Last October, the Nuclear Threat Initiative and the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security compiled a ranking system to assess the preparedness of 195 countries for the next global pandemic. Twenty-one panel experts across the globe graded each country in 34 categories composed of 140 subindices. At the top of the rankings, peering down at 194 countries supposedly less equipped to withstand a pandemic, stood the United States of America.
It has since become horrifyingly clear that the experts missed something. The supposed world leader is in fact a viral petri dish of uncontained infection. By June, after most of the world had beaten back the coronavirus pandemic, the U.S., with 4 percent of the world’s population, accounted for 25 percent of its cases. Florida alone was seeing more new infections a week than China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Australia, and the European Union combined.
During its long period of decline, the Ottoman Empire was called “the sick man of Europe.” The United States is now the sick man of the world, pitied by the same countries that once envied its pandemic preparedness — and, as recently as the 2014 Ebola outbreak, relied on its expertise to organize the global response.
Our former peer nations are now operating in a political context Americans would find unfathomable. Every other wealthy nation in the world has successfully beaten back the disease, at least significantly, and at least for now. New Zealand’s health minister was forced to resign after allowing two people who had tested positive for COVID-19 to attend a funeral. The Italian Parliament heckled Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte when he briefly attempted to remove his mask to deliver a speech. In May — around the time Trump cheered demonstrators into the streets to protest stay-at-home orders — Boris Johnson’s top adviser set off a massive national scandal, complete with multiple calls for his resignation, because he’d been caught driving to visit his parents during lockdown. If a Trump official had done the same, would any newspaper even have bothered to publish the story?
It is difficult for us Americans to imagine living in a country where violations so trivial (by our standards) provoke such an uproar. And if you’re tempted to see for yourself what it looks like, too bad — the E.U. has banned U.S. travelers for health reasons.
The distrust and open dismissal of expertise and authority may seem uniquely contemporary — a phenomenon of the Trump era, or the rise of online misinformation. But the president and his party are the products of a decades-long war against the functioning of good government, a collapse of trust in experts and empiricism, and the spread of a kind of magical thinking that flourishes in a hothouse atmosphere that can seal out reality. While it’s not exactly shocking to see a Republican administration be destroyed by incompetent management — it happened to the last one, after all — the willfulness of it is still mind-boggling and has led to the unnecessary sickness and death of hundreds of thousands of people and the torpedoing of the reelection prospects of the president himself. Like Stalin’s purge of 30,000 Red Army members right before World War II, the central government has perversely chosen to disable the very asset that was intended to carry it through the crisis. Only this failure of leadership and management took place in a supposedly advanced democracy whose leadership succumbed to a debilitating and ultimately deadly ideological pathology.
How did this happen? In 1973, Republicans trusted science more than religion, while Democrats trusted religion more than science. The reverse now holds true. In the meantime, working-class whites left the Democratic Party, which has increasingly taken on the outlook of the professional class with its trust in institutions and empiricism. The influx of working-class whites (especially religiously observant ones) has pushed Republicans toward increasingly paranoid varieties of populism.
This is the conventional history of right-wing populism — that it was a postwar backlash against the New Deal and the Republican Party’s inability or unwillingness to roll it back. The movement believed the government had been subverted, perhaps consciously, by conspirators seeking to impose some form of socialism, communism, or world government. Its “paranoid style,” so described by historian Richard Hofstadter, became warped with anti-intellectualism, reflecting a “conflict between businessmen of certain types and the New Deal bureaucracy, which has spilled over into a resentment of intellectuals and experts.” Its followers seemed prone to “a disorder in relation to authority, characterized by an inability to find other modes for human relationship than those of more or less complete domination or submission.” Perhaps this sounds like someone you’ve heard of.
But for all the virulence of conservative paranoia in American life, without the sanction of a major party exploiting and profiting from paranoia, and thereby encouraging its growth, the worldview remained relatively fringe. Some of the far right’s more colorful adherents, especially the 100,000 reactionaries who joined the John Birch Society, suspected the (then-novel, now-uncontroversial) practice of adding small amounts of fluoride to water supplies to improve dental health was, in fact, a communist plot intended to weaken the populace. Still, the far right lacked power. Republican leaders held Joe McCarthy at arm’s length; Goldwater captured the nomination but went down in a landslide defeat. In the era of Sputnik, science was hardly a countercultural institution. “In the early Cold War period, science was associated with the military,” says sociologist Timothy O’Brien who, along with Shiri Noy, has studied the transformation. “When people thought about scientists, they thought about the Manhattan Project.” The scientist was calculating, cold, heartless, an authority figure against whom the caring, feeling liberal might rebel. Radicals in the ’60s often directed their protests against the scientists or laboratories that worked with the Pentagon.
But this began to change in the 1960s, along with everything else in American political and cultural life. New issues arose that tended to pit scientists against conservatives. Goldwater’s insouciant attitude toward the prospect of nuclear war with the Soviets provoked scientists to explain the impossibility of surviving atomic fallout and the formation of Scientists and Engineers for Johnson-Humphrey. New research by Rachel Carson about pollution and by Ralph Nader on the dangers of cars and other consumer products made science the linchpin of a vast new regulatory state. Business owners quickly grasped that stopping the advance of big government meant blunting the cultural and political authority of scientists. Expertise came to look like tyranny — or at least it was sold that way.
One tobacco company conceded privately in 1969 that it could not directly challenge the evidence of tobacco’s dangers but could make people wonder how solid the evidence really was. “Doubt,” the memo explained, “is our product.” In 1977, the conservative intellectual Irving Kristol urged business leaders to steer their donations away from public-interest causes and toward the burgeoning network of pro-business foundations. “Corporate philanthropy,” he wrote, “should not be, cannot be, disinterested.” The conservative think-tank scene exploded with reports questioning whether pollution, smoking, driving, and other profitable aspects of American capitalism were really as dangerous as the scientists said.
The Republican Party’s turn against science was slow and jagged, as most party-identity changes tend to be. The Environmental Protection Agency had been created under Richard Nixon, and its former administrator, Russell Train, once recalled President Gerald Ford promising to support whatever auto-emissions guidelines his staff deemed necessary. “I want you to be totally comfortable in the fact that no effort whatsoever will be made to try to change your position in any way,” said Ford — a pledge that would be unimaginable for a contemporary Republican president to make. Not until Ronald Reagan did Republican presidents begin letting business interests overrule experts, as when his EPA used a “hit list” of scientists flagged by industry as hostile. And even Reagan toggled between giving business a free hand and listening to his advisers (as he did when he signed a landmark 1987 agreement to phase out substances that were depleting the ozone layer and a plan the next year to curtail acid rain).
The party’s rightward tilt accelerated in the 1990s. “With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cold Warriors looked for another great threat,” wrote science historians Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway. “They found it in environmentalism,” viewing climate change as a pretext to impose government control over the whole economy. Since the 1990s was also the decade in which scientific consensus solidified that greenhouse-gas emissions were permanently increasing temperatures, the political stakes of environmentalism soared.
The number of books criticizing environmentalism increased fivefold over the previous decade, and more than 90 percent cited evidence produced by right-wing foundations. Many of these tracts coursed with the same lurid paranoia as their McCarthy-era counterparts. This was when the conspiracy theory that is currently conventional wisdom on the right — that scientists across the globe conspired to exaggerate or falsify global warming data in order to increase their own power — first took root.
This is not just a story about elites. About a decade after business leaders launched their attack on science from above, a new front opened from below: Starting in the late 1970s, the religious right mobilized heavily as a lobbying force in American politics. Religious conservatives pressured the party to adopt a series of positions, including creationism, that put the party in conflict with scientists. The George W. Bush era was punctuated by clashes between scientists and social conservatives, who resisted approval of an HPV vaccine to protect against sexually transmitted diseases, any sex education other than abstinence counseling, and federally funded research on stem cells. These came atop the now-customary complaints that the administration was turning environmental regulation over to energy lobbyists and ignoring warnings from scientists. Among the more distressing, and perhaps consequential, aspects of conservatives’ growing skepticism of science as a liberal universe was that, in a certain sense, it was — and becoming more so.
One of the hardened realities of the modern red-blue map is that scientists have assumed a place on the blue team in the minds of both sides. A Pew survey this spring confirmed it again. About three-quarters of Democrats, but only 43 percent of Republicans, agree that scientists should take an active role in science-policy debates. Three-fifths of Democrats, but only one-third of Republicans, believe scientific experts are usually better than others at making policy decisions about scientific issues. A pile of research has found that conservatives are more distrustful than liberals of scientific forms of knowledge and are prone to believe conspiracy theories about scientists. And liberals do dominate the academy and the world of scientific research, alienated by the growing strain of know-nothing-ism in the other party.
The divide is not perfectly clean. One can still find varieties of anti-scientific thinking on the left. Anti-vaccine activists straddle the ideological divide, and distrust of GMOs, which scientists have found to be safe, persists on the grassroots left. But as science writer Arthur Allen has documented, the Democratic Party at the political level has almost uniformly spurned the anti-vaxx movement, while Republican officials in state legislatures have enlisted in its cause.
One consequence of the triumph of anti-science thinking was the creation of an opening for snake-oil peddlers and quacks. Author Rick Perlstein has recounted signing up for conservative publications and then beginning to receive email pitches for products like the “23-Cent Heart Miracle,” which “Washington, the medical industry, and drug companies refuse to tell you about.” Herman Cain has used his platform to promote “The 4 Sneaky Hormones That Are Making You Fat and How to Stop Them Now” and cures for erectile dysfunction. Conservative personalities like Mike Huckabee, Ben Carson, and Alex Jones have all sold quack medical treatments to their supporters, who are ready to believe their trusted heroes have identified cures the authorities refuse to sanction. The subculture that subsisted on secret knowledge suppressed by the authorities, which once existed only in crank pamphlets, had become a mass culture and was now claiming the minds of nearly half the country. Many Americans no longer trusted mainstream sources of knowledge — scientists having joined snooty academics and scheming bureaucrats in the categories of so-called experts to be discounted and defied.
One Republican who paid close attention to the rise in distrust of science among the party’s base was Donald Trump, to whom the language and concepts of anti-scientific thought have come naturally. He has always arrived at his beliefs by intuition, rumor, and anecdote rather than any respect for evidence and study.
During his career as a free-form pundit and huckster, Trump related naturally to the right’s suspicion of scientific authority — not only the concept but the language. Trump has frequently rejected not only the consensus view on scientific matters but also the very idea of expertise. Sometimes his source would be a “report.” (“I saw a report the other day, you may get AIDS by kissing,” he told Howard Stern in 1993.) More often, he would cite unidentified people. “I think the vaccines can be very dangerous,” he said in 2009. “And obviously, you know, a lot of people are talking about vaccines with children with respect to autism. And every report comes out, like, you know, that does not happen. But a lot of people feel that the vaccines are what causes autism in children.” He has denounced wind turbines on the grounds that “they say the noise causes cancer.”
Trump recognized the financial possibilities of exploiting medical illiteracy as early as 2009, when he signed up to be a pitchman for a vitamin business, which was then renamed “the Trump Network.” Vitamins are unregulated by the FDA and are thus a lucrative opportunity for hucksters, who can sell billions of dollars in nutritional supplements to customers who — by and large — don’t need them. (The vast majority of people can get all the vitamins they need from a healthy diet.) The Trump Network took the basic vitamin scam and piled additional scams on top of it. The network sold a kit for $139.95 that would supposedly test customers’ urine, and the Trump Network used the results of the test to tell customers which pills they needed to buy from the Trump Network for another $69.95 a month, plus $99.95 every six months for additional testing.
“They make an outrageous statement, which is that this testing and supplement regimen, this process, are a necessity for anyone who wants to stay healthy,” Dr. Pieter Cohen told Stat news four years ago. “That’s quite insane.” For good measure, the Trump Network created a multilevel-marketing structure — the colloquial term for this arrangement is pyramid scheme — to attract sales-people. “With cutting-edge health-and-wellness formulas and a system where you can develop your own financial independence, the Trump Network offers people the opportunity to achieve their American Dream,” he promised in a videotaped pitch.
Later, Trump fixated on a new medical crisis: The Ebola pandemic, he warned everyone who would listen, posed a terrifying threat to Americans. Trump decried the hapless government response and demanded a complete halt of all travel to and from West Africa. During one of his public appearances, an interviewer played a clip of the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases warning that such a restriction would worsen the pandemic. Trump shot back, “Well, I think it’s ridiculous.”
When he assumed the presidency just over two years later, Trump probably didn’t remember that the doctor whose expertise he had dismissed on live television, Anthony Fauci, still worked in the federal government.
Trump quickly made enemies of the scientific apparatus he commanded. During the campaign, he had made clear his implacable disdain for the entire field of climate science. But what was more surprising — or at least self-defeating — when he took office was the mixture of indifference and hostility with which he treated the rest of his scientific experts. The federal government has a vast infrastructure of data and science experts in the departments of Energy, Commerce, and Agriculture, as well as many environmental experts who are responsible for preventing and managing low-probability, high-impact disasters that could happen on Trump’s watch. In his 2018 book The Fifth Risk, Michael Lewis chronicles the neglect and suspicion with which Trump treated the people whose entire jobs were focused on preventing a cataclysm, the principal victim of which would be Trump’s own presidency. “Many of them are potentially catastrophic risks — the risk of a pandemic, or the risk of a nuclear accident, or the risk of a terrorist attack — one after another,” Lewis explained two years ago. It could have been anything. It turned out to be a pandemic.
When the coronavirus began spreading in American cities, the Republican Party turned to a trained store of experts whose judgment conservatives trusted implicitly. Unfortunately, their expertise and training lay not in epidemiology but in concocting pseudoscientific rationales to allow conservatives to disregard legitimate scientific conclusions.
The cadres who leapt forth to supply Trump and his allies with answers disproportionately came from the science-skeptic wing of the conservative-think-tank world. Steven Milloy, a climate-science skeptic who runs a think tank funded by tobacco and oil companies and who served on Trump’s environmental transition team, dismissed the virus as less deadly than the flu. Libertarian philosopher Richard Epstein, who had once insisted, “The evidence in favor of the close linkage between carbon dioxide and global warming has not been clearly established,” turned his analytical powers to projected pandemic death tolls. He estimated just 500 American deaths, an analysis that was circulated within the Trump White House before Epstein issued a correction.
It was like watching factories mobilize for war, only instead of automakers refitting their assembly lines to churn out tanks, these were professional manufacturers of scientific doubt scrambling to invent a new form of pedantry. Some skeptics took note of the connection, though they seem to have drawn the wrong conclusion. “While they are occurring on vastly different time scales, the COVID-19 panic and the climate-change panic are remarkably similar,” wrote one of the climate-skeptical Heartland Institute’s pseudo-experts.
The fact that the conservative movement’s finest minds endorsed these paranoid claims attests to the movement’s sincerity. Unlike critiquing climate-science models, which allows skeptics decades to obscure their analytic failures, by denying the coronavirus, “you’re at risk of being shown to be a crackpot in real time,” Jerry Taylor, a former climate-science skeptic in the libertarian-think-tank world, tells me. These people are genuine adherents of their own conspiracy theories. The simplest explanation for the actions Trump and many of his top officials have taken is that they believe that scientific authorities are, at best, grossly negligent and, at worst, scheming to extend government control of the economy by perpetrating hoaxes. His responses follow from that supposition. He has warily treated his scientific advisers as potential saboteurs.
When the first warning signs of the virus appeared, Trump — rather than take advantage of the expertise at his disposal — set out to marginalize and contort it. Before the outbreak, Trump’s administration had reduced the number of CDC officials monitoring virus outbreaks in China by two-thirds. After the pandemic, he cut funding for a lab studying the origins of the outbreak in China. Trump’s repeated public statements that he wants less testing — because less testing means fewer cases! — encapsulates his earnest belief that the accurate measuring of the pandemic is itself the problem. After all, the scientists were advising him to shut down the economy, the prized asset of his reelection campaign. Wasn’t that a little suspicious?
After Dr. Nancy Messonnier, a top CDC official, told reporters in February that the coronavirus would spread in the U.S., Trump threatened to fire her. (Messonnier briefly became a hate figure on conservative talk shows, owing in part to the odd coincidence that her brother is former deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein.) Messonnier retained her job but stopped speaking publicly. Dr. Rick Bright was not so lucky and was forced out of his role running the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, which works on vaccines.
Some of these episodes played out clumsily. When CDC director Robert Redfield predicted a second wave of coronavirus infections in the fall, Trump marched him before the cameras. Redfield stood at the pressroom podium, Trump glowering nearby, trying to quibble with the headline his interview had produced. Dr. Deborah Birx has navigated the chasm between the evidence and her boss’s public line. “Doctor, wouldn’t you say there’s a good chance that COVID will not come back?” Trump asked her at one briefing. “We don’t know,” Birx began, before Trump interjected, “And if it comes back, it’s in a very small, confined area that we put out.”
It was as if Trump thought he could bend reality to his will by forcing his advisers to endorse it. “I disagree with @CDCgov on their very tough & expensive guidelines for opening schools,” he tweeted in July. “I will be meeting with them!!!” It doesn’t take a great deal of imagination to predict that such a “meeting” would be unlikely to involve Trump prevailing upon the CDC to alter its guidelines through sheer force of reason and data. The only outcome of such a public threat is the undermining of his own government’s credibility.
Republicans goaded Trump to ramp up his attacks. “Dr. Fauci remains steadfast in his bureaucracy. Dr. Fauci’s a conformist,” announced Rush Limbaugh. “Here’s the difference between a health-professional bureaucrat-expert and Donald Trump.” This line reflects the view of science closest to Trump’s own perspective. He does not dismiss science wholesale as a field of study; he is not the medieval Church persecuting Galileo. Rather, he understands science as a kind of revelation accessible to a lucky genetic elite (naturally including himself, as evidenced by the genius MIT-professor uncle he often cites).
“I really get it,” he boasted during one visit to the CDC. “Every one of these doctors said, ‘How do you know so much about this?’ Maybe I have a natural ability.” That conviction is what gave Trump the confidence to deliver his on-camera brainstorming session, in which he suggested his science experts research the injection of light or disinfectant into the human body. If you don’t understand science as a discipline, you expect some genius will dream up a breakthrough cure. Why couldn’t Trump be that genius?
And this is how Trump became fixated on the belief that he had discovered miraculous effects of hydroxychloroquine that had eluded medical experts. Bypassing his own government’s scientists, Trump cultivated a kitchen cabinet of pseudo-experts. He closely followed the Fox News appearances of Dr. Oz, a celebrity physician, alternative-medicine pitchman, and the subject of a class-action false-medical-claims lawsuit, in which he touted the unproven drug (Oz later walked back his endorsement). Trump lawyer and reported criminal-investigation target Rudy Giuliani lobbied Trump on the subject, though he knows even less about medicine than he does about the law (Giuliani described hydroxychloroquine as “100 percent effective”). In one especially bizarre episode, Trump’s trade adviser, Peter Navarro — whose credibility as an economist has been widely questioned by economists and whose credentials as a medical scientist are nonexistent — confronted Dr. Fauci in a meeting with a pile of what he called evidence of the drug’s effectiveness.
The prospect that hydroxychloroquine might prove useful was plausible at the outset. Early studies showed mixed results, but as scientists performed more rigorous tests, they found the drug had little or no effect. Even Republicans like Trump’s former FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb acknowledged that the drug would have, at best, a modest benefit.
But these results seemed only to deepen Trump’s conviction that the researchers could not be trusted. Asked what evidence he had for hydroxychloroquine’s effectiveness, he replied, “Are you ready? Here’s my evidence — I get a lot of positive calls about it.” After claiming he had personally used it, he pronounced, “All I can tell you is so far I seem to be okay,” as if an uncontrolled experiment on one person had any value.
Hydroxychloroquine became a totem of Trumpist devotion. Trump urged the Food and Drug Administration, the National Institutes of Health, and the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services to import, promote, and pay for his favorite medicine. Exasperated public-health officials complained that it was “mindshare, time, and energy being soaked up by a potential wild-goose chase.” Conservative media published stories about ordinary Americans who had taken the cure and found their symptoms disappear as if by miracle.
Any negative finding proved the scientific body that had conducted it was corrupt. When asked about a Veterans Affairs study that added to the growing evidence against hydroxychloroquine’s efficacy, the president attacked the research as a “Trump-enemy statement.” When Dr. Bright revealed that Trump political allies had pressured him to promote the drug, Trump tweeted accusingly, “So the so-called HHS Whistleblower was against HYDROXYCHLOROQUINE,” as if this were all the proof he needed that his target had it coming.
“We were cruising along until the Chinese Communist Party basically hit us with that deadly virus,” Navarro told Fox News, “and I don’t think it’s any coincidence that the first year that China had a down economy was the same year now that they’re coming after us in all sorts of ways.” Here is a top federal government official suggesting China deliberately unleashed the pandemic in a calculated attempt to gain economic leverage over the U.S. Even aside from assuming China’s government to be shockingly indifferent to the well-being of its own population and economy, Navarro’s theory suggests that Beijing could have known beforehand that China would be able to contain the virus without any warning, and that the U.S., despite several weeks of lead time, would fail.
Trump retweeted a message from the former game-show host turned right-wing gadfly Chuck Woolery, who warned, “Everyone is lying. The CDC, Media, Democrats, our Doctors, not all but most, that we are told to trust.”
The premise of the black comedy Dr. Strangelove is that the rogue U.S. general Jack Ripper starts a nuclear war because he subscribes to conspiracy theories about fluoridation. The joke worked when the movie came out in 1964 because fluoride conspiracy theories were in wide enough circulation to be familiar to audiences but marginal enough for the idea that a top general might believe in them to shock. When the fictional president discovers what has happened, he rails, “When you instituted the human-reliability tests, you assured me there was no possibility of such a thing ever occurring!”
Today the most unrealistic aspect of this exchange is the premise that a process to screen out right-wing conspiracy theorists would even exist. If the movie were remade now, Ripper would have gotten a job in the administration because the president was impressed after watching him rant on Fox News about his precious bodily fluids.
By midsummer, as the coronavirus receded throughout most of the world, Trump’s supporters were engaging in cultlike displays of devotion. Republicans were pointedly holding mask-optional gatherings. “When the good Lord calls you home,” one Republican Senate candidate explained, “a mask ain’t going to stop it.” As masks became symbols of subservience to public health (“COVID burkas,” as former Trump official Sebastian Gorka called them), these people even held rallies to protest them. A county Republican Party chairman in Kansas who owns a weekly newspaper published a cartoon depicting face masks as yellow stars and the people bearing them as Jews forced into cattle cars.
In Scottsdale, Arizona, a Republican city councilmember announced, “I can’t breathe!” before dramatically removing his face covering. A Republican sheriff in Ohio, despite a statewide facial-covering requirement, declared, “I’m not going to be the mask police. Period.” The first day that Oregon governor Kate Brown imposed a requirement that residents wear masks in public, four police officers walked into a coffee shop in Corvallis mask-free, and when asked to comply with the order, they yelled, “Fuck Kate Brown!” In recent weeks, more than 20 county health officials have left their jobs in the face of protests, harassment, and threats. Georgia governor Brian Kemp went so far as to ban local governments from mandating masks.
In late June, Trump staged an indoor rally in Tulsa. His staff removed stickers on seats intended to space out attendees. Announcing his presence, Cain wrote, “Masks will not be mandatory for the event, which will be attended by President Trump. PEOPLE ARE FED UP!” (A few days after the rally, Cain tested positive.)
That many Americans would view public-health instruction with skepticism was understandable. The authorities had hardly covered themselves in glory. In the initial stages of the pandemic, many officials worried more about panic than complacency and insisted the pandemic might not be worse than a normal flu.
Faced with an initial shortage of masks, and fears that hoarders would buy up the supply and deny it to the essential workers who needed it most, public-health officials solemnly instructed people not to bother.
Public-health officials scolded anti-lockdown protesters for risking new outbreaks with their maskless demonstrations, but when anti-racism demonstrators poured into the streets, they emphasized the paramount importance of the cause. Even though Black Lives Matter demonstrators seemed largely to be wearing masks and attempting to practice social distancing, the contradiction rankled conservatives. Public-health officials had one standard for marches against their policies and another for marches they agreed with.
But if these officials were struggling to communicate clearly, it was in large part because clarity was impossible. The conclusions scientists could propose about the novel coronavirus were often both subject to revision and less than absolute: The outdoors is safer than inside but not perfectly safe; masks reduce risk but don’t eliminate it. What’s more, the officials were operating under political pressure from a president who spent weeks insisting the virus would disappear or prove no worse than a normal flu and then attacked every countermeasure as a plot to undermine him.
Public-health officials found themselves in the terrifying position of simultaneously trying to get a handle on a pandemic and being the targets of a political smear. The hybrid role of Kate Winslet’s character in Contagion and Michael Dukakis’s character in the 1988 presidential campaign was as uncomfortable to pull off as it sounds.
Yet public-health officials in almost every economic-peer country managed to overcome scientific uncertainty and missteps. Both here and abroad, they are gazing with a mix of horror and confusion at the helpless, pitiful American scientific giant. One German expert told the Washington Post that Germany had used American studies to design an effective response, which the U.S. somehow couldn’t implement. American “scientists appeared to have reached an adequate assessment of the situation early on, but this didn’t translate into a political action plan,” observed another.
The limiting factor that has done the most to contort the domestic response to the coronavirus is the pathology of the American right. As of late May, only 40 percent of Republicans believed COVID-19 was deadlier than the flu, and half believed the death count was overstated. One research study found that viewers of Fox News, which echoed Trump’s early dismissal of the pandemic, were less likely than the audiences of other cable news channels to engage in social distancing or to purchase masks or sanitizing products.
There has always been some question about the depth of sincerity with which conservatives hold their professed convictions. Did they believe that the Clintons murdered witnesses to their crimes and that Barack Obama faked details of his birth? Or were these statements expressions of partisan enthusiasm not to be taken literally? The coronavirus revealed the deadly earnestness with which the Republican audience accepts the guidance of the conservative alternative-information structure. As early as this spring, tragic stories began to appear of people mourning the deaths of loved ones who had angrily rejected public-health advice as a big-government plot.
The playbook for handling a public-health crisis assumes some baseline level of rationality in the government. The administration is presumed to be working with, not against, its public-health experts; the news media to be informing the public, not actively disinforming it. The ranks of American government, academia, and the nonprofit sector are thick with experts in pandemic response, but very few of them ever trained to deal with a pandemic in Trump’s America.
Trump, of course, will pass from the scene, perhaps by January. But the political culture that produced him isn’t going anywhere. And one dilemma it may present quite soon is what happens when a vaccine arrives.
If Trump pulls out of his polling swoon and wins reelection, he will have to persuade Americans to trust the vaccines his administration has produced, even though many of them distrust either vaccines or Trump. (Of course, if Trump wins reelection, vaccine take-up will be the least of our problems.)
A more likely scenario is that the first vaccine will come along after Trump has lost the election. If this happens before January 20, he’ll have little incentive to encourage his followers to take it or otherwise ensure an orderly distribution. If it happens afterward, Republicans will be engaged in the paranoid anti-government rage they undertake any time a Democrat holds office.
And they will be tapping into a deep vein of paranoia. Polls have shown somewhere between a quarter and a third of the public already does not intend to take a vaccine when it becomes available. In a country with a cult of self-reliance so ingrained that every new mass shooting propels more panicked arms purchases, is an act of collective, mutual security like public vaccination even workable?
The truly remarkable thing about the right-wing revolt against public health is that it has taken place under a president whom conservatives trust and adore. From the standpoint of running the government, these have been awful conditions for handling a pandemic. But from the standpoint of persuading citizens to cooperate, they have been almost optimal. When we look back a year from now at the frenzied, angry revolt against science, the spring and summer of 2020 may seem like halcyon days.
*This article appears in the July 20, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!