In a packed Sunday rally filled with thousands of unmasked supporters in Miami, President Trump hinted to the crowd that he was considering firing Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
“Don’t tell anybody, but let me wait until a little bit after the election,” he said in response to audience chants of “Fire Fauci!”
Trump’s remark that he was open to terminating the employment of America’s top virologist came just one day after he told a group of Pennsylvania supporters that “our opponents do not believe in science.”
Wildly contradictory responses to the SARS2 coronavirus from Trump and other White House officials has been the one constant of this pandemic. Ultimately, however, it seems as though the administration has settled on a strategy of doing nothing to stop the spread of COVID-19, the respiratory disease that has killed over 230,000 Americans.
“We are not going to control the pandemic … because it’s a contagious virus,” White House chief of staff Mark Meadows told CNN host Jake Tapper last week. Days later, the president himself complained that the news media will cover nothing else but “COVID, COVID, COVID,” evincing an incredible disregard for the hundreds of thousands of lives that have been lost to the new disease.
While the president has long demonstrated a cavalier attitude toward people other than himself, evidence suggests that the administration’s policies have also been inspired by people pushing the original “alternative fact,” the false belief that organic evolution is a myth.
As first reported by the New Yorker, Meadows has multiple direct links to far-right “creationist” activists who promote a belief that most of the Earth’s fossils were actually created during the flood story recounted in the Bible—and who want public policies to reflect that belief. In 2002, the then-congressman paid for his children to attend a fossil dig organized by two pseudo-archaeologists during which they allegedly found a dinosaur skeleton. Meadows was apparently so excited by the discovery that he appeared in a documentary about it and also purchased the land on which the Allosaurus specimen was found. He later sold the property to Answers in Genesis, operator of the Creation Museum in Williamstown, Kentucky.
Meadows is far from the only Trump official with apparent ties to peddlers of junk biology. Vice President Mike Pence, chair of the White House coronavirus task force, has claimed on the floor of Congress that the fossil record does not prove evolution, that science is too changeable to be trusted, and that schools should also teach that humans were “created” by God in their current form.
Scott Atlas, the Stanford University radiologist and mask skeptic who has fast become Trump’s top coronavirus adviser, heartily endorsed the COVID-19 mitigation proposals of George Gilder, co-founder of the Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based think tank that specializes in promoting supply-side economics, climate science denial, and “intelligent design,” a spit-polished version of creationism which focuses more on attacking “Darwinism” than promoting biblical fundamentalism. According to Atlas, Gilder’s recommendation to “defer as much as possible to the principles of freedom” was “right on target.”
Atlas made his remarks on an web video broadcast produced by the Hoover Institution, a conservative think tank affiliated with Stanford University that has employed him for a number of years to comment on public health matters, including the Affordable Care Act.
But the “Uncommon Knowledge” Hoover program where Atlas appeared is about far more than attacking progressive health policy. Hosted by former Reagan speechwriter and creationist advocate Peter Robinson, the show has given numerous fawning interviews to Gilder and other critics of evolution in apparent concordance with a formerly secret creationist plan to make it seem as though credible academics are beginning to question a scientific theory that has been settled for more than 150 years. Discovery, in turn, has returned the love to Hoover by republishing Robinson’s videos and recommending that Trump hire Atlas as part of a “red team” to “challenge lockdown-manic governors.”
“Creationists working with climate deniers to say that lockdowns are ineffective is a perfect example of what I call ‘crank magnetism,’” Glenn Branch, deputy director of the National Center for Science Education told me in an interview. “People who promote pseudo-science in one area are very likely to promote it in another.”
Beyond the walls of Discovery and Hoover, Gilder has also applied his particular blend of junk economics and junk science to the American Institute for Economic Research, an Austrian School libertarian think tank where he is currently a senior resident fellow and the author of several articles denouncing public officials who shut down businesses to combat the virus.
Besides publishing tirades against sound COVID-19 public health policies and denouncing climate science, AIER was the primary organization behind the “Great Barrington Declaration,” a petition calling for the implementation of a “herd immunity” approach to the pandemic in which most Americans would be deliberately exposed to SARS2 in the hopes of stemming infections, a never-tested recommendation which Atlas has endorsed.
One of the declaration’s principal authors is Jay Bhattacharya, a former Hoover fellow who has denounced the supposed “futility” of contact tracing as a method of slowing the virus’s spread in an essay for a quarterly review founded by Discovery senior fellow David Berlinski and funded primarily by Peter Thiel, the Trump-loving billionaire who is also a Hoover donor. Fauci has denounced the herd immunity idea as “ridiculous” and excessively vague.
Will the exposure of creationist thought permeating the White House coronavirus task force lead to anything? In Trump’s administration, that’s difficult to say. He has, after all, proclaimed repeatedly that the U.S. is “absolutely rounding the corner” in handling SARS2.
Pence, Meadows, and the rest are entitled to believe whatever they want, but their personal, unscientific conclusions should not factor into public health policy. Lindsay Waldrop, an assistant professor of biology at Chapman University, told me that intelligent design reflects “not only a flagrant ignorance of basic biology, but also a total misunderstanding of how science itself functions. Entrusting the government’s COVID-19 public health response to people who don’t believe in evolution is like entrusting a nuclear bomb to someone who doesn’t believe it could actually level a city.”
Matthew Sheffield is a former conservative activist who now works as a writer and host of “Theory of Change,” a podcast about larger trends in politics, technology, and society. He has written extensively about the rise of right-wing extremism in the United States.