President Trump’s taped admission to Bob Woodward that he deliberately misled Americans about the danger of the coronavirus makes him morally culpable in the ensuing tragedy. But Mr. Trump actually forfeited the battle against the pandemic long before it erupted in Wuhan, China in the first place. His tragic failures are the result of a systematic skepticism — an opportunistic cynicism — whose orienting principle is that everything that benefits Mr. Trump is true and everything that inconveniences him is false.
Five centuries ago, Niccolò Machiavelli called this the “effectual truth”: Claims that are true, he wrote in “The Prince,” are so not because they correspond to objective reality but because they are politically “useful.” Mr. Trump’s use of skepticism as a standard for interpreting reality now risks undermining public faith in an eventual vaccine.
In his capstone address to the Republican National Convention, Mr. Trump promised a vaccine “before the end of the year or maybe even sooner.” That might be written off as a mere prediction of events, except that Mr. Trump tipped his hand in a pair of tweets directed against the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Together, they displayed the systematic skepticism that has derailed the administration’s pandemic response. But that skepticism is not isolated to the pandemic. Its degrading effects on politics may, instead, be one of Mr. Trump’s most regrettable and enduring legacies.
In one tweet, Mr. Trump rebuked the F.D.A. for revoking its emergency authorization of hydroxychloroquine, the antimalarial drug the president has repeatedly touted as a coronavirus treatment: “Many doctors and studies disagree with this!”
This is almost certainly accurate in the strict sense that “many” refers to an unspecified number exceeding one. Especially in the early and uncertain period of a new disease, scientific opinions are like parenting books and diet fads: One can go looking for something that confirms a prior conviction and be certain to find it.
That is different from trying to make the best judgment one can on the basis of competing views, some of which are more credible and authoritative than others. The fact that “many” people are willing to say anything, especially if the president cues them to do so, proves nothing except adherence to an intellectually and morally corrosive belief that nothing can be proved.
Early in this administration, it was reasonable to say that plausibility was the new truth: The mere existence of a believable opposing claim was sufficient to rebut a balanced assessment of the totality of evidence. But when skepticism is a whole system of thought, assertion is the new truth. A claim no longer needs to be believable. It simply needs to be made.
Mr. Trump started down that road before he was inaugurated, preposterously claiming that millions of fraudulent ballots cheated him out of the 2016 popular vote. Machiavelli would recognize the terms in which Mr. Trump recently recast this claim: that he won in “a true sense.” Mr. Trump continued within hours of taking the presidential oath, forcing his staff to insist against photographic evidence that the crowd at his inauguration had been the largest in history.
That skepticism now appears to be guiding the search for a vaccine. The same morning Mr. Trump insisted on the effectiveness of hydroxychloroquine, another presidential tweet accused “the deep state, or whoever, over at the FDA” of “making it very difficult for drug companies to get people in order to test the vaccines and therapeutics. Obviously, they are hoping to delay the answer until after November 3rd.”
He proceeded to demand a “a focus on speed, and saving lives.” But the reference to Election Day was the giveaway: The question for Mr. Trump was not simply whether the F.D.A. was dragging its feet or elevating medical caution over the urgency of a vaccine. That is a legitimate debate that must weigh the unknown long-term effects of an insufficiently tested vaccine with the known and immediate effects of its unavailability. By contrast, Mr. Trump was concerned not with prudential or objective assessments of proposed vaccines but rather with their “effectual truth.” By definition, the F.D.A. was moving too slowly because moving more quickly would help him politically.
A degree of skepticism can be a healthy disposition. Politically, it encourages the wariness of concentrated power appropriate to a republic. Intellectually, it values a prudent humility about what we can know over the certitude to which expertise is often prone.
But skepticism as a system for interpreting the world — which conservatives might once have called “nihilism” — is different from skepticism as a disposition. Systematic skepticism axiomatically questions the truth or relevance of anything that does not serve Mr. Trump’s personal ambition.
What has happened since the pandemic arrived in the United States has simply been the application of that system of thought to unfolding events. What is good for Mr. Trump is good for the nation, and a pandemic is not good for Mr. Trump. That is a more plausible explanation for his early denials than the president’s claim that he downplayed the coronavirus to prevent panic. Honesty about dangers, and a clear strategy for overcoming them, prevent panic. Lies fuel it, unless the panic to which Mr. Trump referred was personal fear about his own interests.
As a result of all this, the still evolving science surrounding Covid-19 is routinely interpreted based on its perceived effects on Mr. Trump’s re-election. The president’s personal refusal to wear a mask except when it seems politically convenient to do so — and his outright mocking of those have worn them — has transformed the single most effective device for preventing contagion into a statement of political loyalties. That has vastly more to do with the pandemic’s tragic toll than Mr. Trump’s policy choices do.
A Republican sheriff in Florida recently went as far as banning masks for deputies on duty and even for visitors to his office. The sheriff’s reasoning about wearing masks, which made national news, was rooted in systematic skepticism. He claimed that the effectiveness of masks was disproved by the fact that someone, somewhere, disputed it: “The fact is, the amount of professionals that give the reasons we should, I can find the exact same amount of professionals that say why we shouldn’t.” On the other side of the landscape lie Trump supporters who claim that his lies are obvious and transparent whoppers that no one believes, which is evidently untrue.
At this point, there is every reason to worry that a vaccine will be approved on an emergency basis before its safety has been fully established. The absurdity of the situation distills to this: Pharmaceutical executives, who have pledged not to seek authorization for a vaccine until adequate scientific evidence is gathered, are now acting as a check on federal regulators rather than the other way around.
Absent systematic skepticism, the balance of considerations might justify rapid authorization. But Mr. Trump has undermined any reason for confidence in such a judgment by staking his claim to the effectual rather than the actual truth. When a vaccine is actually ready, public trust in it will be a vital tool for ending the pandemic. On the other hand, should a vaccine suddenly appear on the eve of the election under obvious political pressure, the systematic skeptics who interpret truth through Mr. Trump’s eyes could prove their fidelity to him by being the first in line to receive it.
Greg Weiner (@GregWeiner1) is a political scientist at Assumption University, a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of “The Political Constitution: The Case Against Judicial Supremacy.”
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