It’s All Free Speech Until Someone Dies in a Pandemic

Carolyn M. Rouse

To cite this article: Carolyn M. Rouse (2020) It’s All Free Speech Until Someone Dies in a Pandemic, Anthropology Now, 12:1, 66-72, DOI: 10.1080/19428200.2020.1761212

To link to this article:

As teens, at the suggestion of something risky or edgy, my friends and I would do our best impersonation of a scolding parent. We would wag our fingers and joke, “It’s all fun and games until someone dies.” Watching Donald Trump forced to utter truths about the pandemic during press briefings in the White House in March 2020, my recurring thought was, “It’s all free speech until someone dies.”

In February, Trump called concerns about the COVID-19 virus a hoax conjured by his political enemies. His followers fell in line, including legislators, who could have mobilized resources, and citizens,  who  could have begun social distancing sooner. Precious time was lost by a refusal to take the science and facts seriously. The number of lives lost unnecessarily and the economic damage that could have been avoided will  be the subjects of many articles and books for years to come. What I hope is not lost in these analyses are the cultural and historical precursors that laid the groundwork for a confused, uncoordinated national response. In this article, I focus on white Americans’ eagerness to accept alternative truths in the name of alleged free speech, the amplification of these false claims via media, and the moral justification used by people on the so-called right and left for facilitating their dissemination. I argue that the celebration of absolutist free speech — despite a clear relationship among amplified hate speech, lies and negative consequences — masks a deep cultural suspicion of state authority. As the United States engages with this pandemic, it is worth reflecting on a cultural ambivalence toward the state that has the potential to be our country’s undoing.

I became aware of this visceral aversion to government authority, akin to a taboo, during the summer of 2016 while conducting fieldwork on declining  life  expectancies  in  a predominantly white rural county in California. When I asked my interlocutors about their health, they would shift the conversation to Trump and why he needed to win. These were working-class and poor whites, many on Social Security, Supplemental Security Income, MediCal, Medicaid, the Supple- mental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps) and/or in Section 8 housing. Their reasons for supporting Trump were inchoate. Some had been captured by conspiracy theories online, others hated immigrants, others hated Obamacare even though the Afford- able Care Act provided them with life-saving health care. Some who lived on Social Security hated the fact that the government was giving benefits to people who didn’t “deserve” it, meaning brown and black people. Sociologist Jonathan Metzl, in Dying of Whiteness: How the Politics  of  Resentment is Killing America’s Heartland (2019), reports similar findings.1

My interlocutors were struggling with addiction, low-wage employment, loneliness and poverty, and Trump gave them someone or something to blame. Presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders also gave them a clear target for their anger — the 1 percent — which is why for many it was a toss up between Trump and Sanders. My interlocutors wanted to vote for a person who channeled their frustrations by lashing out at something or someone. They had no idea how either would govern once elected, but the fact that Trump and Sanders were white men made them feel as though either candidate would protect their interests once in office.

After Trump was elected, white nationalists, anti-vaxxers, misogynists and anti- environmentalists were emboldened. They argued that Trump’s win was proof that their ideas were right and that they had been silenced by a pernicious authority they called the “deep state” plus liberals, or “libtards,” housed in academic institutions. White nationalists began speaking tours, demanding institutions of higher education open their doors to “diverse” opinions. Essentially, they demanded that theories, facts and data — accrued over centuries — be treated with the same authority as debunked constructs such as trickle-down economics, race and IQ, even misogynistic ideas about women and their emotional and intellectual makeup. Soon after Trump’s inauguration I was at a faculty advisory meeting with the president of my institution. Feeling pressure from certain alums and students, the  president  wanted us to take seriously the idea that liberal bias was impacting our teaching. We were given a peer-reviewed journal article to read, one of the many written in the past several years, that uses data on the percentage of faculty who identify as “liberal” versus “conservative” as proof that our teaching is biased.

There were so many flaws with the article, titled “Reflections on Academic Liberalism and Conservative Criticism,” including con- fusing a pragmatic political choice at the ballot box with how social scientists theorize.2

Given that I had led a faculty, staff and student walkout of a talk by Charles Murray just two months before the meeting, I felt increasing pressure to justify my choices.3 My argument for the walkout was that racists have already wasted so much academic energy and  resources  pushing  debunked theories — for example, the accusation that blacks have been incarcerated for drug use at higher rates than whites because of a “black culture of poverty.” This theory is belied by data that since the 1970s has demonstrated higher overall substance abuse rates among whites.4 The Murray walkout was quick and silent.

The protest was meant to demonstrate that we don’t have the time or resources to keep proving racist theories wrong. There are far more pressing social-, environmental- and health-related issues that need our attention. For academics who have spent their careers methodically dismantling the logics behind misogyny, racism, class privilege and nativism, it was demoralizing that we should be shamed into treating these ideas with deference in the classroom so that Trump supporters would feel included. And the assertion that professors shouldn’t worry, because the truth will win out, was a willful misreading of even recent history.5

In the meeting, I was told that perhaps “we” (meaning liberal faculty) were wrong because Trump is what “they” (middle- and working-class white voters) want — a kind  of “popularity equals truth” argument. But having interviewed Trump supporters, it was clear to me that Trump’s personality mattered more than his policies. My interlocutors were angry, but also poorly educated. So my comment in the meeting was, “I know that Trump is not what they want.” They wanted some- one who was as angry as they were, who would fix things. But fixing things required a grasp of facts and policy, which Trump did not have. And my interlocutors responded to populist dog whistles because they were stubbornly racist and sexist, not  thoughtful and enlightened. Their commitment to a political ideology that made their lives more precarious constituted ethnographic facts for me to analyze, not canonical truths for the ages. This is why I predicted that Trump was not what my interlocutors wanted, but I knew that I would have to wait to see if my analysis was correct.

Between that meeting and the pandemic, I spoke out against absolutist free speech. I argued that allowing people to say whatever they want, facts aside, went against preserving cultural institutions, or what Sally Falk Moore calls semi-autonomous social fields.6 Within institutions, knowledge production has to come from agreed-upon rules of evidence; otherwise, power consistently wins out over facts. I was interviewed by BuzzFeed and wrote a couple articles. I was interviewed also by comparative literature scholar Ulrich Baer for a podcast he created after receiving death threats for writing a New York Times op-ed about what “snowflakes,” or progressive students who protest hate speech, get right.7 The attacks on thinkers such as Baer, who challenged the protection of “hate speech” in the name of “free speech” were people as diverse as liberal New York Times op-ed contributors Frank Bruni and Nicholas Kristof as well as conservative provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos.

Since that time, Americans have begun accepting censorship in the name of protecting groups and individuals from hate and threats of violence and protecting the public from lies and conspiracy theories that might impact how they vote. Twitter closed the accounts of individuals who promoted hate and banned political ads that used lies and deception. YouTube also started banning hate speech and extremist videos. And the president of my institution now argues that speech in the classroom should be focused on “truth-seeking,” which I believe is his way of acknowledging the potential destructive power of absolutist free speech within institutions of higher education.8

Unfortunately, by the time the COVID-19 pandemic hit early in year four of Trump’s presidency, the damage had already been done. Scientific experts had been fired from key public posts  and  had  been  replaced  by people with little to no expertise. Many administration positions  were  left  vacant  in the name of shrinking government. And even as the virus was wreaking havoc, Trump appointees in the Environmental Protection Agency were desperately trying to reverse evidence-based environmental regulations and restrict scientific research that “doctors worry would complicate future pandemic controls.”9

The United States must deal with a pan- demic made worse by an administration that for three years has characterized science and disciplined approaches to understand- ing facts — sometimes poorly interpreted but not wrong — as “fake news.”10 And experts in public administration have been vilified as part of a vast conspiracy called the “deep state.” Most significantly, the ideologically motivated dismantling of the Affordable Care Act and former President Barack Obama’s National Security Council pandemic preparedness unit, plus  cuts  to  the  Centers  for  Disease  Control  and  Prevention  and the National Institutes of Health have only made matters worse. Now that people are dying from ignorance, it has become time to address whether Americans’ commitment to absolutist free speech, because “truth always wins out,” makes sense. More important, can our democracy continue to exist if voters are unable to distinguish fact from fiction?

With the pandemic the  American  public could, if it wanted to, draw a direct line between fake and misleading information and death. For example, Trump tried to convince the public that the malaria prophylactic chloroquine was going to be a “game changer.”11 In response, a couple took chloroquine phosphate, rather than hydroxychloroquine, which they should not have taken anyway. One died and the other became critically ill. The death made the relationship between speech and action clear. Other indicators of this relationship were states such as Texas and Florida, where governors initially discouraged social distancing. Their speech produced unnecessary spikes in caseloads. Of course, there has always been a relationship among speech, action and consequences, direct or indirect. The pandemic laid bare the need to trust scientific authority and technocratic expertise (the so-called deep state), rather than Trump. So why did 60 percent of Americans approve of Trump’s handling of the crisis in March, despite the fact that he called the growing epidemic a hoax, challenged the experts and delayed critical action that would have reduced the death toll?12 The answers require cultural analysis of Americans’ deep ambivalence toward state authority.

Historical Antecedents of Deep State Conspiracies

In the early 20th century, the U.S. government began relying on data and facts to justify public policy decisions. For example, the regulation of medical education followed the 1910 publication of the Flexner Report; the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling relied on social science, including the famous doll study; and in 1970 the Environmental Protection Agency was established after scientists documented alarming levels of pollution.13

But as the federal government began protecting the rights of more diverse populations, by the mid-20th century white Americans were increasingly rejecting the authority of the state. Notably, the 1960s and ‘70s Southern strategy employed attacks against civil rights legislation as a way to entice white Democrats to switch to the Republication Party. For black Americans, suspicion of government has different historical antecedents. African Americans have always been leery of the state, even as they used law and legislation to gain equal protections. Thus white and black Americans are suspicious, but for varying reasons and to different degrees.

In the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan explicitly told Americans to distrust government. Since that time there has been a substantial increase in the number of religious parents homeschooling their children to avoid exposing them to scientific theories or cultural beliefs with which they disagree. Parents are also refusing to vaccinate their children despite the fraudulent science upon which they place this decision and the growing risks. Finally, many whites see gun regulation and taxation as creeping state authoritarianism rather than measures to protect them and pro- vide them with resources and infrastructure. Anti-government activist and racist Cliven Bundy represents an idealized form of white opposition to the state. Bundy, who orchestrated a 2014 confrontation with the federal government in Nevada, was actually encouraged by many Republican legislators and their constituents. This cultural embrace of charismatic leadership, over traditional and legal authority, metastasized during the 2016 election season when conspiracy theories and lies about President Obama and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton swept Trump into office. The white Americans I interviewed saw the state as actively trying to destroy them, and so they were predisposed to “deep state” conspiracy theories. Public policy expertise and science, used by the government to regulate U.S. society, were treated with derision. At the same time, they readily accepted theories created out of whole cloth by charismatic cable news hosts, radio personalities, televangelists and random websites.

Pulling back a bit, one can see this embrace of charismatic individuals over routinized authority as part of America’s cultural DNA. Replicated in the U.S. Constitution are protections for individuals against state over- reach. One can be cynical about the origins of our founding documents, but the Bill of Rights and subsequent case law have, over time, protected an increasingly inclusive citizenry from authoritarianism and state violence. What the founding documents have not done, however, is protect citizens from one another: African Americans from slave owners, women from misogyny in the work- place, the poor from the rich.

The idea that government is the only authority Americans should fear can be traced to the U.S. Constitution, particularly the Bill of Rights, and its anemic articulation of power beyond the state. Missing are discourses about the pernicious power of individuals, corporations and cultural ideologies. This absence makes Americans vulnerable  to charismatic individuals who use anti-government rhetoric to galvanize support. My interlocutors, for example, hated the government because it collected taxes. These taxes ultimately went back into services for them, but when I pushed one interlocutor, Tony, about the services he received as a result of his taxes, he told me he didn’t deserve them. Tony was fine with the fact that Kmart, his employer, underpaid the workers such that most were on food stamps and MediCal. This meant that Kmart was essentially stealing tax revenue to enrich company executives. Tony was sympathetic to Kmart, however, because he said the company was appropriately looking out for its shareholders based on a model called “shareholder value.” Tony accepted an ideology that increased his economic and social precarity in part because he lacked a discourse about corporate over- reach in the form of polluting industries and theft of state resources. What my interlocutors feared most was that the government would take their money in the form of taxes, take their guns and punish them for speaking freely.


As of this writing, there were still Trump sup- porters calling the COVID-19 pandemic a hoax. During each White House press briefing it became increasingly clear that Trump was bored by the truth. After controlling him- self for several briefings, he turned his free air time into an opportunity to sell baseless science and policy pronouncements, congratulate himself and go after his enemies. Dishonesty has served Trump well. When called out for his lies, he has attacked others as part of the deep state or the “lying” media. There are, of course, other examples in history where leaders go after intellectuals, experts and truth-tellers. Pol Pot and Mao Zedong come to mind. The lessons of history are critical here. Even as  medical  workers on the front lines contradicted Trump, telling stories of working with shortages — even as Americans succumbed to the virus in greater numbers because of the refusal to take the science and facts seriously — approval for Trump was 50 percent.14

The  public will interpret the   government response to this multifaceted crisis in different ways. But academic institutions need to take from the pandemic itself a commitment to fact-based speech and “truth-seeking.” Unnecessary suffering is something epidemiologists, doctors and social scientists should work hard to reduce. And if educators are asked to open their classrooms up for debate about whether the pandemic is a gift from God, they should say that that discussion belongs in a religion class. The objective of contemporary science is to make the world a safer and better place for the greatest number of people. In institutions where facts matter, we have entertained long  enough the ridiculous conversations about the civic value of offering a platform for white nationalists to voice their opinions. It was all free speech, and fun and games, until someone died. Now it is time to repair our government by supporting disciplined speech, fact-based debates and public policy expertise.

The Trump presidency has offered the American public many lessons in civics. Among the most important is the absurdity of the notion that absolutist free speech can sustain and advance a functioning democracy. Constructive charismatic leaders have the ability to help people  imagine  a  better world, but the best of them know that making those ideas work in the real world requires pragmatism and grappling with stubborn facts.


  1. Jonathan Metzl, Dying of Whiteness: How the Politics of Resentment is Killing America’s Heartland (New York: Basic Books, 2019).
  2. Matthew Woessner and April Kelly-Woess- ner, “Reflections on Academic Liberalism and Conservative Criticism,” Society 52 (2015): 35–41.
  3. Charles Murray, Losing Ground: American Social Policy, 1950–1980 (New York: Basic Books, 1984); Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray, The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life (New York: Free Press, 1994).
  4. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, “The Results from the 2013 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Summary of National Findings” (Rockville, MD: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administra- tion), 88. default/files/NSDUHresultsPDFWHTML2013/Web/NSDUHresults2013.pdf; Sean Estaban McCabe et al., “Race/Ethnicity and Gender Differences in Drug Use and Abuse Among College Students,” Journal of Ethnicity in Substance Abuse 6, no. 2 (2007): 75–95.
  5. Sindre Bangstad, Anders Breivik and the Rise of Islamophobia (New York: Zed Press, 2014).
  6. Sally Falk Moore, Law as Process: An Anthropological Approach (New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1978).
  7. Ulrich Baer, “What ‘Snowflakes’ Get Right About Free Speech,” The New York Times, April 24, 2017.
  8. David Suissa,  “Is Inclusiveness Eroding Free Speech? Princeton President  Argues  that They Can Work Together,” Jewish Journal, December 18, 2019. cover_story/308665/is-inclusiveness-eroding-free- speech/
  9. Lisa Friedman, “Coronavirus Doesn’t Slow Trump’s Regulatory Rollbacks,” The New York Times, March 25, 2020, para. 1.
  10. Isaac Chotiner, “The Contrarian Coronavirus Theory that Informed the Trump Administration.” The New Yorker, March 30, 2020. https:// ian-coronavirus-theory-that-informed-the-trump- administration
  11. Toluse Olorunnipa, Ariana Eunjung Cha, and Laurie McGinley, “Drug Promoted by Trump as coronavirus ‘game changer’ increasingly linked to deaths” Washington Post, May 15, 2020.
  12. Jeffrey M. Jones, “Trump’s Job Approval Approval Rating up to 49%,” Gallup March 24, 2020.
  13. Kenneth B. Clark and Mamie P. Clark, “Racial Identification and Preference in Negro Children,” in Readings in Social Psychology, eds. T. M. Newcomb and E. L. Hartley (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1947), 169–78.
  14. Jeffrey M. Jones, “American’s Divided on Trump’s Handling of COVID-19 Situation,” Gal- lup April 30, 2020.

Suggestions for Further Reading

Weber, Max. “Politics as a Vocation.” In From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology by Max Weber, edited by Gerth Hans and C. Wright Mills, 77–128. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1958.

Carolyn M. Rouse is professor of anthropology at Princeton University. Her research focuses on how discourses, across institutional domains, repro- duce inequality.

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