Whatever happens on November 3rd, science won. President Trump thought that he could bluff and spin his way through the pandemic. He thought he could hold big rallies and deride masks as gestures of political correctness. That he could ignore biology and create his own alternate world in the midst of a viral outbreak that, as of this writing, has killed some 215,000 Americans. But Trump was wrong. The virus got him too, and when it did, it exposed his lies and his disregard for the lives of his family and followers. The great American con man got played by Mother Nature.
The toll of Trump’s misuse and manipulation of science, both to humans and the planet, has been staggering. It is at the heart of his mismanagement of the novel coronavirus as well as his failure to take any action to rein in carbon pollution, which has pushed the Earth’s climate ever closer to catastrophic collapse. According to a recent study, Trump’s dismantling of federal climate policies will add an additional 1.8 billion tons of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere by 2035 — more than the combined annual emissions of Germany, Britain, and Canada.
Like autocrats, fascists, and strongmen since the beginning of time, Trump uses science to suit his political purposes. Just listen to him babble about rockets to Mars (“SPACE FORCE. VOTE!” he tweeted while in the hospital). “Trump is not anti-science,” says Robert Proctor, a science historian at Stanford University. “He’s an opportunist about science in the same way that he’s an opportunist about truth.”
In some ways, ignoring mainstream scientific opinion is simply a way for Trump to show his supporters what an anti-establishment badass he is. Like during the solar eclipse in 2017, when Trump stepped out onto the balcony of the White House and stared directly at the sun, which even a moderately intelligent seven-year-old knows can burn your retina and damage your eyes. But heeding science is for pussies, so he did it anyway. Trump and his clan think of themselves as revolutionaries, pickup-truck-worshiping Galileos who are overturning the elites’ view of the world. As Ruth Ben-Ghiat, the author of Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present, put it, “Breaking the rules, and getting away with it, is at the center of the ethos of macho lawlessness that underpins strongman rule.”
What’s most bone-chilling is the evidence that Trump understands the science better than he lets on. With the pandemic, he clearly recognized the risks of spread. He told journalist Bob Woodward way back on February 7th that he knew Covid-19 was more lethal than the flu and that it spread through the air. But on March 9th, Trump tweeted that the “common flu” was worse than Covid. Instead of endorsing mask wearing, he turned it into a partisan symbol of “freedom.” And he tried to sideline Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, the most trusted voice on the pandemic in the administration, by bringing in Scott Atlas, a radiologist from the conservative Hoover Institution who questioned the use of masks and other public-health measures. “I wanted to always play it down,” Trump told Woodward on March 19th, “I still like playing it down.” Even though playing it down meant that he was OK with tens of thousands of Americans dying.
In a similar way, Trump surely understood that rollbacks of environmental laws that safeguard clean air and drinking water would kill people. He just didn’t care. “This is not about shifts in policy,” Gina McCarthy, who was head of the Environmental Protection Agency under President Obama, tells me. “This is outright denial of science and reality. This is lying to the American public just for the benefit of intriguing your base. I’ve never heard of that happening — not in my lifetime.”
One of the great virtues of the scientific method is that it’s self-correcting and always subject to revision. Scientists prize skepticism, and the best of them are upfront about what they don’t know. But this uncertainty leaves gaping holes for manipulation. For decades, the tobacco industry exploited the gap between what scientists knew and didn’t know to deny the link between cigarettes and cancer. Climate deniers have long used uncertainties in exactly how much carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels warms up the Earth’s atmosphere as proof that it isn’t happening, or that humans aren’t causing it.
One of the goals of the Republican Party since the Eighties has been the deconstruction of the regulatory state. Consider the decades-long fight to limit mercury pollution from coal plants. Mercury is one of the most toxic substances on the planet. In 2012, the Mercury & Air Toxics Standards finally went into effect, greatly reducing emissions of mercury and other heavy metals from power plants. The EPA estimated that the new standard would prevent as many as 11,000 deaths each year. Nevertheless, Andrew Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist who is now the EPA administrator, led a campaign to gut the rule. Why? “I think they are trying to dismantle the ability to intervene in any way with how industry works,” McCarthy says. “They see their job as ensuring that businesses stay open for business, even if that business kills people.”
If nothing else, Trump has destroyed the old trope that “science is not political.” Science is always political. If you control the cash and the cultural agenda, you get to influence how science is defined. Adolf Hitler believed in the superiority of the Aryan race, so in the Third Reich, eugenics was a hot topic. To intimidate the Soviet Union, Ronald Reagan pushed for X-ray lasers in space. This tendency is exaggerated with authoritarian leaders like Trump. “Facts have to be your servant,” says Ben-Ghiat. “The entire intellectual and epistemological structure has to be contorted to serve their ends. In the case of science, it’s not so much about denial as it is a reshaping of the scientific agenda.”
Under Trump, science is a process of accommodating the needs and wants of his supporters and campaign contributors. At the EPA, Wheeler changed rules so that auto manufacturers can continue building gas guzzlers without being impeded by higher fuel-efficiency standards, and coal-mining companies can dump toxic waste in lakes and streams without worrying about the impact on drinking water. As for climate change, taking it seriously would mean dumping 50 years of Republican dogma, alienating a powerful part of the coalition Trump needs to maintain power, and, most painfully, ceding that President Obama was right about something.
Reshaping the scientific agenda in America also requires purging scientists from government agencies. According to an analysis by The Washington Post, in the first two years of the Trump administration, more than 1,600 federal scientists left the government. At the beginning of 2020, one-fifth of the high-level appointee positions in science were still vacant.
Those jobs are being filled by second-rate scientists as well as crackpots supported by Trump’s far-right evangelical base. Exhibit A: The White House appointed former geography professor David Legates to the post of deputy assistant secretary of commerce for observation and prediction at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, America’s top scientific agency. Legates is now in a position to have an enormous impact on how NOAA informs Americans about the science of climate change. But he is a climate denier who has claimed that rising carbon dioxide levels would make the Earth more hospitable to humans. He’s also senior adviser at a group called the Cornwall Alliance, whose founder, E. Calvin Beisner, called environmentalism “the greatest threat to Western civilization.” The Cornwall Alliance is an offspring of the James Partnership, a nonprofit that describes itself as “dedicated to fulfilling the command in the New Testament Epistle of James for Christians to be both ‘hearers and doers of the Word.’ ”
As bad as this all is, “it can get much, much worse,” says Ben-Ghiat. If Trump is re-elected, religion will continue to distort science and the courts. Distrust in science-based institutions like the CDC will grow, amplified by social media and networks like Fox News that profit from mayhem and despair. The economic and racial divide between the healthy and the sick will widen. Scientists who speak out will be attacked and jailed. Dissent will fall away, and with it, democracy. We will slide into what astrophysicist Carl Sagan called “a demon-haunted world,” where, “unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness.” A world where disease is cured by injecting bleach into our bodies and hurricanes are stopped by dropping nuclear bombs on them. “Science is more than a body of knowledge, it’s a way of thinking,” Sagan said. “If we are not able to ask skeptical questions to interrogate those who tell us something is true, to be skeptical of those in authority, then we’re up for grabs for the next charlatan, political or religious, who comes ambling along.”
You think that can’t happen here in America. You think we can’t go back to the Dark Ages. But we can, and with another four years of Trump, we will.