Donald Trump is notorious for thinking that he can create his own version of ‘reality’ that can replace, you know, actual reality, by simply dismissing the views of experts, making counterfactual assertions, and claiming that anyone who contradicts his ‘reality’ is either a fool or a knave, part of a larger conspiracy that seeks to thwart his glorious plans to make America great again. He is not the first person to try this. We recall the top official in the administration of George W. Bush (believed to be his chief propagandist Karl Rove, though he denied it) who told reporter Ron Suskind during the period when the Bush administration was lying about the Iraq war:
“People like you are still living in what we call the reality-based community. You believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality. That’s not the way the world really works anymore. We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you are studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors, and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”
Barack Obama was not above denying reality when it suited him either, such as his decision not to call the Egyptian coup a coup when it manifestly was.
But Trump has sunk to new depths. He initially tried to deny the reality of the current pandemic. That denial has resulted in the US being way behind other countries in its preparedness and response, and has exposed him for the dangerous fool that he always was.
It is at such moments of peril that a nation looks to its leader for reassurance and direction. Trump, critics say, has failed the test in both words and deeds. Uniquely unqualified, he is the wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Elaine Kamarck, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution think tank in Washington, said: “He’s an idiot. He’s handled it horribly. When things are rough, you want somebody who can exude confidence and competence and Trump does not do that.”
The coronavirus outbreak plays to the weaknesses of Trump, a germaphobe and gut instinct politician who prefers to slug it out with human foes on Twitter. He has spent years undermining experts, institutions, scientists, media outlets, global alliances and trust in government, all of which are now needed more than ever.
His first misstep came two years ago when he disbanded the global health security team on the National Security Council (NSC) that was responsible for preparing for a pandemic. The NSC’s global health security chief, Rear Admiral Tim Ziemer, was fired the day after an Ebola outbreak was declared in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Last year intelligence agencies warned that the US remained vulnerable to the next flu pandemic but Trump, it seems, hoped that his long streak of political luck would hold.
But Trump still seems to think that he can bend reality to his will, as witnessed by his call to pharmaceutical companies that are working on vaccines to “Do me a favor, speed it up, speed it up.” As Holden Thorp, editor in chief of the journal Science, writes, science is part of the reality-based community and has suffered under this administration from its dismissive attitude. You cannot immediately reverse the damage by repeating a request to “speed it up”, as if all the disease experts have been just casually lounging around, drinking margaritas.
While scientists are trying to share facts about the epidemic, the administration either blocks those facts or restates them with contradictions. Transmission rates and death rates are not measurements that can be changed with will and an extroverted presentation.
And although the steps required to produce a vaccine could possibly be made more efficient, many of them depend on biological and chemical processes that are essential. So the president might just as well have said, “Do me a favor, hurry up that warp drive.”
With this administration’s disregard for science of the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the stalled naming of a director for the Office of Science and Technology Policy—all to support political goals—the nation has had nearly 4 years of harming and ignoring science.
Now, the president suddenly needs science.
A vaccine has to have a fundamental scientific basis. It has to be manufacturable. It has to be safe. This could take a year and a half—or much longer. Pharmaceutical executives have every incentive to get there quickly—they will be selling the vaccine after all—but thankfully, they also know that you can’t break the laws of nature to get there.
Maybe we should be happy. Three years ago, the president declared his skepticism of vaccines and tried to launch an antivaccine task force. Now he suddenly loves vaccines.
But do us a favor, Mr. President. If you want something, start treating science and its principles with respect.
Trump is discovering that you can only ignore and dismiss the “reality based community” for so long. But even this setback is unlikely to change his views long-term. He has all the hallmarks of someone who does not learn from experience and you can be sure that he will continue to act like an ignorant fool.
Typically, when asked if he took responsibility for the poor response of the government, he replied, “I don’t take responsibility at all.”
It is Public Relations 101 that when something goes really badly in an organization, the top person takes responsibility as part of the process of showing contrition and limiting the damage done to its image. Even if, as is often the case, the person does not suffer any consequences, they are expected to issue a pro forma acceptance of responsibility. But Trump cannot do even that basic thing since he feels that nothing that goes bad can be blamed on him.