In April, my colleague Gavin Yamey of the Duke Global Health Institute and I wrote a commentary for The BMJ (formerly known as the British Medical Journal) detailing the failures of President Donald J. Trump on the response to SARS-CoV-2. Even by that time, the wrongdoings by the President on the pandemic were well-established. After warnings from WHO starting in January 2020 about the new coronavirus, the President played down the threat for months, and on the very day the agency declared COVID-19 a worldwide pandemic in March, he was bragging that “the virus will not have a chance against us. No nation is more prepared, or more resilient, than the United States.” Of course, the United States was woefully unprepared, with shortages of personal protective equipment, testing supplies, and infrastructure, which have lasted to this day. The Trump Administration never mobilized a national response commensurate with the threat, leaving state and local governments without the support they need to handle SARS-CoV-2 and ordinary Americans high-and-dry without the social and economic resources to weather the pandemic.
By the late spring, the President was calling on his supporters to “liberate” states from their public health lockdowns, driving many governors to reopen states prematurely, leading to the summer’s quadrupling of infections and doubling of deaths in the United States. The President persisted in his false claims throughout, claiming in the second week of September that the nation was the rounding “the final turn” in the battle against SARS-CoV-2, leading Anthony S. Fauci, the director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, to make an unusually direct correction of the President’s remarks the next day. The last days of summer also saw a full frontal attack on the nation’s public health agencies, with the President demanding an Emergency Use Authorization from the Food and Drug Administration for convalescent plasma, in which the Trump-appointed FDA Commissioner Scott Hahn lied about the effectiveness of the therapy on the eve of the Republican National Convention, setting off a firestorm of protests and criticism.
Next, the White House was also demanding that the CDC revise its recommendations on testing for asymptomatic SARS-CoV-2 infection, contradicting standard public health practice around the rest of the world, in which tracking down, testing, and isolating asymptomatic individuals has been key to controlling local epidemics. Then came a series of bombshell reports out of The Washington Post. First, President Trump’s new advisor on SARS-CoV-2, Scott Atlas of the Hoover Institution, was pushing for many of these changes in testing, as part of an implicit “herd immunity” strategy, to let the virus run its course throughout the country, while sequestering and protecting the elderly. This strategy would likely lead to the deaths of millions of Americans, according to experts. Though Atlas denied this was the case, his advocacy of policies of quick reopening of schools and businesses, scaling back testing of asymptomatic individuals, while focusing efforts on nursing homes, were, according to one Administration official, all “in the vein of a herd immunity strategy.”
But the story that put all of this in a new context was Bob Woodward’s report from interviews with the President making it absolutely clear that he understood the seriousness of the pandemic from early on, deliberately decided to ignore public health advice and mislead the American public. It wasn’t bumbling or incompetence—though these factors may have played a part in our predicament. It was sheer malice.
The newest revelations raise more existential issues about democratic governance in a pandemic. You don’t have to look far to see that the President’s obfuscations extend into other areas of science. In mid-September, in a tour of the fire-ravaged regions of the Western United States, the President, in a briefing with California’s Governor Gavin Newsom and his staff, had a remarkable exchange with Wade Crowfoot, the state’s secretary for natural resources. Pushing back against the President’s notion that “vegetation management,” or what he calls “cleaning the [forest] floors,” was the solution to the region’s problems, Crawford confronted Mr. Trump.
“If we ignore that science and sort of put our head in the sand and think it’s all about vegetation management, we’re not going to succeed together protecting Californians,” he told the President.
This time, Trump rejected the premise. “It’ll start getting cooler,” he insisted. “You just watch.”
“I wish science agreed with you,” Mr. Crowfoot replied.
“Well, I don’t think science knows, actually,” Trump retorted, maintaining a tense grin.
These are the kinds of scenarios that have alarmed scientists for the past four years—explicit rejection of settled science, from pandemics to climate change to bioethics to evolutionary biology—and that have led august scientific publications to come out forcefully against the President, with Scientific American endorsing a presidential candidate for the first time its 175-year history, and the editor-in-chief of Science magazine, H. Holden Thorp, writing a house editorial bluntly titled “Trump Lied About Science.”
The rejection of science by politicians is not unique to President Trump. In fact, climate denialism has a long history in the Republican Party. On other issues from abortion to HIV prevention, from evolution to stem cell research, the war on science is not a new thing. However, what we are facing with Trump is a broader epistemological battle; about knowing, about facts. His extensive, frequent lies extend far beyond the scientific realm and have been well-documented. But what does it mean to have a government based on lies? In an essay called “Truth and Politics” that first appeared in The New Yorker magazine in 1967, Hannah Arendt wrote:
Seen from the viewpoint of politics, truth has a despotic character. It is therefore hated by tyrants, who rightly fear the competition of a coercive force they cannot monopolize, and it enjoys a rather precarious status in the eyes of governments that rest on consent and abhor coercion. Facts are beyond agreement and consent, and all talk about them—all exchanges of opinion based on correct information—will contribute nothing to their establishment. Unwelcome opinion can be argued with, rejected, or compromised upon, but unwelcome facts possess an infuriating stubbornness that nothing can move except plain lies.
Arendt also asks: “What prevents these new stories, images, and non-facts from becoming an adequate substitute for reality and factuality?” Nothing does. In the worst pandemic in a century, the President can still say the virus will just go away on its own, disappear; in fact, he has said it 34 times in since the beginning of this crisis. A republic of lies is what we are becoming. My Yale colleague Jason Stanley warned us about this in 2016, four days before the election: “Denouncing Trump as a liar, or describing him as merely entertaining, misses the point of authoritarian propaganda altogether. Authoritarian propagandists are attempting to convey power by defining reality. The reality they offer is very simple. It is offered with the goal of switching voters’ value systems to the authoritarian value system of the leader.”
A republic of lies is also no longer a republic. It replaces our collective journey, as a res publica, a public affair, with one centering around the person who tells the story, who creates a new reality, delivers us his own facts, his own science, his own knowledge, under and by which we live and die. If President Trump can convince a nation that the deaths of more than 200,000 Americans, the infection of 6-plus million more by the new coronavirus, was unavoidable, that he has done the very best he could in fighting it and that things are not so bad at all, what else can he convince us to believe? He can convince us, or many of us, that we don’t need to wear masks, we don’t need to social distance, and that it is all a hoax and we’ll march ahead straight into the pandemic in self-sacrifice.
It’s what we’re doing now, in many places across the country. Millions of Americans are walking through the fire for one man. I am not a political scientist or a historian. I cannot tell you what this portends or offer some lessons from the past. But it augurs badly for our future.