In H.G. Wells, 1897 novel, War of the Worlds, modern civilization is brought to its knees by alien invaders only to be reprieved by earth’s lethal pathogens. The novel served as a presumed allegory for British imperialism, specifically its invasion of indigenous tribes in Tasmania.
Covid-19’s pathogens are proving equally crippling to the monolithic, anti-science Trump administration, which has been caught off guard by the disease’s pandemic spread. As is his wont, President Trump often addresses complex social, political and scientific issues with adolescent hubris marked with scorn for experts in those fields.
Recently, he barred esteemed director of the National Institution of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Dr.Anthony Fauci, from addressing the Covid-19 threat in favor of Vice President, Mike Pence. The two men could not differ more diametrically in their approach to public health. As governor of Indiana, the strongly religious Pence initially rejected a plea in 2015 from health officials to authorize a program to allow distribution of clean needles among drug addicts to stem the tide of AIDs that had spread in southern Indiana. Pence said he wanted to “pray” on it. Only after a plea from a staunchly conservative sheriff in Scott County for his approval, did he relent. During his six terms in the House of Representatives, Pence voted against a needle exchange program that proved useful in preventing the spread of H.I.V. Conversely, Dr. Fauci, an expert in immunology, has been at the forefront in tackling the Ebola, Zika, and AIDS epidemics.
Trump prefers to tell the American people what he wants them to hear, even at the risks of spreading misinformation. At a recent press conference, he said that “we are very close to a vaccine” and that “by the spring it will be over,” contrary to CDC estimates that a vaccine is 12-18 months away, and those immunologists who say the disease is not seasonal.
Trump, who is girding for a reelection campaign, often points to a robust stock market as evidence that his economic policies are working. Initially, his first concern when confronted with the growing Covid-19 epidemic was to point out that the three percent drop in the stock market would only be temporary. Since that statement, Dow has suffered a 20 percent correction.
In a public health crisis, the president’s most important role is as a trusted source of information. People need to know how the coronavirus threatens them and how to respond. They want to know if the public health system is prepared and what should individuals do to get ready for an outbreak domestically.
Trump is either incapable of such a methodical and unified government approach, or worse, sees it as conflicting with his m.o. of magical thinking. If you need examples look at his failed bromance with North Korea’s Kim Jong-Il, his belief that Obama had his wires tapped, and his belief that Ukraine possesses the server filled with damning election interference evidence.
As conservative columnist David Brooks wrote, “The dangerous thing about Trump’s fantasy world is not when it dissolves into nothing; it’s when he seduces the rest of us to move into it. It’s not when he ignores the facts; it’s when he replaces them by building an alternate virtual reality and suckering us into it.”
The next few months will determine the extent of damage from the collision of the White House’s alternative virtual reality of the disease and the scientific facts of its inexorable spread in this country.
Like the unseen microbes in Wells’ War of the Worlds, Covid-19 pathogens may just bring the Trump machine to its knees.