the national interest

Trump Is Back to Waging War on Science, at the Worst Possible Moment

Photo: Kevin Dietsch/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Earlier this month, the White House became aware of studies showing the coronavirus, if unchecked, could kill 2 million Americans, and Trump suddenly reversed his public stance. After having minimized the dangers of the virus, he began promoting social distancing and presenting himself as a “wartime president” who would defeat the “invisible enemy.” This political strategy required rewriting the history of the very recent past, casting Trump as the sage guardian of the nation’s health who had seen the pandemic coming and kept the country safe. The idea was to borrow the political identity George W. Bush adopted after 9/11, with the virus as the Chinese-created foreign enemy. Kellyanne Conway offered up a version of this message — “To criticize Trump now is to criticize public health officials, FEMA, first responders, private sector businesses that are all coming forward to help” — that, for all its authoritarian overtones, places the president firmly on the side of public-health authorities.

Yet the fragile truce between Trump and public-health authorities is suddenly on the precipice of coming undone. Over the past 24 hours, a cascade of White House leaks has sounded the alarm. Trump “remains fixated on the plummeting stock market, is chafing at the idea of the country remaining closed until the summer and growing tired of talking only about coronavirus,” a source tells the Washington Post. Trump “has repeatedly raised concerns in meetings about the optics of grounded planes and empty airports” and “argued that those images would look bad for him and could further drag down the economy,” reports NBC.

Trump’s heel turn reflects, in part, his characteristic impatience. Even during his period of taking public health seriously, Trump kept promising miracle cures and a recovery that would happen “fast,” fantasizing about the celebrations that would ensue after the victory, as if he were trying to psych himself up to pass his personal marshmallow test. But even the fastest possible turnaround was going to come too slow for a man who once wrote, “I plan for the future by focusing exclusively on the present.” Trump has been demanding plans to get the economy growing again within the absurdly optimistic time frame of one month, the Daily Beast reports.

But there is also a strong ideological undercurrent to Trump’s reversion. The conservative movement never fully abandoned Trump’s original Pollyannish stance toward the coronavirus, and many conservative intellectuals have spent the last week arguing against the primacy of public health.

The arguments have taken different forms. Some have insisted the virus is far less deadly than authorities presume. A popular essay caught fire on the right, using amateur methods to supposedly debunk the conclusions of professional epidemiologists. A widely circulated analysis by Hoover Institute economist Richard Epstein predicted the coronavirus would ultimately claim no more than 500 American lives. (The death toll has already topped that number, and is rising quickly.) Some have downplayed the importance of pandemic deaths at the cost of oppressive social distancing rules — or “an ill-conceived crusade against human finitude and the dolorous reality of death,” as a First Things essay puts it. “Were I to host a small dinner party tonight, wanting to resist the paranoia and hysteria, I would be denounced,” complains its author, fantasizing about spreading a pandemic as an act of rebellion. (The dinner party is not a revolution.)

The most popular theme of the right’s public-health skeptics has been to posit a trade-off between measures to contain the virus and the health of the economy. The supply-siders at the Wall Street Journal editorial page embraced this theme early, denouncing “extreme” state closures of public spaces, and positing that the costs are disproportionate. The supply-siders are an extreme manifestation of movement conservatism’s distrust of academia and established expertise. They are perfectly comfortable relying on amateur Twitter threads or simple intuition over the conclusions of epidemiological experts. After all, those are the same “experts” who believe greenhouse-gas emissions cause global warming, and tax cuts for the rich reduce tax revenue.

Supply-side devotees Stephen Moore and Arthur Laffer, close allies of chief Trump economist Lawrence Kudlow, have been “lobbying the White House for more than a week to strongly consider scaling back the recommendation that restaurants, stores and other gathering spots be closed,” according to the Post, which reports that “leading Wall Street and conservative media figures have also embraced the idea.” Trump has gravitated toward these arguments. In a manic fit, he called Laffer three times Thursday night, tweeting, “WE CANNOT LET THE CURE BE WORSE THAN THE PROBLEM ITSELF.”

It is obviously true that the deep recession into which the economy has plunged itself has dire consequences for human welfare, including premature death. Yet the right’s public-health skeptics seem to compare the horrendous costs of a lockdown against an alternative of a completely healthy economy, as if easing up on social distancing rules will somehow bring back the pre-virus economy. If you scour the polemics, they usually toss off a caveat, presuming that somehow the virus will be contained without closing things down. “With any luck, this behavior change will reduce the coronavirus spread enough that our hospitals won’t be overwhelmed with patients,” suggests the Journal.

And if there isn’t any such luck? Oh well.

A Federalist column argues that as an alternative to lockdowns, “the nation quarantines only at-risk populations and those with symptoms, like South Korea has, and ensures targeted and temporary taxpayer support to those groups, goes nuts cranking out ventilators and other crisis equipment such as temporary hospitals using emergency response crews.” But of course, the government is trying to deploy the technologies to do these things. At some point, they will be ready, but neither South Korean–caliber testing nor an adequate supply of ventilators has been produced. Meanwhile, the death toll is almost certain to accelerate even with lockdowns in place. It is bizarre to be contemplating an unwinding of social distancing before the peak of the catastrophe.

Another oddity of the supposed trade-off between economic growth and public health is that the public-health skeptics are also, by and large, skeptics of fiscal stimulus. The supply-siders are kooks who totally reject mainstream economic ideas about the causes and remedies for recessions, and consider tax rates on the rich to be the primary or even sole determinant of economic outcomes. Laffer and Moore have urged Trump to reject fiscal stimulus. Judicial Watch head Tom Fitton, whom Trump has retweeted this week, wrote, “The only stimulus that will work is opening America back up for business. The consequences of this national shutdown, apart from any pandemic, are dire and will not be materially alleviated by any ‘stimulus’ and gov’t spending.”

Within the administration, the public-health skeptics, led by the supply-siders and their wealthy business allies, have seized influence back from the relative handful of pro-science advisers. The most notable of the latter is Dr. Anthony Fauci, a respected public official who has served under presidents of both parties, and whose recent ascent coincided with Trump’s lurch toward taking the coronavirus seriously.

“Trump was initially resistant to Fauci’s recommendations that he take steps to encourage social distancing during the first go-around,” reports CNN. “The President remains unconvinced it was the right decision. And there are people around him who aren’t exactly reinforcing Fauci’s message, including some of his economic advisers.” Trump allies like Laura Ingraham have reinforced the message, sometimes in public. “Doctors provide medical treatment and cures — they should not be the determinative voices in policy making now or at the end of 15 days,” Ingraham tweeted. (In the same Twitter thread, Ingraham claims that “promising anti-virals such as hydroxychloroquine are saving lives right now,” and need to be made available domestically. So according to Ingraham, doctors should not make policy decisions, but cable news hosts should be making medical decisions.)

Fauci is all but conceding defeat. In a pair of interviews, with Maureen Dowd and Science magazine, Fauci didn’t deny that he is trying to hold the line against his boss’s persistent flight from reality. “I’ve been telling the president things he doesn’t want to hear,” he told Dowd. “I have publicly had to say something different with what he states.” Asked by Science about some of Trump’s most transparent lies, he replied, “I know, but what do you want me to do? I mean, seriously Jon, let’s get real, what do you want me to do?” Those are not the sort of statements a person gives and expects to remain in Trump’s employ — or, at least, his orbit of influence — very long.

Trump may well reverse himself again when his television screen switches from stock market dips to scenes of hospital carnage. But for the moment, Trump appears to be abandoning his posture of concern and reverting to what he knows and loves: I’ll give you everything over blood, toil, tears and sweat. Supply-siders have appealed to Trump with self-serving fantasies. Public-health professionals have had nothing to offer him but facts and science. They never had a chance.

Trump Resuming War on Science, at the Worst Possible Moment