victim of the insidious Chinese (who they coincidentally have another parallel storyline about Biden being under the thumb of). See, it just all works out for them!
The ultimate resolution of the lab leak theory doesn’t really matter for the success of this storyline. It’s already out there. If anything, it’s best for the right that the ending be kept ambiguous because then everything can be dismissed with a knowing shrug, a raised eyebrow and an assertion that “we just don’t know, it isn’t clear.”
The biggest problem in this equation is the way in which both liberals and apolitical people have thrown fuel on this fire. Yes, real scientists have said this is a possibility and early media reports were too quick to dismiss this as nonsensical, but that doesn’t mean the right’s new “lab leak theory” talking point is being offered in good faith.
Republicans and conservatives do not seriously care about gain of function research or the virus’ origins. They don’t care about scientific inquiry and getting to the bottom of a worldwide pandemic that killed nearly 4 million people around the world.
The lab leak discourse is all about protecting the record and ego of the failed one-term Republican president, the man who presided over one of the worst bloodbaths in American history: Donald Trump.
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