The resulting litany of falsehoods, misdirection and anti-science policies — during the pandemic, for instance, Trump has claimed that the coronavirus would just “disappear,” insisted that it doesn’t harm children, said covid-19 “affects virtually nobody” (1 million deaths worldwide), endorsed sham treatments such as injecting bleach and dismissed the ability of masks to stop the virus’s spread — looks like a product of a singular, addled mind. “I have no explanation for why these briefings and the scientific evidence just doesn’t seem to click” with him, former White House coronavirus task force staffer Olivia Troye, who resigned in protest of Trump’s science denialism, recently said. The wealthiest country in history, armed with arguably the best hospitals and smartest doctors anywhere, has registered the most cases, the most deaths and perhaps the most hostile-to-science response of any nation in the world. Experts say tens of thousands of the 212,000 American deaths might have been averted if Trump had acted differently.
But Trump is not sui generis, and the Republicans who support him aren’t simply aping his talking points. The GOP has for decades made lack of concern for public health a linchpin of its policy agenda. Its conservative leaders have seen federal regulations and efforts to control environmental toxins or contagions as infringements on liberty. Had he won the presidency, Ted Cruz or Jeb Bush would have slashed government rules in the name of “freedom,” too. In the pandemic, we are not witnessing just one man’s unhinged actions. We’re seeing the apotheosis of a history of science denialism: a frontal attack on the very idea of scientific legitimacy.
Magical thinking abounds in American politics; science denialists are hardly confined to the right. New-age Democratic presidential candidate Marianne Williamson insisted in 2019 that public health requirements for childhood vaccinations were “draconian”; her comments recalled Republican presidential hopeful Michelle Bachmann’s 2011 charge that HPV vaccines may cause “mental retardation.” (Williamson later backtracked on her anti-vaxxer statement.) Robert Kennedy Jr., the late attorney general’s son, is another prominent left-wing anti-vaxxer; like Trump, he holds that childhood shots may cause autism.
Still, the overwhelming misinformation on science is coming from the right, where activists (especially on the religious right) have endorsed the notion, long echoed in a lot of GOP messaging, that you don’t have to evolve with the times. In these quarters, “freedom” — even freedom to harm fellow citizens — is more important than the public good, and a belief in American indefatigability has led to poor choices and selfishness. The same attitude that tells the government to “get off my back” causes people to refuse to mask up at a supermarket.
This dynamic is most visible in environmental policy. “I do not know how many future generations we can count on before the Lord returns,” Ronald Reagan’s interior secretary, the Christian fundamentalist James Watt, put it. Trump canceled rules to restrict incandescant lightbulbs and praises water-guzzling toilets simply because he likes them better than their greener alternatives.
Hostility to science became a pillar of GOP administrations. As president, George H.W. Bush mocked Al Gore as “Ozone Man,” while his son, George W. Bush, acknowledged greenhouse gas emissions as a legitimate threat while downplaying the growing scientific evidence that fossil fuels were a cause of global warming. The blithe selling of gas-guzzling SUVs for more than three decades — culminating in Trump’s efforts to roll back fuel-economy standards and block states from imposing their own — reflects the elevation of individual rights to material consumption, heedless of any consequences, above any larger good such as saving the planet.
Similar sentiments have bled into other realms. When scientific studies were used to support court cases that declared segregated schools unconstitutional, White Southern politicians responded by attacking the integrity of scientific expertise. In 1955, Sen. James Eastland of Mississippi said social scientists had misled the Supreme Court about the harms of racially segregated schools; he declared his support for a congressional investigation into the “alleged scientific authorities upon which the Supreme Court relied” in Brown v. Board of Education. After Jerry Falwell Sr.’s Moral Majority helped power Reagan to a landslide 1980 victory, a Moral Majority spokesman declared, “We want scientific creationism to be taught alongside of evolution, the theory that man comes from primordial ooze, a theory that’s never been proven.” Large parts of the right still support this view — and have won victories in state legislatures and boards of education like those in Texas and Louisiana, which have permitted the teaching of intelligent design or even creationism in recent decades.
In public health, conservative activists and libertarians have long feared the sinister impact of government expertise. In 1959, far-right media star Dan Smoot claimed that fluoride in the water supply was a big-government plot to poison people’s minds (“a Pandora’s box of evil”). A similar mind-set prompted right-wing religious activists in the 1970s to promote laetrile, a toxic apricot seed extract, as a miracle cure for cancer; 21 states eventually approved its use as a treatment, even though there was zero evidence it had any impact on cancer. And during the McCarthy era, housewives organized to denounce a World Health Organization initiative to promote mental health, seeing it as a Trojan horse to tag patriots who believed in communist conspiracies as irrational crackpots. Mental health advocates “freely and with malice set out to destroy the structure of Christianity,” said a 1955 far-right newsletter, according to historian Michelle Nickerson.
That tradition of skepticism toward science-driven public health projects lives on in the GOP. The Hyde Amendment has barred lots of aid groups from doing good work with American dollars because they also offer family planning services. In his first major presidential address in August 2001, George W. Bush curtailed the use of stem cells for federally funded research on cures for various diseases, in part to placate his religious fundamentalist political base.
The far right’s refusal to let science drive policymaking has worsened the U.S. coronavirus response. Trump has mocked reporters and Joe Biden for masking up; held large public gatherings (maskless, zero social distancing) that doubled as superspreader events, such as the announcement of his nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court; and falsely claimed that the virus is less deadly than the flu.
When Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick told Fox News in March that older Americans should be willing to sacrifice themselves to keep “the America that all America loves,” he was speaking for a multigenerational conservative project that disdains science in favor of saying, I’ll do what I want even if it winds up hurting others. One right-wing conspiracist Trump official working in public affairs at the National Institutes of Health assailed the pandemic as a hoax and referred to America’s top infectious-disease doctor, Anthony Fauci, as a “mask Nazi.”
Trump’s war on scientific expertise during this once-in-a-century pandemic is a reflection of the right’s decades of effort to elevate faith in God as an overriding value, leaving no room for scientific inquiry or medical leadership. Trump, then, is a leader of a movement long in the making, one that is unlikely to disappear once he leaves the White House.