Donald Trump recently created a stir by retweeting a call by a Republican politician to fire Dr. Anthony Fauci. The reason: Fauci had the temerity to contradict the president on scientific facts. Then, whether out of fear or a willful suspension of intellect, the president’s coronavirus task force coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx proclaimed that Trump has been “so attentive to the scientific literature and the details and the data”—in contradiction to the avalanche of lies Trump puts out in his daily propaganda rallies masquerading as pandemic briefings.
Yet these are but surface examples of an ongoing tension between experts and Trumpists. It is a dynamic that has been at play since the very beginning of the administration: the war between experts and propagandists, between actual facts and “alternative facts.” Driving it is a wave of anti-intellectualism growing in America. And now, in this era of pandemic, tens of thousands of American lives are at stake. So, too, is the nation’s credibility. Given Donald Trump’s relentless antipathy toward truth and expertise, the outlook doesn’t look promising.
As the novel coronavirus rampaged across the country, a storm broke out in the White House over how to respond. Rather than taking dramatic actions early on to curtail the spread of the virus and prepare states and hospitals to meet the coming surge, the administration reverted to its profound anti-intellectualism, all in a bid to deflect its own failure in protecting American lives.
Disturbingly, Trump promoted the anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine to tackle the virus, despite the fact that it hasn’t gone through the proper testing and approval process. After hearing about a country doctor in upstate New York who claimed to have treated patients for the disease with a cocktail of hydroxychloroquine and other drugs with positive results, the president ran with it as a magic bullet. “I’ll tell you what, what do you have to lose?” he said. A just-released Department of Veterans Affairs study shows not only no benefit from use of hydroxychloroquine, but there were more deaths among patients given the drug.
Then, Trump’s trade adviser Peter Navarro asserted that studies have showed the drug to have “clear therapeutic efficacy” in treating Covid-19 patients. Asked his qualifications for making such a claim, Navarro told CNN, “I’m a social scientist.” Others also trumpeting the medicine include the president’s usual Fox News chorus, led by Sean Hannity, and Rudolf Giuliani. This has had real impact: the White House directed health officials to put the anti-malarial medication ahead of other efforts to combat the outbreak. The federal government has since stockpiled 29 million pills.
Scientists, however, are counseling caution. “In terms of science, I don’t think we can definitively say it works,” said Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top epidemiologist. American Medical Association President Patrice Harris added: “You could lose your life. It’s unproven.” Axios reported a major blow-up in the situation room at one point between Navarro and a skeptical Fauci, who has confided to colleagues that Trump “almost always” ignores the advice he gives him before the daily press briefings.
Trump’s own CDC issued a statement on April 7 saying, “There are no drugs or other therapeutics approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to prevent or treat COVID-19.” Medical experts are cautioning it will take a minimum of 12 to 18 months to come up with a vaccine.
In the meantime, Trump is putting the public health at even greater risk by propagating lies and misinformation. As of this writing, the coronavirus has claimed nearly 50,000 American lives. Fatalities far surpass those in China, a nation with four times our population. And the rate of confirmed cases is growing faster in the United States than in all of Western Europe. The University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation predicts some 67,000 Americans could die by August. Right now, one American dies of coronavirus every 45 seconds.
How many more will die depends on who is calling the shots: experts or hacks.
The Trump administration’s attitude toward science can only be described as contemptuous. There has been an 85 percent turnover of federal agency senior executives, and President Trump has failed to appoint anyone to nearly half of the federal scientific leadership positions. More often than not, Trump appointees are unqualified and ideologically driven.
Trump’s disdain for science comes with grievous consequences. He was alerted by the intelligence community of an emerging pandemic in January. Still, the president squandered more than two months before treating the issue seriously. That came after he disbanded the National Security Council’s pandemic team and defunded a $200 million USAID program for detecting virus outbreaks overseas. Simply put, the president rid the government of some of its best resources to prepare for and respond to this kind of emergency. These actions come on top of the administration’s measures to marginalize science and fact-based research, including denying climate change.
But Trumpism did not come out of nowhere. Undergirding the president’s war on expertise is a recurrent strain of anti-intellectualism in America’s social and political DNA. As the late writer Isaac Asimov observed, “There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.’”
Trump panders to rightwing populists’ contempt for empirical facts and expert knowledge. Rush Limbaugh, whom Trump awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, has named science as one of his so-called Four Corners of Deceit, which also include government, academia and media. The coronavirus, Limbaugh said, “appears far less deadly” than the flu, but the government and the mainstream news media “keep promoting panic.”
The evangelical movement, a bedrock of Trump’s base, promotes an anti-science culture that rejects critical thinking. Pro-Trump Pentecostal preacher Rodney Howard-Browne has called his followers to attend church services in defiance of social distancing restrictions, dismissing coronavirus as a “phantom plague.”
Of course, it’s no surprise that anti-intellectualism also extends into the halls of Congress, where a sitting congressman declared a few years ago that evolution and the Big Bang are “lies straight from the pit of hell,” and where the chairman of a Senate environmental committee brought a snowball into the chamber to prove that climate change is a hoax.
The coronavirus is not a hoax. It’s a mega-killer. A month after President Trump assured everyone that it would “go away,” more than 850,000 Americans have tested positive and the U.S. leads the world in the number of Covid-19-related deaths. Now, with his call over the weekend to “liberate” states imposing shelter-in-place orders, and red-state governors taking a care-free approach to social distancing, the risk of these numbers burgeoning out of control becomes very real.
Perhaps reality will sink in as the body count rises. Statistics, after all, are stubborn things. No amount of bluster, bluffing, and bullshit by the president and his enablers can obfuscate or contradict them. If there was ever a moment when it should be clear to voters why the nation needs a return to policies based on facts, knowledge, and science, this is it.