Donald Trump and Mike Pence
Credit: The White House/Flickr

Hopes are rapidly rising for a COVID-19 vaccine. The World Health Organization recently announced that as many as 102 potential candidates are currently under development—eight of them already in clinical trials. President Donald Trump has called for his own ambitious vaccine research program, dubbed “Operation Warp Speed,” with the goal of finding a cure by year-end. If all goes well, a vaccine could be available en masse by January, according to Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top epidemiologist and a key member of the White House coronavirus task force.

These developments are good news. As United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said this week, only a vaccine can return the world to “normalcy,” while all other measures, such as universal testing, will only mitigate the spread of the infectious disease.

But if and when a vaccine is available, will Americans actually give it their trust?

Under any circumstances, there would be some skepticism. Even reasonable citizens might show some caution in embracing new and relatively unproven therapies. This skepticism, however, could take on epic proportions under Trump’s leadership. The president’s near-constant stream of lies, misinformation, obfuscations, and half-truths has systematically destroyed Americans’ last reserves of trust in government. A logical consequence of this behavior is that many Americans will end up wary of a cure produced by the administration, even with rock-solid proof of its efficacy.

This could be catastrophic. Public reluctance to accept a vaccine will mean continued suffering, despite a treatment in hand, and an even slower road back toregular life. As much as Trump would like to believe that a vaccine would be gratefully embraced by all Americans—no doubt a catalyst for his urgency in pursuing one—Trump himself has made that outcome less likely.

Even in the best of situations, persuading Americans to get their shots isn’t easy. Fewer than half of Americans get their flu shots every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. During the H1N1 pandemic of 2009-2010, only 27 percent of Americans were ever vaccinated, despite relatively high-profile public health campaigns and the availability of free vaccinations to anyone who wanted one. As a result, H1N1 continues to sicken and kill Americans every year—albeit at rates far, far below that of COVID-19.

Scholarly analyses of the public’s response to the H1N1 vaccine find a correlation—even if it’s a relatively small one—between general levels of public trust in government and vaccination rates. Much more significant in influencing vaccination ratesis the quality and consistency of official communications from government officials. More than anything, that’s what enables citizens to accept official advice and trust in a treatment’s safety. “Individuals and institutions are trusted when the public perceives that they are knowledgeable and expert, they are open and honest, and concerned and caring,” as one study found. All of these are standards that the president and his administration have repeatedly failed to clear.

Trump himself has been a font of misinformation and conflicting advice. He boosted the anti-malaria drug chloroquine (now shown to be both ineffective and deadly) and made utterly unsupported claims that the virus will “go away” with the summer heat. Then, he suggested that injecting oneself with disinfectants could be a treatment for COVID-19, a proposal met with horror from public health experts—and a stern warning from the makers of Lysol.

The president has also failed to be “open and honest.” He has undermined the credibility of public health officials and governors in whom Americans put more faith. More than once, his false statements have forced his top public health officials to issue “clarifications” that contradict his own baseless claims. At the same time, Trump has encouraged resistance against the restrictions imposed by his own administration, such as through his pointed refusal to wear a face mask in defiance of CDC guidance.

Trump has also failed to convey any sense of empathy for the people hardest-hitby the ravages of the virus’s outbreak. According to an analysis by the Washington Post, Trump has spent just four and a half minutes expressing condolences for the pandemic’s victims while spending 45 minutes praising himself over more than 13 hours of airtime during a three-week period.

Even “Operation Warp Speed,” Trump’s push for a vaccine, smacks of political expediency more than a genuine concern to save lives. According to the New York Times, Trump has repeatedly urged a faster timetable, despite consistent warnings from public health experts of the risks of rushing through the process.

These fears are certainly justified, given the administration’s record of missteps in its pandemic response. For instance, flawed coronavirus test kits ordered by the CDC set back the nation’s testing capacity by weeks in the early onset of the crisis. The FDA’s rush to approve antibody test kits has now led to a flood of inaccurate or outright fraudulent tests on the market.

It’s no surprise, then, that Americans feel awash in misinformation and conflicting guidance. A new survey from the Pew Research Center finds that about half of respondents say they find it difficult to sort fact from fiction in their daily news consumption. Nearly two-thirds of Americans say they’ve seen some news “that seemed completely made up.”

This confusion makes the public a ripe target for anti-vaccine misinformation campaigns, which the Associated Press recently reported are already in high gear. “I don’t want the government forcing it on my community or my family,” activist Rita Palma told the AP. In addition to sowing doubts about the effectiveness of a potential vaccine, these groups are organizing resistance against the possibility of mandating its usage, a headache that governments will be forced to confront.

The consequence of all of these failures is a public that is rightfully suspicious of the Trump administration’s motives and competence as it joins the race for a cure. Recent polls find that only 23 percent say they trust Trump’s information “a great deal.” Fewer than half would follow his recommendations. Even most Republicans now say they don’t put much stock in Trump’s pronouncements. All told, these circumstances are hardly a recipe for a successful vaccination campaign, even if government scientists were to beat the odds and meet the administration’s ambitious year-end deadline.

In the meantime, the damage Trump has done to public trust has weakened efforts to mitigate the virus. Public officials still need Americans to maintain the discipline of social distancing, reject deadly misinformation, and comply with guidance on wearing masks, especially as “quarantine fatigue” sets in and hardens. They will need people to get themselves tested regularly and adhere to quarantines if contact tracing shows they’ve been exposed to someone infected. But as images of crowded beaches and mask-less protesters show, rebellion is already brewing and may only get worse.

Granted, public trust in government has long been in decline. But Trump’s appalling pandemic response could be the ultimate deathblow. As much as Trump wants to reap the political rewards of unleashing a cure this election year, he is sabotaging his prospects by destroying the public trust needed to bring the pandemic under control. What he’ll leave behind instead is one more disaster for his eventual successor to repair.

Anne Kim

Anne Kim is a Washington Monthly contributing editor and the author of Abandoned: America’s Lost Youth and the Crisis of Disconnection. Follow Anne on Twitter @Anne_S_Kim.