Donald Trump’s world-historically inept handling of the COVID-19 pandemic is, needless to say, massively over-determined, representing (to paraphrase Felix Frankfurter) the “thought” and action of a lifetime:
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.
But while dismissing expertise has always been an essential component of Trump’s grift, he’s also obscenely lazy and easily distracted, so if he was an outlier withing his party a pandemic response consistent with both the public health and the political self-interest of the Republican Party might have happened. But Trump didn’t win the nomination by accident — his party is saturated with cranks and scam artists with boundless contempt for actual knowledge:
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 dark side of the story is that even if we get a virus and a competent administration to deliver it next year and beat the virus, on climate change we are totally screwed.