Science denial in America didn’t begin with the Trump administration, but under the leadership of President Trump, it has blossomed. From the climate crisis to the COVID-19 pandemic, this rejection of scientific authority has become a hallmark of and cultural signal among many in conservative circles. This phenomenon has been on recent display in Louisiana, where a clear anti-mask sentiment has emerged in the streets and online even as COVID-19 cases rise.
“Are you a masker or a free breather?” Pastor Tony Spell asked the crowd while speaking from the bed of a pickup truck at a July 4 “Save America” rally in Baton Rouge. At the end of March Spell gained international attention for his refusal to stop his church’s services despite Gov. John Bel Edwards’ stay-at-home order, which was issued to slow Louisiana’s rapid rise in COVID-19 cases.
“It has never been about a virus — it is about destroying America,” Spell claimed, before equating a government whose public health measures restrict church gatherings and require protective face coverings in public to Germany under Hitler. A crowd of less than 200 roared in agreement at the rally that was held across from the governor’s mansion.
Pastor Tony Spell speaking at the “Save America” rally in Baton Rouge on July 4.
Attendees of the “Save America” rally in Baton Rouge on July 4 including one holding a fan.
On July 8, another conservative voice, Louisiana State Representative Danny McCormick, posted a video on Facebook making a similar comparison to Nazi Germany. “This isn’t about whether you want to wear a mask or you don’t want to wear a mask — this is about your right to wear a mask or not,” McCormick said. “This is about liberty. Your body is your private property … People who don’t wear a mask will be soon painted as the enemy — just as they did the Jews in Nazi Germany. Now is the time to push back before it is too late.”
At a press conference the day after McCormick posted his video, Gov. Edwards announced that the state had lost its previous gains against the coronavirus.
McCormick’s statements come about six months into a public health crisis that has infected 71,884 Louisiana residents and killed 3,247, as of July 9. Despite the pandemic’s accelerating and deadly spread, the complaints by McCormick, Pastor Spell, and the others joining them at a handful of protests in Baton Rouge illustrate a pervasive disdain for science held by many associated with the Republican Party.
State Representative Danny McCormick at an “End the Shutdown” protest in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, on April 25.
State Representative Danny McCormick’s talking points on an index card he held while making a speech during an “End the Shutdown” rally in Baton Rouge on April 25.
A DeSmog investigation found that a number of groups behind protests against pandemic stay-home orders are also part of the climate change countermovement, a term coined by sociologist Robert Brulle. U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) has called this network of individuals and organizations disputing climate science the “web of denial.”
April and May rallies in Louisiana pushing to open the state followed larger rallies in Idaho, Michigan, and North Dakota. Helping tie together what Trump has called the “liberate” movement is the State Policy Network (SPN). As DeSmog has reported, SPN is “a network of state-level conservative think tanks advancing pro-corporate agendas, [and] has received money from the likes of the Koch family, the Devos family, the Mercer Family Foundation, and others.”
Woman with a Covid-19 denial sign at an “End the Shutdown” protest in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, on April 25.
Woman with a Covid-19 denial sign sporting a message for Bill Gates, a common target of the right wing, at an “End the Shutdown” protest in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, on April 25.
At an April 25 “End the Shutdown” rally in Baton Rouge, rally-goers, led by Rep. McCormick, marched from the State Capitol building to the nearby lawn across from the governor’s mansion to express their anger with his handling of the crisis. In a speech, McCormick offered talking points to counter Gov. Edwards’ emergency orders meant to address the COVID-19 pandemic. The talking points mirrored a memo sent by GOP political operative Jay Connaughton to Republican State Sen. Sharon Hewitt and shared with GOP state legislators. Hewitt is one of Louisiana’s top conservative leaders. In 2018 she was named “National Legislator of the Year” by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).
Veronica Lemoa, a stay-at-home mother, at an “End the Shutdown” protest on April 25, 2020 in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
Young girl at an “Open Louisiana” event in Baton Rouge on May 2 across from the Governor’s Mansion.
Despite President Trump’s praise for Gov. Edwards, a Democrat, for his handling of the pandemic, anti-mask protesters are equating the governor’s stay-at-home order and mask mandate with the first step to tyranny. Spell, who was arrested for defying the mask mandate, did not stop with his sharp criticism of the governor — and also had some for Trump. While he is glad the Trump administration deemed churches “essential,” in order to reopen them, Spell proclaimed that he doesn’t need the president’s permission, and warned: “If they can give you your right to go to church, then they can take from you your right to go to church.”
Pastor Tony Spell speaking on the July 4 at rally in Baton Rouge.
At the July 4 rally, many expressed their support for Trump, and saw the upcoming presidential election as the most important in their lifetime. They labeled those who wear protective face coverings “sheep.” Out of the less than 200 rally-goers, I saw only two people with face masks. One was worn by a man that had the words “Dixie Beer” painted on it, which was expressing his disdain over the decision by the owner of the New Orleans beer company to change the beer’s name in response to anti-racism demonstrations. The other mask I noticed at the rally was worn on a woman’s arm.
The only man wearing a mask on his face at a “Save America” rally in Baton Rouge on July 4. He expressed his displeasure that the owner of Dixie Beer is changing the New Orleans beer’s name.
Woman wearing a face mask on her arm at the “Save America” rally in Baton Rouge on July 4.
In an April 1 op-ed in Newsweek, Rochester Institute of Technology philosophy professor Lawrence Torcello, and Pennsylvania State University climate scientist Michael E. Mann wrote: “Unfortunately, President Trump has again emerged as a leading source of disinformation. Having called COVID-19, as he previously did with climate change, a ’hoax,’ he now resorts to calling COVID-19 the ‘Chinese Virus.’ In the case of both COVID-19 and climate change, he has outsourced policy decision-making to science deniers. In both cases he is as wrong as he is xenophobic — and in both cases his predictable disinformation endangers lives.”
In February, before the first COVID-19 cases were identified in Louisiana, Gov. Edwards finally broke away from Trump on espousing climate science denial.
“Louisiana will not just accept or adapt to climate change impacts,” Edwards stated at a news conference in Baton Rouge. “Louisiana will do its part to address climate change.” In a reversal of his previous statements that questioned humans’ well-established role in driving the climate crisis, he said, “Science tells us that rising sea level will become the biggest challenge we face, threatening to overwhelm our best efforts to protect and restore our coast. Science also tells us that sea level rise is being driven by global greenhouse gas emissions.”
But Sharon Lavigne, founder of RISE St. James, a community group fighting petrochemical industry expansion in Louisiana’s Cancer Alley, doubts his sincerity. “If the governor is serious about reducing carbon emissions, he needs to pull the plug on Formosa.” Plastics giant Formosa is poised to start building a petrochemical complex in St. James Parish that has received permits to spew the emissions equivalent of 2.6 million cars.
Petrochemical companies are one of Louisiana’s top producers of carbon dioxide, one of the globe-warming gases linked to human-caused climate change. However, the governor has not walked back his support of Formosa’s project.
Edwards was the first governor in the country to point out that African Americans are being disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. But he has yet to address the impact which ongoing pollution from the petrochemical industry plays in the poor health of predominantly Black communities living near existing plants, or future ones, such as Formosa’s in St. James Parish.
Many U.S. leaders have failed to take to heart scientists’ warnings that half-measures to combat climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic won’t work. Meanwhile, temperatures across America are hitting new record highs, and cases of the coronavirus continue to rise exponentially, leading top U.S. infectious disease official Dr. Anthony Fauci to advise states “having a serious problem” with a surge in coronavirus cases to “seriously look at shutting down.”
Protester across from the Governor’s Mansion in Baton Rouge on May 2 with a protest sign against Anthony Fauci, Bill Gates, and the “New World Order.”
Protesters across from the Governor’s Mansion in Baton Rouge on May 2.
“As with climate change, theoretical models have proven essential for anticipating what is likely to happen in the future. In the case of coronavirus, the initial spread of this virus is occurring at an exponential rate as models predicted,” Torcello and Mann pointed out in their Newsweek op-ed. “This means we can anticipate that larger sums of people will become infected in the coming weeks. We know the majority of those infected by COVID-19 will experience mild or no symptoms while remaining highly contagious, and we know that for others, COVID-19 will create the need for ventilators and other emergency medical supports that we do not yet have in sufficient supply. It is worth emphasizing: The fact that most people will experience mild symptoms is irrelevant to a crisis, like COVID-19, which is grounded in the math of large numbers.”
In his 1995 book The Demon-Haunted World, astronomer and science writer Carl Sagan presaged, with trepidation, an America wherein “our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness…a kind of celebration of ignorance.”
After viewing some of my photos from the recent “Save America” rally, Mann wrote in an email: “These people, sadly, are the purest embodiment of Sagan’s chilling prophecy.”
Protester across from the Governor’s Mansion on May 2 with a protest sign that is a variation of the Gandsen Flag.
Trump supporters at a rally across from the Governor’s Mansion on July 4.
Protesters at an “End the Shutdown” event in Baton Rouge on April 25 march from the Capital Building to the Governor’s Mansion nearby.
Main image: Woman holding an anti-mask sign at a July 4 “Save America” rally in Baton Rouge. Credit: All photos and video by Julie Dermansky for DeSmog