This article is a part of the Thesis Eleven online project: Living and Thinking Crisis
by Rogers Brubaker (Los Angeles)
The populist protests against the Corona lockdown in the US, already ebbing in mid-May as restrictive measures began to be lifted, were completely eclipsed in June by the vastly larger wave of protest sparked by the killing of George Floyd. Yet just as the pandemic itself remains very much with us, despite the widespread desire to declare it over and get on with normal life, so too do the underlying tensions brought into focus by the anti-lockdown protests. These tensions – over expertise, crisis, and protection – are likely to loom even larger in the months ahead.
The protests against Corona restrictions, at first glance, appear paradoxical in three respects. Populism is generally hostile to expertise, yet it has flourished at a moment when people have been looking to scientists for tests, treatment, and vaccines, to public health professionals for guidance, and to medical experts for care. Populism thrives on crisis and indeed often depends on fabricating a sense of crisis, yet it has accused mainstream politicians and media of overblowing and even inventing the Corona crisis. Populism, finally, is ordinarily protectionist, yet it has presented itself as anti-protectionist during the pandemic and challenged the allegedly overprotective restrictions of the nanny-state. I address each apparent paradox in turn before speculating in conclusion about how populist distrust of expertise, antipathy to government regulation, and skepticism toward elite overprotectiveness may come together – in the context of intersecting medical, economic, political, and epistemic crises – in a potent and potentially dangerous mix.
A few preliminary clarifications and qualifications are in order. First, “populism” may be too solid a word for what I will be discussing. It risks reifying what I prefer to think of as a discursive and stylistic repertoire, a set of tropes, gestures, and stances (Brubaker 2017). Second, in keeping with this understanding of populism, I do not discuss populist movements, parties, or leaders; I am concerned rather with a certain way of talking, a loose complex of tropes and gestures. Third, I do not claim that the politicization of the pandemic is best understood through the analytical lens of populism; this is just one of many relevant analytical angles. Lastly, I will be concerned almost exclusively with the US. Some of my themes will have parallels elsewhere, but much of my argument will reflect the distinctiveness of the American experience of the pandemic and the distinctive salience of anti-intellectualism, libertarian anti-statism, and myths of self-reliance in American political culture.
I begin, then, with expertise. How could there be much room for populism, and specifically for its relentless attacks on experts and expertise, at a moment when experts and expertise have seemed more indispensable than ever?
The pandemic has obviously increased the demand for experts, not only as advisors to decision-makers, but also as communicators to the public. It has dramatically increased the influence, the visibility, and the accessibility of virologists, infectious disease epidemiologists, and other public health experts. But precisely this influence, this visibility, and this accessibility have made that expertise vulnerable to populist attack.
The paradox of expertise, in short, is only an apparent paradox. Expertise is vulnerable to challenge and attack not in spite of its being indispensable but because it is indispensable – and because the stakes are so high. There is nothing new about this vulnerability. The inexorably increasing “scientization of politics,” as Gil Eyal (2019, p. 97) put it, necessarily brings in its train the “politicization of science.” Expertise is continually called upon to help rationalize and legitimize policy decisions – decisions that necessarily “advantage some groups and disadvantage others”. In the present crisis, decisions justified with reference to expertise have devastated and existentially threatened some while merely inconveniencing others. So it’s no surprise that expertise would come under attack.
The influence of epidemiologists has indeed been truly unprecedented. Never before, arguably, has so narrow a network of experts exerted so decisive and so incalculably far-reaching an effect on the course of world events, upending the lives of billions and plunging the world economy into its deepest crisis since the Great Depression.
The lockdowns initially enjoyed very broad public support, and restrictive measures still enjoyed the support of a substantial majority at least until early May. But as they moved through their second and into their third month, and as the medical emergency became less immediately and urgently threatening, these drastic measures – and the expert advice on which they were predicated – became an irresistible focal point for popular anger and frustration. That anger and frustration were overshadowed in June by the anger and frustration expressed in protests against police brutality and racism. But the anger and frustration about the lockdown have not gone away, even as restrictive measures have been relaxed – and they have found new targets as in the last few weeks where the reopening has been paused or reversed and new mask requirements have been imposed. In the context of an unprecedented economic crisis, the political significance of that anger and frustration is likely to increase rather than diminish, and “the experts” – as well as the politicians who listened to them – are likely to be blamed for the economic carnage occasioned by the lockdowns.
Besides the extraordinarily concentrated, consequential, and visible influence of expertise, I want to highlight two additional factors. The first is the gap between what people know relatively directly from common sense and personal experience, and what people know about from expert models and projections. This epistemic gap gives rise to what I will call the experiential challenge to expertise. The second factor is the hyper-accessibility of expertise, which gives rise to a participatory challenge.
Consider first the experiential challenge. Populism tends to valorize common sense and concrete personal experience, and it tends to be suspicious of abstract and experience-distant forms of knowledge (Saurette and Gunster 2011). It’s easy to see how the Corona crisis has activated this suspicion. The extreme unevenness of the pandemic in geographic and social space has created a huge discrepancy between what many people have seen in their own local surroundings – few illnesses, fewer deaths, and empty hospitals, for example – and the dire picture reported from hotspots or projected for the country as a whole. At the end of May, nearly half of America’s approximately 3,000 counties had not reported a single Covid-19 death, and 80% had reported fewer than 10 deaths. Many residents of rural and small-town America could easily think that the crisis was overblown and the lockdown unnecessary. As one Oklahoma protester put it, “We’re not New York. Their problems are not our problems”.
The widely publicized disproportionate vulnerability of African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans, of the urban poor, of the incarcerated, and of immigrant workers in meatpacking plants may reinforce the tacit or explicit sense, on the part of many residents of low-prevalence areas, that this is not “their” pandemic, but one that afflicts others. Anti-lockdown protesters could easily draw, at least implicitly, on the longstanding and of course deeply racialized populist trope that contrasts the morally, politically, and even biomedically healthy “heartland” (Taggart 2000, chapter 8) – the “real” America of locally rooted communities and virtuous, hard-working ordinary citizens – with the big cities, seen as sites of corruption, criminality, and disease, and understood as dominated by liberal cosmopolitan elites on the one hand, and by racial, ethnic, religious, sexual, and gender minorities on the other. The massive protests in cities across the country – and especially the several days during which police clashed with protesters, looting was widespread, and the National Guard was mobilized – no doubt made that trope even more accessible.
The Covid 19 virus has of course come to the heartland. But it has done so in a manner very different from its dramatic spread in New York and, to a lesser extent, some other large cities in late March and early April. In New York City, at the peak, estimates suggest that over 10% of the population was infected; at this writing, in the southern and southwestern states where cases have been increasing most rapidly, between 1% and 2% of the population may be infected (only in Arizona is the statewide estimate higher, about 3%). And a much higher fraction of those recently infected are younger and less likely to be seriously ill. This again creates a gap between everyday experience – even in the hotspots, many people may not know anyone who has been seriously ill – and expert warnings (estimates from https://covid19-projections.com/).
The epistemic gap between local experience and expert knowledge also has a temporal aspect. Epidemiological time is exponential time. Given an easily transmissible pathogen and a high effective reproduction number, a small outbreak can quickly become a disaster. The urgency of expert warnings and the case for the stringent distancing depended on this exponential temporality. Yet precisely because the warnings were taken seriously in March, they could become self-discrediting, since the lockdowns suspended exponential temporality, and the projected catastrophe never happened. This is what is sometimes called the paradox of prevention: measures taken to avert an outcome, if they are successful, can be seen in retrospect as having been unnecessary. The dire warnings had of course been conditional: if no steps were taken, then hospitals would be overwhelmed, and deaths would soar. But this is easily overlooked, whether intentionally or unintentionally. Here, too, the gap between local experience and expert projections has bred suspicion and distrust of expertise. This makes it harder for expert warnings, which have multiplied in recent weeks as new cases have surged, to be taken seriously the second time around.
I turn now to the participatory challenge to expertise. Here expertise is challenged not on the terrain of everyday experience and common sense, but on the terrain of data. The participatory challenge feeds off the hyper-accessibility of expertise. By hyper-accessibility I don’t of course mean that it is easy to acquire expertise, however that slippery term is defined. I mean rather that expert opinions, expert models and projections, expert research, and expertise-relevant data are more accessible and more abundant than ever.
Experts have not simply advised governments; they have also been keen to address the public. They have sought to build support for disruptive distancing measures, but they have also sought to enlist the public in altering their behavior, and thereby in altering the course of the event they seek to model. Epidemiological knowledge, once it is communicated to the public, enters recursively into the socio-medical reality that epidemiological models seek to grasp. The remarkable career of the “flatten the curve” meme is perhaps the most striking example.
Experts have addressed the public both directly, through op-ed contributions, interviews, podcasts, and Twitter posts, and indirectly, by talking extensively with journalists. Their views, along with journalists’ simplifying accounts of those views, have then been recirculated at high velocity – though often of course in fragmented and distorted form – by legions of digitally active lay users.
But it is not only expert opinions that are hyper-accessible; it is also the raw materials on the basis of which expert opinions are formed and revised: the projections, the research findings, and the public health data. There is an enormous glut of data and research findings. Numerous tracking projects convey daily updates and trends on cases, deaths, tests, and hospitalizations. Many of these allow users to download the raw data, so data-sophisticated users can easily explore the data on their own. Equally accessible are the numerous forecasting undertakings, which seek to predict future trajectories of cases, deaths, and hospitalizations. And voluminous streams of new research are freely accessible on preprint servers – not only published work, but also (indeed primarily, in this context) papers that have not yet been peer-reviewed. Already by early May, about 3,000 papers on Covid-19 had been posted on bioRxiv and medRxiv (Kwon 2020), and several not yet peer-reviewed papers have been drawn into public debates in highly contentious ways.
I want to underscore two implications of the hyper-accessibility and superabundance of Covid-related expertise, research, and data. One is the proliferation of the means of assessing expertise. For what is accessible in the digital public sphere – or what appears to be accessible – is not only the content of expert opinion but also the evidence that supports or undermines it. It’s easy to find data or new research that can be taken (or of course mistaken) as suggesting, or even “proving,” as some would claim, that “the experts” got it wrong in this way or that. For example, it’s easy to cite research and numbers that suggest that Covid-19 is much less dangerous than “the experts” claimed, indeed no more dangerous than the seasonal flu. And it’s easy, therefore, to claim that the lockdown was a catastrophic mistake – the “greatest mistake in history,” as one commentator rather grandly put it. Yet the hyper-accessibility and superabundance of expertise and research also make it easy to come to what is in a sense the opposite (and equally problematic) conclusion: that “the experts” don’t agree on anything. In both respects, hyper-accessibility and superabundance can contribute to undermining the credibility of expertise.
The second implication is the ease of claiming and exercising expertise, or at least some kind of quasi-expertise. Semi-experts, quasi-experts, pseudo-experts, and lay experts have proliferated. And even if it’s not easy to claim expertise per se, it’s at least easy to claim the right to join in, as a knowledgeable participant, in the collective public effort to interpret and define socio-medical reality. As prominent lockdown skeptic Aaron Ginn, a self-described Silicon Valley “growth hacker,” put it, “I’m quite experienced at understanding virality, how things grow, and data… Data is data. Our focus here isn’t treatments but numbers. You don’t need a special degree to understand what the data says and doesn’t say. Numbers are universal.”
Ginn’s epistemologically populist claim to a seat at the table did not go unchallenged. His essay challenging the case for the lockdown racked up more than 2.5 million views on Medium in 24 hours, but it was removed by the platform after a scathing critique from a prominent biologist. This was one of many interventions to have been “invisibilized” by major platforms. Concerns have been mounting in recent years about the proliferation of misinformation and disinformation in the structurally flat, unmediated, and in that sense populist digital public sphere, in which visibility is driven by algorithmically amplified popularity (Gillespie 2016). Those concerns have intensified during the pandemic. In response, major platforms have been aggressively removing or flagging content deemed potentially harmful from a public health standpoint. But aggressive and highly visible content moderation – would-be readers or viewers are confronted with messages like “this post is under investigation or was found in violation of the Medium Rules” or “this video has been removed for violating YouTube’s Community Guidelines” – has raised concerns about censorship and generated an epistemologically populist backlash. The removal of Ginn’s essay, for example, prompted a Wall Street Journal article that raised Ginn’s profile among lockdown skeptics, who could complain with good reason – at least in the early phase of the lockdown – that major digital platforms were colluding in restricting the range of what they deemed to be legitimate views.
The participatory challenge to expertise is not new. It has roots in long-term developments in the cultural politics of knowledge. These include the decline of what might be called epistemic deference; the long-standing suspicion of insular forms of expert judgment; the valorization of various forms of lay expertise (Epstein 1995; Prior 2003); and the growing sense – especially in health and lifestyle domains – that people must educate themselves and take responsibility for arbitrating between competing expert claims (Reich 2016). But the pandemic and the flood of data it has unleashed have given a major new impetus to this participatory challenge and further destabilized expertise.
The crisis of expertise is systemic and long-standing. It results not only from the participatory challenge, but also from the unavoidable politicization of expertise that follows from its pervasive implication in regulatory decision-making that invariably has redistributive consequences (Eyal 2019, p. 97). Yet beyond this chronic crisis of expertise – if the oxymoron is allowed – Covid-19 confronts us with a more specific epistemic crisis, a crisis of public knowledge. It is not only that “normal science” cannot cope with a situation in which “facts are uncertain, stakes high, values in dispute and decisions urgent”. It is also that we inhabit radically different public worlds. The public worlds we inhabit are constituted in significant part by what we know or believe about them. And what we know or believe about Covid-19 – not only about what should be done, but about what is the case – is radically discrepant. There is no broadly shared definition of the situation. For some, Covid-19 is “the greatest existential threat in our lifetimes”; for others, as noted above, it is no more dangerous than the seasonal flu. For some, the lockdowns prevented 60 million Covid infections in the US and nearly 285 million in China and saved more than 3 million lives in Europe; for others, lockdowns were not only medically ineffective and economically catastrophic but are likely to have disastrous health consequences, especially in poor countries, disrupting vaccination programs and possibly even tipping already vulnerable populations into mass starvation.
I turn now, much more briefly, to crisis. Populism thrives on crisis, even depends on crisis. Populists often seek to cultivate, exacerbate, or even create a sense of crisis. Yet the pandemic has occasioned a curious reversal. It is now populists who have been accusing mainstream politicians and media – and of course public health experts as well – of blowing the Corona crisis out of all proportion. It’s true that some populist leaders in power – including notably Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, Serbia’s Aleksandr Vučić, and India’s Narendra Modi – have embraced the crisis and used it to justify emergency measures that have tightened their authoritarian grip on power. In opposition, however, the dominant populist tendency has been to downplay the seriousness of the pandemic and to turn the tables by accusing incumbents of exploiting the Corona crisis in order to illegitimately expand state power, suspend rights, and deepen surveillance.
The paradox, then, is that instead of performing crisis, populism has seemed here to be performing non-crisis, performing normality in the face of an establishment in full crisis mode. But the paradox is again only apparent. Populists have in fact been seeking to capitalize on crisis. But the crisis on which they have been seeking to capitalize is the economic crisis, not the medical crisis. And because of the unevenness of the pandemic, the economic crisis has seemed much more threatening to many people than the medical crisis.
Anti-lockdown protesters also sought to stage and provoke a political crisis. The emergency regulations issuing from the overblown medical crisis, in their view, created a genuine political crisis. This was cast as a crisis of governmental overreach that trampled on fundamental rights, including the right to work, the right to move in public space, the right to free exercise of religion, the right to bear arms, the right to protest, the right to privacy, and the right not to wear a mask. The staging of this crisis, among other things, provided a golden opportunity for the violently anti-government Boogaloo movement, which seized on the fiercely anti-government animus of the anti-lockdown protests – and which has subsequently, if improbably, sought to seize on the protests against police brutality as well – in order to move out of the shadows and recruit new followers.
The progressive easing of restrictions throughout May weakened anti-lockdown protesters’ efforts to provoke a political crisis along these lines. And of course the political crisis they sought to provoke was subsequently overtaken by another, broader political crisis. But the two crises are not unrelated, and the new crisis has in some ways hardened the anti-government stance that animated the populist effort to stage a crisis of government overreach. Anger at continuing restrictions on church services, for example – restrictions that were upheld by the Supreme Court at the end of May, as the protest wave was gathering force – was reinforced by the spectacle of huge crowds marching in the streets.
I turn finally to the paradox of protection. We think of populism as protectionist. In recent years this has meant claiming to protect “the people” – economically, demographically, culturally, and physically – from threats arising from unchecked globalization, the neoliberal economy, open borders, and cosmopolitan culture, all seen as favored by economic, political, and cultural elites.
Yet faced with the coronavirus, populism been anti-protectionist. Populists have taken the side of openness against closure, and they have challenged what they see as the overprotective nanny state. They have cast the lockdowns as hysterical overreactions, criticized paths to reopening as overcautious, and sometimes challenged social distancing protocols as unnecessary.
The paradox is heightened by the fact that conservatives (and American anti-lockdown protesters, unlike their counterparts in Germany, have been overwhelmingly conservative) generally tend to be more sensitive than liberals to signs of threat and danger, including “threat[s] of germs and contamination” (Haidt 2013, p. 279). And indeed early in the pandemic, when the virus was perceived as an outside threat, conservative and far-right figures had taken the lead in pressuring Trump to ban travel from China, at a time when liberals and public health officials questioned that measure.
One might argue that the paradox of protection, like the others, is only an apparent paradox. One might argue that the populism of lockdown opponents has indeed been protectionist, but that it has focused on protecting livelihoods and liberties rather than lives. But I don’t think this is quite right. The demand to restore individual liberties, in the context of emergency restrictions, is a libertarian argument; I don’t think it can plausibly be characterized as protectionist. Economic demands could be framed in protectionist terms, for example as a demand for state action to protect jobs, or to protect people from losing their health insurance or from being evicted from their homes. But this argument has not been made by anti-lockdown protesters.
So I think there is a real paradox here, or at least a puzzle. Why has populism turned anti-protectionist during the pandemic? Part of the answer, I think, is that populism – unlike socialism or liberalism or conservativism – is not a substantive political ideology. It is substantively empty. Populism is relational and oppositional, defined by what it opposes. What it opposes is formally always the same – it is always anti-elite, always anti-establishment – but substantively variable, depending on how the opposition between “the people” and “the elite” or “the establishment” is constructed (Canovan 1999).
Populism in the global north has indeed been strongly protectionist in recent decades. This made political sense in a context of hyper-globalization and hegemonic neoliberalism, in which economic, political, and cultural elites could plausibly be seen as indifferent to the bounded solidarities of community and nation. But today there is no political profit in a protectionist critique of the status quo, since closed borders, re-nationalization, and de-globalization are the status quo.
But if populism could not at present take a distinctively protectionist stance vis-à-vis the outside world, since the protectionist space was already occupied, it could take a distinctively anti-protectionist stance vis-à-vis the domestic protectionist regime. The regime of protection has been characterized in populist terms as a project of political, cognitive, public health, mainstream media, and professional elites. These elites – so runs the critique – have been at best inconvenienced by the regime of protection. They can work from home, and they continue to draw their salaries. They can afford the luxury of hyper-protection; they can afford to minimize the risk of contagion at the expense of everything else.
On this account, “the people” cannot afford the luxury of lockdown-level hyper-protection. But the populist claim is also that “the people” don’t need or wantthis degree of protection. Gendered imagery, which is often central to populism, comes into play here as well. “The people” are seen as tough, resilient, brave, and willing to take risks, the elite as soft, coddled, anxious, oversensitive, and risk-averse. Gender symbolism is also central to the cultural politics of masks, though of course the performance of unmasked virility forgets that masks are much less about protecting oneself than about protecting others.
Protectionist elites have also been resented during the pandemic for their moralizing, scolding, and school-teacherish stance. They have been cast in populist terms as all too eager to lecture ordinary people about how they should behave and all too ready to reprimand them for their selfish heedlessness of others when they have violated social distancing guidelines. Since protectionist elites have invoked the authority of science, the sudden pivot of many to applauding mass protests and minimizing their public health risks – or justifying those risks by appealing to a greater good – was easily seen by populists as undermining their authority and credibility. The pivot was especially disorienting when it was made by public health experts, as in the open letter signed by a large group of public health and infectious disease professionals, arguing that “as public health advocates, we do not condemn these gatherings as risky for Covid-19 transmission” but rather “support them as vital to the national public health and to the threatened health specifically of Black people in the United States”.
Populist skepticism of Corona-protectionism aligns with a broader popular skepticism of what is seen as elite overprotectiveness in culture, education, and everyday life. This is a skepticism toward what one prominent book (Lukianoff and Haidt 2018) has called “safetyism,” referring to the efforts of anxious parents to protect their children from even the most minimal risks and to the demand for “safe spaces,” and for the protection of students’ feelings, in American universities. Populist opposition to Corona protectionism may have drawn some of its energy from this broader current of skepticism.
The pandemic has not generated a coherent or large-scale populist response. But the lockdowns have created a reservoir of popular anger, and they have fostered the emergence of a populist mood among substantial parts of the population. They have heightened distrust of expertise, exacerbated antipathy to intrusive government regulation, and amplified skepticism toward elite overprotectiveness.
Could these forms of proto-populist discontent coalesce in a narrative according to which misguided and out-of-touch experts, power-hungry regulators, and excessively risk-averse elites combined to wreck the economy, destroy livelihoods and trample on liberties? Might such a narrative gain broad public support? This cannot be excluded.
What makes the present moment so fraught is that the dynamics of medical, economic, political, and epistemic crises interpenetrate in complex and largely unforeseeable ways. The future course of the pandemic, for example, itself depends on many complexly interacting processes. Among these are what people believe or know about the pandemic, and how they act on that knowledge – whether they wear masks, for example, and whether and how they practice physical distancing – as well as what decisions are taken about modalities and timing of reopening. But what people believe or know about the pandemic is shaped by chaotic and shifting public messaging, embedded in a polarized media ecosystem, and colored by the challenges to expertise that I have described. And how they act depends not only on what they think or know but also on social pressures and expectations in their immediate environment. Decisions about modalities and timing of reopening, for their part, respond both to contested knowledge about the dynamics of the pandemic and to political pressures generated by the economic crisis and filtered through the prism of hyper-polarized partisan politics.
If the curve of infections turns substantially upward as a result of these and other interacting processes (as had already happened, by late June, in much of the South and Southwest), this will generate new claims to knowledge and new pressures for action. But these new knowledge claims will remain deeply contested and beset with deep uncertainty. They will yield no unambiguous and uncontested guidelines for action. The crisis of expertise is likely to deepen, and with it, the political crisis over how to respond to the pandemic, especially against the horizon of an approaching election. And this of course only begins to scratch the surface of the complex interpenetration of medical, economic, political, and epistemic crises. We should not complacently assume that the past is a good guide to the future. We are truly in uncharted territory.
Rogers Brubaker teaches sociology at UCLA. His most recent books are Grounds for Difference and Trans: Gender and Race in an Age of Unsettled Identities. His current book project addresses digital hyperconnectivity and its discontents.
I thank Alexander Ferrer for research assistance and Zsolt Boda, Ben Brubaker, Elizabeth Brubaker, Craig Calhoun, Zsuzsa Csergő, and Bill Heffernan for comments and criticisms. Thanks also to Inger Furseth of the University of Oslo and Margit Feischmidt of the Center for Social Sciences, Hungarian Academy of Sciences for arranging the webinars in which earlier versions of this essay were presented.
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 Calculated from county-level data as of May 28, downloaded from https://usafacts.org/visualizations/coronavirus-covid-19-spread-map/.
 The open letter can be found at https://drive.google.com/file/d/1Jyfn4Wd2i6bRi12ePghMHtX3ys1b7K1A/view