“As democracy is perfected, the office of president represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.” H.L. Mencken, The Evening Sun, July 26, 1920
The consequences of science-hostile policies rarely have an immediate impact. It will take decades for climate change to create the “dystopian hellscape” forecast by experts on the subject. If we stop providing public education, it will take decades for the country decades to run out of educated workers. If the EPA stops doing its job entirely, large numbers of people won’t drop dead from hexavalent chromium poisoning next week, next month, or even next year. Thus, it is unusual for hostility to science and expertise to have consequences that can be immediately traced back to the people still in office.
This is why coronavirus, or COVID-19, brings an entirely new dimension to the conservative war on science and expertise. Conservatives have worked for decades to discredit scientists, and the administration has been actively gagging or eliminating experts in federal service that are inconvenient. Now, as a result, the failures of the Trump administration in containing, preventing, and quarantining the spread of the infection have the potential to be felt within months, and well before the 2020 election.
Trump was never one to listen to experts, scientists, or boring details, and he’s nearly incapable of accepting information he doesn’t want to hear. Briefers have been told not to present him with information that contradicts something he has said in public. Trump has been called a “fucking moron”, “dope”, “moron”, “fucking idiot”, “dumb as shit”, and “has the understanding of a fifth or sixth grader,” and this is by members of his own cabinet, much less Democratic opponents. However, he is exactly what the base wanted.
They didn’t want Republicans who sounded like Ivy-League educated lawyers, especially not after Barack and Michelle Obamas (who were exactly that). They wanted someone who saw the world the way they did and sounded like the political voices they trusted the most, someone who resembled college dropouts like Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and the team at Fox News.
Trump’s intellectual indifference was no different with COVID-19; his aides warned the Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar against briefing Trump on coronavirus in January because he is upset by bad news and often misinterprets the information he is presented with. To wit: When Trump was first briefed, he was not only uninterested in what he saw as a Chinese problem, he wanted to argue with Azar about flavored e-cigarettes instead.
Later, as it became apparent the problem would become an American one too, Trump was consistently presented with unlikely best-case scenarios as truth to avoid his wrath. The Trump White House was also behind the 8-ball from the beginning because there were no in-house experts in the administration: the White House team of experts responsible for pandemic preparation and response had been fired two years prior in 2018 as a cost cutting measure.
Thus, when Trump finally was briefed, he was motivated to downplay it for several reasons. He has made the economy the focus of his pitch to be re-elected, and has used the stock market as a barometer of his economic policies. He is reticent to do anything about the coronavirus that might negatively affect consumer confidence, the stock market, or the economy as a whole.
Trump also never admits mistakes, and dislikes backtracking or giving the appearance of ever having been wrong. Everything he does has to be the best or perfect. Thus, he declared that the administration’s initial responses to COVID-19 CDC tests were “…all perfect like the letter was perfect. The transcription was perfect. Right? This was not as perfect as that but pretty good.” The tests were not “perfect”.
He also vastly overestimated his knowledge of epidemiology in a classic example of the Dunning-Kruger Effect. “Every one of these doctors said: ‘How do you know so much about this?’ Maybe I have a natural ability,” he boasted during a visit to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Except that Trump had no idea that vaccines don’t cure diseases, or that the flu vaccine wouldn’t prevent the spread of COVID-19. Nor did he know that people could die of the flu, even though it is what his grandfather succumbed to. He has also vastly overstated how quickly a vaccine might be available, because he apparently does not understand the difference between entering trials and becoming ready for public use.
Early in the outbreak, Trump downplayed the need for any sort of vigorous government response. While the virus’ transmission rate is temperature sensitive, experts warn that warmer climates do not entirely prevent its spread. Nevertheless, he repeatedly claimed that the virus will simply go away when warmer weather comes. “By April, you know, in theory, when it gets a little warmer, it miraculously goes away,” he stated. This unfounded hypothesis ignores Australia’s current outbreak in the middle of its summer. Even if true, it was the second wave of Spanish Flu–in the fall of 1918–that caused most of the fatalities in the US.
On February 26, 2020 Trump called a press conference, removed HHS director Azar from leadership of the COVID-19 response, and placed Mike Pence in charge. During the press conference he blamed the outbreak on “open borders” and immigrants. He also claimed that, “The 15 [cases] within a couple of days is going to be down to close to zero.” WHO Special Adviser to the Director Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel watched the briefing, and described it as “incoherent.” He observed that “[Trump] just revealed how ignorant he is about the situation… [There is] no evidence that the president or people around him that have been planning this have been taking this seriously.”
While Azar’s qualifications were so-so, Pence’s most prominent foray into public health had been banning needle exchanges as governor of Indiana over the objection of experts. This led to the largest HIV outbreak in the history of the state. The first order of business for Pence’s task force was making sure all HHS and CDC information on COVID-19 went through the Vice President’s office first before it was released to the public. This led to a perceived lack of transparency by lawmakers and a public which already were reluctant to trust an administration with such a loose connection to the truth.
Days later Trump declared that the danger had passed and the situation was contained completely. “We closed it down; we stopped it. Otherwise — the head of CDC said last night that you would have thousands of more problems if we didn’t shut it down very early. That was a very early shutdown, which is something we got right.” His premature, and ultimately false, claim of containment was based on his administration banning travel from China, which experts had already warned would do little to halt the spread of the disease. Trump had also been pushing to keep testing as limited as possible to keep the number of confirmed cases artificially low in order to make himself look better.
Trump also repeatedly contradicted experts regarding the handling of the outbreak. He decided to quarantine passengers on a cruise ship off the coast of California, risking another mass outbreak like that on the Diamond Princess in Japan. He also overruled CDC experts and forbade them from issuing a warning to the elderly and frail to avoid air travel, for fear that it would disrupt the economy and send a message that everything might not actually be totally perfect and under control. The US response to the virus was slow and mild compared to other developed nations with similar outbreaks, such as South Korea, Japan, and Italy. The President also promised to continue to hold his campaign rallies (though none are now scheduled).
Trump and his media surrogates worked diligently to downplay any sort of concern among the base, while working to shut down the voices of experts at the CDC and obscure anything that might cause worry. Rush Limbaugh declared coronavirus an “overhyped hoax” meant to derail the president’s reelection chances. He also promoted the conspiracy theory that Dr. Nancy Messonier, a senior CDC official handling the COVID-19 response, was part of a plot to hurt Trump.
A guest on Laura Ingraham’s Fox News show told people not to listen to the CDC about COVID-19 because it’s a “highly politicized [liberal] organization.” White House National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow went on CNBC to contradict the CDC’s warnings, claiming that “We have contained this, I won’t say airtight but pretty close to airtight.”
Trump even went so far as to call in to the Sean Hannity Show on Fox and claim that people with coronavirus get better, “by, you know, sitting around and even going to work.” He also contradicted the CCD’s mortality rate numbers, and insisted there’s little difference between COVID-19 and a regular flu. “A lot of people will have this, and it’s very mild. They will get better very rapidly. They don’t even see a doctor.”
The CDC has been trying to warn the public since early January 2020, despite the administration’s efforts to gag them. Later, during the phase where containment might have been possible, the tests issued by CDC were failing to reliably detect COVID-19, and FDA policy hampered other organizations from developing their own tests. The US government had been offered test kits by the World Health Organization, but inexplicably declined them and decided to rely entirely on the CDC developing one. Neither the CDC nor the Pence-led task force will say who made this decision that crippled US testing efforts for weeks.
To make matters worse, only people who had traveled to an infected area, or had contact with a person known to be infected, were allowed to be tested when they became available. In effect, this made it difficult to detect community transmission, creating a situation where there was a great degree of uncertainty over how many people were infected, and artificially lowering the number of confirmed cases.
This was, in part, intentional. Trump actively encouraged Pence and the CDC to keep the numbers artificially low. The CDC obliged, and stopped tracking how many people have been tested, while CDC-reported cases lag behind the European Union and Johns Hopkins University estimates.
In late February of 2020, the CDC defied Trump and warned that the spread of coronavirus in the US “appears inevitable,” and that hospitals “may be overwhelmed.” Despite the administration’s claims that there is no danger, numerous epidemiologists agree that the high transmission rate of coronavirus combined with the lack of any immunity means that anywhere between 40-80% of the world’s population can expect to become infected.
Scientists within the government secretly fume over the damage Trump’s misinformation is doing to public health. Dr James Lawler, a professor at the University of Nebraska Medical Centre, briefed the American Hospital Association to prepare for 96 million infected and 480,000 dead based on his calculations.
Still, the US response has lagged. Tests are still in short supply, and first responders are woefully unprepared in both equipment or training. Lack of communication means that many of them have no idea they are dealing with suspected cases of the virus. At the same time, the US is uniquely vulnerable to this epidemic among the developed nations due to lack of insurance, high individual health care costs, no federal sick leave laws for workers, and people who are being told “come in to work or you’re fired.” The US also ranks 32nd out of 40 OECD countries in hospital beds per 1000 people to begin with, while about 15-20% of people who contract COVID-19 will require hospitalization.
Thus, Dr James Lawler, a professor at the University of Nebraska Medical Centre, briefed the American Hospital Association to be prepared for 96 million infected, and 480,000 dead based on his calculations the same day the President announced there would soon be zero cases of COVID-19.
Jennifer Wright, author of Get Well Soon: History’s Worst Plagues and The Heroes that Fought Them, identified four ways governments fail at dealing with epidemics: by denying that the disease is a problem, by suppressing scientific information, by blaming minorities, and by claiming that those who fall ill are doing so because they are sinners. She noted the US has failed at the first three already.
Despite Trump’s inept leadership and chaotic messaging, his administration has been successful in discrediting the CDC and convincing the Trumpist base that everything is just hunky-dory. According to a Reuters/Ipsos poll, only 20% of Republicans see coronavirus as an imminent threat to the US. Less than half were washing their hands more, and only 3% changing their travel plans. Other polls showed the same results: Republicans were half as likely as Democrats to take the threat of COVID-19 seriously.
After decades of undermining and demonizing academics, scientists, and subject matter experts, conservatives had successfully managed to convince the vast majority of their political base to ignore the experts trying to save them from a pandemic that is highly lethal to people over the age of 60.
The median age of a Fox News viewer is 68.