The 2016 push for Brexit was also marked by a kind of anti-intellectual impatience. Brexiteers mocked the overwhelming consensus among trade experts and economists who warned that the divorce from Europe would be far messier and more problematic than what its proponents described. “People in this country have had enough of experts,” Michael Gove, then a prominent “Leave” campaigner and now a member of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s cabinet, declared at the time. Gove’s performative contempt won the day.
But the global spread of the novel coronavirus poses a unique reality check. A flurry of recent reporting plots how the Trump administration bungled the early weeks of the outbreak, squandering valuable time to manage and prepare for the arrival of a global epidemic that has now reached around 100 countries and infected more than 100,000 people, including more than 500 confirmed cases in the United States.
Unlike many other leaders faced with the crisis, Trump rushed to politicize it. He framed the challenge as one of containment, mitigated in part by travel bans, and hailed his administration’s closing of borders. When it was apparent to all that the virus would not be contained so easily, Trump blamed the Obama administration for the government’s lack of preparedness three years into his own presidency. At a rally in North Carolina, he used the virus to bemoan “fringe globalists” who hope for open borders.
Internally, though, reports suggest Trump is spooked, not least because of the serious economic jitters posed by what soon may be deemed a pandemic. Trump and top White House officials sought to play down the scale of the threat, even as leading public health officials elsewhere in the administration warned of serious disruptions to come. Interagency infighting was compounded by Trump who, as my colleagues noted, has become “a font of misinformation and confusion.”
“The repeated false claims by the president that the virus was being contained exacerbated the problem,” my colleagues reported, in a piece that surveyed numerous current or former public health officials. “They made it difficult for public health officials to lay out the need to prepare for what happens next, even after most experts had begun to fear the virus was already here and spreading. There was also a ripple effect, with health officials and others not taking the threat as seriously as they should have because Trump kept on making faulty assurances, such as his claim at a Feb. 26 news conference that within the United States, the number of cases was ‘going to be down to close to zero.’”
“Given the features of this virus, we knew from the onset that it’s not the type of virus that is amenable to containment,” Luciana Borio, who served on the White House National Security Council from 2017 through 2019 and as chief scientist for the Food and Drug Administration, told Time magazine. “And that only works if you use the time really wisely. It’s possible that the time that it bought us wasn’t used in the best possible manner to help us get ahead of the curve in terms of preparing the homeland for the eventual epidemic.”
This may be a feature of Trumpian politics, not a bug. Slate’s Fred Kaplan pointed to “Trump’s pattern in dealing with other federal departments on which past presidents have relied when facing crises of various sorts — and his pattern is, as much as possible, to avoid dealing with them at all: to deprecate, depreciate, or dismiss people who have expertise.”
“It always ladders to the top,” a person helping advise the administration’s response told Politico, alleging that Trump’s aides discouraged his top health officials from briefing the president about the coronavirus threat in January. “Trump’s created an atmosphere where the judgment of his staff is that he shouldn’t need to know these things.”
It doesn’t have to be like this. An editorial this weekend in the Ottawa Citizen praised the Canadian government’s handling of the crisis so far on two significant counts: First, that public health agencies have provided “frequent, factual updates” on the spread of the virus; second, that their “tone has been non-political” throughout.
That’s far from the case in the United States, where Trump made Vice President Pence his point person on the coronavirus. The White House is alleged to have also sought to muzzle their own top medical experts. “What is unfolding in the U.S. is exposing in real time the dangers of populism and its rejection of evidence and experts,” noted the Guardian in an editorial. “And societies’ responses to the crisis are casting a spotlight on their key vulnerabilities and fragilities. In America, it is the lack of a universal entitlement to healthcare and basic employment rights in one of the world’s richest countries.”
And the British response? So far, a bit more measured than Washington’s. After being criticized for dragging his feet, Johnson appeared at a Friday briefing alongside Britain’s chief medical officer. “I’m very proud that U.K. experts … are on the front line of global efforts,” he said.