President Donald Trump finally told “everybody” in the country to “wear a mask” last week, acknowledging that face coverings help stem the spread of the coronavirus.
“Whether you like the mask or not, they have an impact. They have an effect,” he said. “We need everything we can get.”
There is, and has been, a growing scientific consensus that masks help. Trump’s recent comments were noteworthy because for months he had shunned and mocked masks, saying he personally wouldn’t wear one and didn’t think they looked presidential. He also even suggested that wearing one might be harmful. Trump first wore a mask in public this month.
But Trump’s supporters took his previous anti-mask stance to heart. At a Trump campaign rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in June, very few of the thousands of people who showed up wore a mask, and there was little social distancing. And while most Americans support wearing masks, not doing so has become a point of pride and political identification for some on the right.
Beyond masks, Trump has openly ignored the advice of medical experts on the coronavirus and injected dangerous conspiracy theories into the public debate ― including pushing bogus “cures” like bleach and sunlight. He continued to push the anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine, even after multiple studies concluded it was ineffective or even dangerous as a treatment for the coronavirus.
“I am greatly alarmed that clear scientific facts, such as basic epidemiology, can be negated by ideological rhetoric,” said Robert Brulle, an environmental sociologist at Drexel University. “It is as if we are in the middle ages, with superstition and irrationality ruling public behavior.”
Trump, however, did not begin the anti-science streak on the right. For years, Republicans have laid the groundwork for Trump’s theories to take hold in the public imagination by attacking science, particularly around climate change.
Bill Mitchell, the radio host and aggressive Trump backer, even called the coronavirus ”climate change 2.0,” reflecting how many on the right view the issue.
“We’ve seen a persistent dismantling of our non-partisan science agencies for years,” Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), the author of a bill to protect public scientific research from political interference, told HuffPost. “It has now become clear that the official policy of the Republican Party is to silence experts and satisfy the whims of their king.”
“The distinction between the COVID emergency and the climate emergency is COVID is killing us quickly, and climate is doing its damage somewhat more slowly ― although at some point it will be catastrophic.”
There has been some modest pushback against Trump’s refusal to acknowledge scientific advice from members of his own party. Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s former acting chief of staff, urged the president to tell people to wear masks this month and to step up testing.
But as a congressman, Mulvaney refused to go along with the scientific consensus on global warming, insisting, ”I’m not yet convinced that it is a direct correlation between man-made activity and the change in the climate.”
Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) has repeatedly broken with Trump on how to handle the coronavirus pandemic, and urged people to wear masks and practice social distancing. Yet for years, she was also attacking the science around global warming, calling efforts to regulate the coal industry to help curb carbon emissions ”bad science.”
These Republicans may not like how Trump is reacting to the coronavirus and maybe wish he’d stop undermining medical experts like Anthony Fauci. But they are partly to blame for why Trump’s unscientific pronouncements are catching on with parts of the public, who see rejecting things like masks as a point of political pride.
“When you as a party ... ignore the facts systematically, it becomes easier to do that over and over again,” said Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.). “Their brand has been science denialism baked in now. So it’s going to be very hard for them, I think, to pivot to a constructive governance party that uses facts in the way they did for decades.”
“The key to the success of climate denial was that it became part of the core identity to be a Republican,” Brulle said. “The party leadership maintained this argument and delegitimated climate science, and by extension, science in general.”
The same thing, he said, is now happening with the coronavirus, with many in the GOP making opposing masks part of the core identity of being a Republican.
“The party faithful, following these elite cues, started viewing mask wearing as something liberals do,” he added. “The science of epidemiology was also attacked as yet another liberal elitist viewpoint, promulgated by liberal scientists. So it parallels the promulgation of climate science denial almost exactly.”
Public confidence in medical scientists is high and has grown since the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak, according to findings from the Pew Research Center. But there is a partisan gap. Fifty-three percent of Democrats have a great deal of confidence in medical scientists to act in the public interest, up 16 percentage points from January 2019. On the GOP side, only 31% have a great deal of confidence, which is roughly the same from a year ago.
Democrats are also far more likely to say that there needs to be more testing and social distancing, and to believe that the coronavirus spreads more easily than other infectious diseases.
Pushing experts out of the way has a purpose ― and a risk.
When experts are gone or discredited, the group with the most influence gets to have its say. In the case of the coronavirus, that means businesses that want to stay open and not take extra measures to protect employees and customers, and governments that want to stay open to keep up the economy and the appearance that everything is under control.
“This isn’t about being nice to scientists,” said Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Attempts to undermine science for political or financial gain didn’t start with climate change. Big business and their backers ― from polluters to the tobacco industry ― have been doing it for decades.
“The distinction between the COVID emergency and the climate emergency is COVID is killing us quickly, and climate is doing its damage somewhat more slowly ― although at some point it will be catastrophic,” Rosenberg added.
“Ultimately it costs lives and it costs money,” said Rep. Kathy Castor (D-Fla.), chair of the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis. “And people hopefully are awake to that fact and get out of the Fox News bubble. I think COVID and climate together are going to hopefully bring a great awakening.”
Naomi Oreskes, a historian of science who co-authored the book “Merchants of Doubt” about the orchestration of misinformation around climate change and tobacco, told Wired that there is a clear pattern when it comes to the denial of science: “First, one denies the problem, then one denies its severity, and then one says it is too difficult or expensive to fix, and/or that the proposed solution threatens our freedom.”
Trump has, over the past few months, insisted that the coronavirus will simply go away (he predicted it would be gone by April); only looks bad because the country does so much testing; made restarting the economy his first priority; and has ― until recently ― helped stoke the idea that being against masks was part of a culture war.
And while the GOP laid the groundwork for Trump’s ideas to take hold, he and his administration have intensified the anti-science fight.
“There is no question in my mind that the years of undermining the science of climate change by this administration has conditioned many people to distrust science across the board, especially when it tells them something they don’t want to believe or think might inconvenience them,” Christine Todd Whitman, who served as head of the Environmental Protection Agency under President George W. Bush, told HuffPost. “Of course, as with climate change, the president’s continued, specific, denial of the science surrounding COVID-19 is confusing policy makers and citizens alike.”
At an event at Louisiana State University earlier this month, Vice President Mike Pence openly told people to ignore the guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “To be very clear, we don’t want CDC guidance to be a reason why people don’t reopen their schools.”
Pence, like Trump, has long denied climate change, and their administration is full of people with similar views. Even before Trump took office, climate change skeptics Myron Ebell and Steven Milloy served on the transition team at the EPA.
Trump also publicly pressured the CDC to support school openings, despite an internal document that advised that doing so would pose significant risk. Nevertheless, on Thursday night, the CDC posted a new update on its website downplaying the health risks and fully backing reopening schools in the fall. It turned out that the White House was involved in editing that statement.
The Trump administration’s attempt to ignore science for political gain has sometimes bordered on the absurd, like when the president tried to insist that Hurricane Dorian was headed for Alabama in November. It wasn’t ― but Trump held up a map altered with black marker to make it look like it was. Alabama scientists who continued tweeting that the hurricane would not hit the state were punished by the administration.
“We’re seeing that hoaxism and science denial makes for really bad outcomes that hurt lots of people. And that there are people among us so ignorant and/or stubborn that they will do it anyway,” said Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.), a member of the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis. “Let’s hope the rest of us are strong enough to take the wheel before they drive us over more cliffs.”
Igor Bobic contributed reporting.