In 1968, journalist Tom Wicker — he covered politics and wrote a column for the New York Times — produced a little book about the diverse personalities he observed during the presidencies of John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson.

Wicker was an observer, not a partisan, and he had a sharp eye for detail. I stumbled across the book recently and was surprised to find it remains a compelling read — an insightful account of when political leadership works and when it fails. One passage stays with me.

“The first and most fundamental task of the American politician ought to be that of public education,” Wicker wrote, “the enlightenment of the electorate he represents, a constituency that in the nature of the case and in the process of its own business will not have the time, opportunity or inclination that he had to inform itself about the realities of an ever more complex and shrinking world.”

Imagine that: The chief job of a politician ought to be educating his/her constituents.

As northern Idaho plugged into the dank and dangerous waters of a health care system in breakdown, it’s worth pausing for a moment to consider how one entire state has reached the point where its first-world health care system is in chaos. Ten Idaho hospitals and health care systems are now dealing with rationing health care because their facilities are overrun with unvaccinated patients and lacking adequate staff. Republicans, it seems, have finally found their “death panels.”

The simple answer to the question of how Idaho got here is, of course, a deadly strain of virus — the delta variant of COVID-19 — but the deeper and even more troubling answer relates to propaganda, misinformation, political manipulation and a rank inability by many of our fellow citizens to think critically and act responsibly during a crisis.

The Idaho Capital Sun presented a remarkable example of all this earlier this week in an interview with a physician in the mountain town of McCall. Dr. Patrick Kinney is at the end of understanding.

“We just don’t understand why people have trusted us for years,” Kinney told reporter Audrey Dutton, “and they’ve gone through all manner of uncomfortable things on our recommendation. Right? Like every 10 years, they’ve agreed to letting us put a 6-foot camera up their butt for a colonoscopy. Every year or three years or five years, ... they’ll get up in the stirrups, get a cold metal speculum put in their vagina for a Pap smear. And, you know, get a flu shot and get a pneumonia shot, get a shingles shot.”

Yet, Kinney said, with this deadly virus it’s different. “It’s like you just say the words ‘COVID vaccine,’ and their faces change, their eyes glaze over,” Kinney said. “They somehow feel like they’ve got better information than we do. And I don’t understand it, I really don’t. I don’t get it.”

Here’s the cultural and political reality: The origin story of where Idaho began to change — go off the rails — goes back to when the state became the exclusive reserve of one political party that has increasingly found itself playing to the most extreme elements in that party. Idaho has become a case study of what happens to a state where political leaders, during an extended period of time, systematically underfunded education, denied science, debased expertise and lied to supporters about a host of issues.

The breakdown in basic trust of public institutions — hospitals, doctors, health districts, scientists — the near total disdain for education and the rejection of expertise are all aspects of a political system that seeks to appease its most far-out members rather than lead them. Little wonder Idaho’s vaccination rates are among the worst in the country.

Consider one example. Earlier this year, the overwhelmingly Republican Idaho Legislature voted to strip the power of local public health districts issuing orders related to public health. Only partisan county commissioners — most of whom have refused to act or embraced conspiracy and misinformation — were left with any meaningful role in dealing with the kind of public health emergency that has now taken Idaho hospitals to the edge.

“Listening to experts to set policy is an elitist approach,” Republican state Sen.Steven Thayn declared, as he perfectly summarized the incoherence of the GOP’s governing elite.

“I’m also fearful that it leads to totalitarianism,” Thayn said, “especially when you say, well, we’re doing it for the public good.”

It was then totally predictable that the health district serving Idaho’s capital city would act recently to appoint to its board a patently unqualified, COVID-19-denying pathologist. That doctor, Ryan Cole, immediately began dispensing policy advice, the kind of advice that is apparently OK in Idaho since it conforms with what the most fevered Republican voters want to hear.

“I think we need to be prudent and say it’s time to let children be children. Delta is going to spread, we cannot stop it,” Cole told the board of a local charter school. “Everybody’s essentially going to get it.”

In short: Ignore science; let them die.

Cole’s advice, of course, contradicts vast expert opinion about how to control the pandemic and completely ignores the deaths that can be prevented. Southern Idaho is almost certainly now headed toward the level of hospital crisis already overwhelming the north.

Yet, no Idaho Republican of standing — the governor, statewide elected officials, the congressional delegation, the party’s legislative leadership — has had a word to say about the lies and misinformation. Doing so, let’s be honest, would subject them to instant abuse, perhaps physical threats, and certain political challenge.

The impacts of the wholesale political manipulation of conservative voters we are seeing now has been a long time coming. The serial Republican lies — tax cuts pay for themselves, Marxists run higher education, climate change is a hoax, liberal judges are activists, immigrants and refugees present a danger to America, an election was stolen — and the fears these lies spawn have swamped the political right for decades. Little wonder people began to believe them.

Republican elected officials, the handful who really know better, know they have lost any ability to educate and reason with many of their followers. They stood by in silence while Fox News polluted cable television, while the crackpots at the Idaho Freedom Foundation defined the party’s agenda, while a corrupt con man took over their party and while lies and misinformation kill thousands.

To those who harbor a belief that this will change, that reason and enlightenment will one day seep back into conservative politics, I say — get over it. Most Republicans aren’t even trying to educate and inform their electorate. They are afraid of what will happen if they suddenly begin to speak the truth. We should all be afraid of what will continue to happen now that they have quit trying.

Johnson served as press secretary and chief of staff to the late former Idaho Gov. Cecil D. Andrus. He lives in Manzanita, Ore.