Right at the outset of the Covid-19 crisis, a number of commentators, myself included, wrote about the particular challenges of dealing with a pandemic in a time of mass disinformation. These are the days of fake news, of conspiracy theories, of cranks posing as experts. It has become increasingly difficult for lay people to navigate their way through the quackery and separate fact from fiction. Given Donald Trump’s role in creating this cognitive quagmire, his loose talk was always likely to fan the flames.
Still, I doubt many imaginations were wild enough to predict that a few weeks on his reckless idiocy would provoke a spate of newspaper headlines warning US citizens that, while they may have drunk the Kool-Aid, they should stop short of swilling bleach at the president’s behest. Though disinfectant may destroy the virus on work surfaces – they earnestly reported – ingesting it is a bad way to strip it from your system; and a good way to end up dead.
Here we are, through the looking glass again. Trump has long been ignorant about viruses. In the 80s, he talked about fumigating all the dishes and silverware after his soon-to-be ex-friend Roy Cohn contracted Aids. But last week he surpassed himself, choosing a televised press briefing as the moment to share his unscientific, and utterly bonkers, belief that ultraviolet light and household disinfectants might be used internally to tackle Covid-19. You might think anyone tempted to act on such advice deserves the leader they’ve got. But then, thanks in part to Trump, tens of millions of Americans currently have no health insurance. Who can blame them if mass panic causes them to clutch at straws?
At Trump’s side was immunologist Dr Deborah Birx, He tried to make her complicit in his Lear-on-the-heath-like ravings, constantly looking to her for affirmation. Her lips demurred just once. But her face was the face of someone who understands that even in this increasingly amoral landscape some kind of line has been crossed; the face of someone who has finally caught sight of the price tag the devil has attached to her soul.
Afterwards, the White House transcript of the briefing had her confirming ultraviolet light “was a treatment”. But even in a world where the truth is malleable, this couldn’t stand when she was clearly heard saying the opposite. The transcript was later amended to “not a treatment”. It is unlikely this will do Birx any favours in the long-term.
She is not the first medical expert to try to teleport herself out of a Trump press conference using only the power of her “you-know-what”. Last month, Dr Anthony Fauci was seen face-palming himself as Trump spoke of the Deep State – an allusion to a conspiracy theory about a secret network operating to undermine him. Why one would need a secret network to undermine him when he does it so effectively himself is the kind of question conspiracy theorists do not tend to trouble themselves with.
Fauci – the US’s preeminent expert on infectious diseases such as Sars, Swine Flu and Ebola – is one of the few officials to have disagreed with Trump on issues such as the potential of anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine, which the president was pushing as a miracle cure, and on the country’s testing capacity.
But Fauci’s countering of some of Trump’s worst excesses is too mild for some critics. Both he and Birx have been accused of complicity through silence. By failing to openly contradict him at press briefings, they are regarded as validating his falsehoods and consolidating his position.
It’s a tricky one. It seems unlikely – given their obvious discomfort – that these respected experts are cosying up to Trump for the love of him, or the power he bestows. They wouldn’t be the first to believe that they can change things from within; or to worry about who would be brought in to replace them if their dissent caused them to be ousted.
James Mattis spent a lot longer than his close friends thought sensible trying to walk a line as secretary of defense, before reluctantly concluding it was better to be outside the tent pissing in.
It’s a trade-off. Birx and Fauci will no doubt be making their calculations. How much of Trump’s nonsense are they willing to tolerate in exchange for his compliance on key issues such as social distancing? To the outside observer, Birx may seem like an apologist. Her playing down of the bleach incident – “He gets new information and likes to talk that through out loud“ – could be interpreted as appeasement, especially after he tried to pass it off as a sarcastic joke. But Trump’s inner court operates like Henry VIII’s. One minute you’ve been made Lord Chamberlain and the next your neck’s on the block. Publicly challenging Trump would have cost her her job (if her facial expression has not) and perhaps she believes there is still more she can achieve.
This certainly appears to be true of Fauci. His occasional willingness to chide Trump (and his insistence on social distancing, anathema to so many) has already seen him demonised by the far right, who are running social media smear campaigns, suggesting he is part of the Deep State (hence Trump’s comment). Protesters who want to end the lockdown shout “Fire Fauci” – an exhortation that has also become a Twitter hashtag. Fauci, who briefed Reagan on the Aids epidemic, is used to having to humour powerful men while persuading them to do his bidding.
With the pressure to ease lockdown increasing daily – and Georgia unilaterally allowing hairdressers, tattoo parlours and nail bars to reopen – perhaps he believes he alone can convince the president to hold the line.
Are Birx and Fauci right? Is their pragmatism morally defensible? On the one hand – despite Trump suggesting early on that the crisis was being over-egged, and that the virus would simply disappear – his approval ratings have remained reasonably steady at 42 per cent.
The notion that open dissent would see a shift in public attitude, or that the much discussed 25th amendment – which allows for the removal of a president who is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office – might be used to unseat him is delusional.
On the other hand, how long should any expert be willing to hold their tongue while dangerous words are being spoken or actions taken? Would it have made any difference if those in his inner circle had been more vocal when Trump decided to defund the World Health Organisation? And what if someone does die of swallowing bleach as a result of what he said? How would the decision not to loudly and publicly denounce him look then?
The expression on Birx’s face made her repugnance for Trump’s loose talk apparent. It suggested there are limits to her loyalty; that there might come a moment when she would tell it as it is. But if not when he’s proclaiming the merits of a mouthful of Dettol, then when? And would any of us relish finding out exactly what it takes?