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The Pandemic and the GOP’s Science Problem

The party’s uneasy relationship with science goes back decades.
May 14, 2020
The Pandemic and the GOP’s Science Problem
(GettyImages / Shutterstock)

Recent headlines highlight Dr. Rick Bright, the federal scientist whose terminal sin was challenging Donald Trump’s coronavirus quackery. But the GOP’s aversion to expertise did not originate with Trump—or his disastrous response to COVID-19.

“It’s hard to know,” writes Max Boot, “exactly when the Republican Party assumed the mantle of the ‘stupid party.’” But one might look to the 1970s as the gateway to a politically calculated dismissal of scientific knowledge.

Having allied with evangelicals over social issues, the GOP’s political class found it expedient to honor fundamentalists’ most fundamental premise: creationism. Evangelicals flocked—and the GOP became an anti-evolutionary haven. As recently as last year, Gallup found that 55 percent of self-identified Republicans—as compared to 40 percent of the general population—agree with the statement “God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so.”

Conservative media vilified evolutionary science. “Everybody that believes in Darwinism is corrupt,” pronounced Rush Limbaugh in 2010. “Liberals love anything that allows them to say there’s no God.”

It’s no longer just the party’s base that professes disbelief in evolution. In 2011, presidential candidate Jon Huntsman tweeted: “I believe in evolution and trust scientists on global warming. Call me crazy.” Within the GOP, it was. By 2016, eleven of the serious GOP presidential aspirants were on the record as refusing to opine on evolution or rejecting it outright. A twelfth—Jeb Bush—said it shouldn’t be taught in public schools. (Interestingly, Donald Trump seems not to have been asked about his beliefs on evolution—or, at the least, not to have given a coherent answer.)

This progression fed a widening attack on knowledge rooted in what GOP strategist Stuart Stevens labels his party’s “toxic fantasies”: “Government is bad. Establishment experts are overrated or just plain wrong. Science is suspect.”

One additive, the anti-vaccination movement, combined a distrust of science, an adamant libertarianism disdainful of public health, and an insistence on parental rights often rooted in fundamentalism. From Kentucky to Oregon to California, anti-vaxxers like Michele Bachmann became an ardent minority within the party.

The World Health Organization lists opposition to vaccines among the top ten threats to global health. But here’s Trump in a presidential debate: “Just the other day . . . a child, a beautiful child went to have the vaccine, and came back, and a week later got a tremendous fever, got very, very sick, now is autistic.”

Creationism and anti-vaccinationism did not, in themselves, transform federal policy. But disdain for science, once unleashed, spreads its political contagions.

Until COVID-19, the paradigmatic example of GOP antagonism toward science was another of the WHO’s top-ten threats: climate change. Republican opposition to climate science goes back decades, and is partly attributable to donors and corporate interests funding projects to sow doubt about scientific research—just as they had previously attempted to debunk concerns about  the health hazards of pollution and smoking cigarettes.

By 2016, the official GOP platform proclaimed that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change—the U.N. body that attempts to summarize scientific findings about climate change—is “unreliab[le]” and “not an unbiased scientific institution.” Some Republicans, unsatisfied with fighting against proposed climate policies or challenging the science, flatly dismiss climate change as a “hoax.” Observes Paul Krugman: “Republicans are the world’s only major climate-denialist party.”

Indeed. Limbaugh and Fox News traffic in denialism, and a 2018 Yale survey found that only 26 percent of conservative Republicans believe that humans contribute to climate change.

Once Trump became president, disbelief mutated into something more dangerous: an aggressive federal effort to suppress scientific knowledge. In an extensive account of such efforts, based on a survey of scientists at sixteen federal agencies, the Union of Concerned Scientists noted in 2018 that “many survey respondents . . . report censorship of their work, especially work related to climate change.”

This included deleting references to climate change from websites and reports, and insinuating denialism into government documents. Of a government warning that unchecked warming could devastate the economy, Trump said, “I don’t believe it.” One result, reports the New York Times, is that “parts of the federal government will no longer fulfill what scientists say is one of the most urgent jobs of climate science studies: reporting on the future effects of a rapidly warming planet. . .”

Forget the overwhelming consensus of scientists that accelerating climate change could soon become catastrophic—or the evidence of melting ice caps, rising sea levels, proliferating droughts, burgeoning wildfires. Suppressing climate science propitiates important Republican constituencies: the fossil-fuel industry; a donor class exemplified by the Koch brothers; and base voters resentful of perceived elites.

COVID-19 has dramatized this subordination of knowledge to politics—including Trump’s dismissal of repeated scientific warnings. As of today we have suffered more than 84,000 deaths. Yet little more than two months ago, Trump was describing Democrats’ critiques of his COVID-19 response as their “new hoax,” bragging that “we have lost nobody to coronavirus,” and predicting that the number of cases “within a couple of days is going to be down to close to zero.”

Once again, Limbaugh and Fox—particularly Laura Ingraham and Sean Hannity—derided science as a hoax. Once again, partisans believed them: Polling throughout March showed that most Republicans dismissed COVID-19 as a major public health threat. Events proved otherwise. In late April, Vox reported a sophisticated statistical analysis by three economists from the University of Chicago which suggested that, in the early stages of the pandemic, areas with more Hannity viewers had more cases and deaths from COVID-19.

As death enveloped us, Trump resorted to anti-scientific magical thinking. One of his quack cures, hydroxychloroquine, seems to increase fatalities; another, self-injecting cleaning products, surely would. Yet many of his followers swallowed this dangerous nonsense—some literally.

From the beginning, Trump’s criminally callous calculus was obvious: Acknowledging the pandemic jeopardized a re-election campaign premised on economic prosperity. But most telling was his comfort in ignoring the admonitions of science—and the consistent failure of congressional Republicans to object.

Nor did they protest when Trump bullied scientists who spoke politically inconvenient truths—Dr. Nancy Messonnier of the CDC, who predicted the spread of COVID-19; CDC director Dr. Robert Redfield, who forecast its return this winter; and, of course, Dr. Bright. As Dr. Anthony Fauci—whose candor reportedly caused Trump to begin excluding him from White House briefingsacknowledged, “You don’t want to go to war with the president, but you’ve got to walk the fine balance of making sure you continue to tell the truth.”

In early May, the president barred members of the coronavirus task force, notably including Dr. Fauci, from appearing before Congress without express approval; a few days later, under pressure, Trump said that he would allow Fauci to testify before the Senate—but not the House. Says former EPA administrator Gina McCarthy, “They are doing everything they can to undermine science at a time when it is critically important.”

These efforts to suppress science-based information serve Trump’s resolve to reopen the economy without widespread testing. Last week, it emerged that Trump has rejected CDC guidelines for reopening, in part because religious conservatives object to any restrictions on church services. Instead, he is encouraging states to reopen their economies in violation of the public health criteria laid out in his own White House guidelines, released to much fanfare in April—including, critically, the requirement of a 14-day decline in coronavirus cases. Already, many states are opening without such a decline; in some states, the trajectory of cases is actually rising.

In response, on Tuesday an obviously troubled Dr. Fauci told the Senate of his deep concern that, if states and localities don’t follow the “very well thought out” White House guidelines but instead “jump over those various checkpoints and prematurely open up . . . we will start to see little spikes that might turn into outbreaks.” So, Fauci testified, premature economic reopening not only might cause needless “suffering and death,” but “paradoxically . . . could even set you back on the road to try to get economic recovery.”

As the fight over reopening continues, the battle lines are being drawn for the GOP’s next epic clash with scientists: a fight over the number of the dead. A familiar cast of science deniers now claim that the death toll is grossly exaggerated. Reports the New York Times: “Climate-change skeptics have employed techniques perfected in the fight over global warming to raise doubts about the deadliness of the virus. Others, including Mr. Trump’s media allies as well as some in the anti-vaccine movement, have repurposed fringe theories about ‘deep state’ bureaucrats undermining the president.”

To the contrary, as Fauci told the Senate, American fatalities from COVID-19 are likely underreported. And yet, despite the warnings, Trump is pushing ahead.

Even before this, epidemiologists working for FEMA projected the daily death count might reach 3,000 by June 1. A team from the University of Washington estimated nearly 135,000 deaths by August—more than doubling its original projection.

Trump will not own this carnage alone. So will his party. The GOP began claiming ownership when it first resolved to treat scientific knowledge as a liberal fiction.

Richard North Patterson

Richard North Patterson is a lawyer, political commentator and best-selling novelist. He is a former chairman of Common Cause and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.