President Trump, encouraged by research suggesting that sunlight can kill the coronavirus, excitedly speculated last night that perhaps a new cure could be found by somehow bringing sunlight into the body of an infected patient. The possibility of a breakthrough cure excited him enough that he proposed another method, injecting disinfectant into the lungs somehow.
Trump’s defenders, straining to locate a justification, have seized on the response that Trump was not actually urging his audience to try out his notions in their homes. “Trump used the word ‘inject,’ but what he meant was using a process — which he left ‘medical doctors’ to define — in which patients’ lungs might be cleared of the virus, given new knowledge about its response to light and other factors,” insists Breitbart’s Joel Pollak. “Apparently there is no accusation too crazy for Trump’s critics to believe.” On the right, the controversy has become more evidence of liberal bias.
But it was not just the elite liberal media that worried some people would misunderstand Trump’s advice. The makers of Lysol, a product which is not known to be an organ of the left, were forced to rush out a public statement instructing consumers not to inject its products into their bodies.
It is true that Trump did not mean to steer his audience to try home remedies. But what he meant to do was, in some ways, equally stupid. He was brainstorming cutting-edge cures off the top of his head, in full view of television cameras. Leaping from the discovery that sunlight can kill the virus to suggesting, hey, maybe we can discover a cure that brings sunlight into the body is literally the response a young child would have. A person with any intelligence would understand that science is complicated. A layman is not going to just dream up a solution while standing at the lectern of the White House press room for a problem that the world’s leading medical researchers are already studying intently.
Pinned down on-camera, his science adviser Deborah Birx gamely agreed to test Trump’s ideas, though the well-honed façade of respect she has maintained throughout her constant patronizing of the president finally began to show small cracks:
If Trump’s presidency has demonstrated any scientific principle, it is the Dunning-Kruger effect, which describes how people who have a low ability to perform a task tend to overestimate their own ability to do it — or, to oversimplify it, they are too incompetent to recognize their own incompetence. “Maybe you can, maybe you can’t,” Trump allowed. “I’m not a doctor. But I’m like a person that has a good you know what,” tapping his head to indicate his gigantic brain.
Trump’s belief that his genius allows him to identify cures for the coronavirus is one of the ways he has hampered the government response. He spends his hours binge-watching cable news and talking on the phone with friends who often pump him full of quack ideas. The people Trump trusts most share his attraction to magical thinking and inability to grasp even the most basic scientific principles.
Last night, Trump confidante Rudy Giuliani appeared on one of Trump’s favorite shows to mock the idea of contact tracing:
Contact tracing is a vital and proven component of the public-health response to pandemics. The reason it’s necessary is to identify people who have been exposed to a contagious illness, and isolate them so they can’t spread it. Giuliani and Fox News host Laura Ingraham are unable to understand why it would be employed for a contagious virus but not for noncontagious diseases like cancer, heart disease, and obesity. “A lot of things kill you more than COVID-19,” Giuliani sneered. “So we should be traced for all those things.”
Giuliani is one of the advisers who persuaded Trump that hydroxychloroquine is a miracle drug. Trump’s fixation, at minimum, diverted the government’s attention by forcing officials to research and even deploy unproven medicine simply because Trump liked it. Katherine Eban has obtained internal emails from officials at multiple federal departments scrambling to distribute a treatment that actual medical experts did not believe to be either effective or safe. “Really want to flood Ny and NJ with treatment courses,” instructed one missive from the White House.
Dr. Rick Bright, the government’s top vaccine expert, says he was let go from his position because he resisted the demands of Trump loyalists to subvert the scientific method and favor remedies, including hydroxychloroquine, proposed by the president and his friends. Trump’s defenders are questioning Bright’s allegations, but a version of the exact dynamic he describes — Trump instructing his science advisers to test his own pet ideas — literally took place on national television last night.
“How obeisant and dumb do some people think Trump voters are?” complains Mark Hemingway. Well, they are supporting a president who invents childish ideas and instructs experts to look into them, and who takes scientific advice from people who cannot understand the difference between contagious and noncontagious diseases, and they see these things happen in front of their own eyes. The problem isn’t the (hopefully) tiny number of Americans who will misunderstand Trump’s clumsy musings and ingest something harmful. It’s that a public-health effort is being led by an ignorant crank who thinks he’s a genius.