By Brent Korson
With the arrival of the novel coronavirus, we’re watching each country experience its own Rorschach test. We’re seeing how each nation responds based on its site specific differences: culture, population, citizen proximity, infection rate, seasonality, geography, topography. Then there’s the human element of how each region approaches this pandemic, as reflected through its citizens and leaders. As this collective universal experience unfurls, touching all 7.6 billion people in real time, how elected officials across the world are reacting to this test is on full display.
Outside of World Wars I, II and the 1918 Pandemic, rarely have the lives of so many been in the hands of so few. It’s amongst these few, who have never wielded such power and responsibility, that the political equation has come into sharp focus.
Looking at how this White House and the majority of Republican politicians are dealing with COVID-19, there’s a clear overlap with the party policy on climate change; the other science-based threat to humanity. It’s worth noting the admirable leadership of some GOP politicians who’ve split with their party on the fact-based efforts to fight the pandemic; Governors like Maryland’s Larry Hogan, Massachusetts’ Charlie Barker, Ohio’s Mike DeWine and Utah Senator Mitt Romney. They remain in the vast minority.
How we got here: The GOP’s unofficially official platform policy on inconvenient science
It’s important to remember the difference between this party’s stance on climate change in comparison to the rest of the world.
Under this president, the United States became the sole country out of all 197 to pull out of the Paris Climate Accord. The GOP is seemingly the only major political party in the world to outright deny climate change. The U.S. fossil fuel industry has captured Republicans to such a destructive degree, not even the 2018 UN IPCC report that gave the world a 12-year deadline to make unprecedented changes to our CO2 output made a dent to their platform. Though other countries have propaganda networks, none have the reach of Fox News, which toes the party line on fossil fuel money. The advent of the social media bubble combined with no serious federal oversight have allowed the party to spread the gospel of climate denial to their constituents free of fact checks for years. All these factors have predictably converged as an April news analysis found “Climate science deniers at forefront of coronavirus pandemic.”
Perhaps the most dangerous part of GOP surrender to scientific fact is the bad faith argument. The idea that what most Republican politicians say about climate change in public could somehow be the same as what they actually think or say in private is unsustainable. The price of admission to the party has long been straightforward when it comes to science: lie publicly. As to be expected, the overwhelming type of elected Republican who knows he’s being dishonest when he says the climate crisis is no crisis at all has had good practice when the time came to say COVID-19 is no more lethal than the flu. The direct result of this money-first / human-lives-second political policy has put all Americans at greater risk. Although we’re not the only country with this problem, the cult factor has kept us first in the categories of highest positive test cases and deaths.
Confessions from a Republican operative on how decades of disdain for science delivered Trump
In a recent Washington Post Op-Ed, “Republicans like me built this moment. Then we looked the other way,” Stuart Stevens, Republican political consultant and author of, “It Was All A Lie”, about the GOP comes clean. At the root of his confessions, the bedrock for his political sins repeatedly comes back to the bad faith argument.
Stevens writes, “The failures of the government’s response to the coronavirus crisis can be traced directly to some of the toxic fantasies now dear to the Republican Party. Here are a few [italics his]: Government is bad. Establishment experts are overrated or just plain wrong. Science is suspect. And we can go it alone, the world be damned. All of these are wrong, of course. But we didn’t get here overnight. It took practice.”
On scientific fact, Stevens admits, “The GOP’s relationship with science has resembled some kind of Frankenstein experiment: Let’s see what happens when we play with the chemistry set! Conservatives have spent years trying to cut funds for basic science and research, lamenting government seed money for nearly every budding technology and then hoping for the best.”
Then he goes on to offer some contrition phrasing worth flagging –
“Don’t just blame President Trump. Blame me — and all the other Republicans who aided and abetted and, yes, benefited from protecting a political party that has become dangerous to America. Some of us knew better. But we built this moment. And then we looked the other way.”
“Long before Trump, the Republican Party adopted as a key article of faith that more government was bad… But somewhere along the way, it became, ‘all government is bad’. Now we are in a crisis that can only be solved by massive government intervention.”
“Never mind that Republican leaders are among the most highly educated on the planet; it’s just that they now feel compelled to embrace ignorance as a cost of doing business.”
“Some of us knew better”
“adopted as a key article of faith that more government was bad”
“compelled to embrace ignorance as a cost of doing business”
While it’s refreshing to see bad faith strategies laid out in black and white, none of it is brand new information. The most striking thing about Stevens’ owning up isn’t the content relating to these head-in-sand approaches to inconvenient truths. What’s different (though not new) are the admissions themselves; having been in the room and now coming forward to confirm what we’ve long known about the disingenuous conversations taking place behind the scenes. He’s not the first to admit how it works, he’s just the most recent.
February 7: The difference between public comments vs. leaked, behind closed doors warnings
On February 7, North Carolina GOP Senator Richard Burr co-authored with Senator Lamar Alexander a Fox News Op-Ed titled, “Coronavirus prevention steps the U.S. government is taking to protect you”. Reassurances included the following –
“Thankfully, the U.S today is better prepared than ever before to face emerging public health threats, like the coronavirus, in large part due to the work of the Senate Health Committee, Congress, and the Trump Administration.”
“No matter the outbreak or threat, Congress and the federal government have been vigilant in identifying gaps in its readiness efforts and improving its response capabilities.”
“The public health preparedness and response framework that Congress has put in place and that the Trump Administration is actively implementing today is helping to protect Americans.
20 days later, on February 27, when the U.S. had 15 confirmed cases of COVID-19, the President lied heavily on wish fulfillment, “It’s going to disappear. One day it’s like a miracle, it will disappear.”
Also on February 27, (as NPR would report weeks later on March 19th, upon obtaining leaked audio), Burr spoke to a closed door audience with a polar opposite message. He told the truth. As chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Burr has more access to privileged information and state secrets than nearly any other American politician. February 27 continued to be a notable day for Burr, as Reuters reported his committee was, in fact, receiving daily coronavirus briefings.
Burr was addressing Tar Heel Circle, a North Carolina group of businesses and organizations with membership costs upwards of $10,000 that offered the opportunity to “enjoy interaction with top leaders and staff from Congress, the administration, and the private sector”.
He told the donors, “It’s much more aggressive in its transmission than anything we have seen in recent history…probably more akin to the 1918 pandemic.”
“Every company should be cognizant of the fact that you may have to alter your travel. You may have to look at your employees and judge whether the trip they’re making to Europe is essential or whether it can be done on video conference. Why risk it?” Burr told his audience.
“There will be, I’m sure, times that communities, probably some in North Carolina, have a transmission rate where they say, ‘Let’s close schools for two weeks. Everybody stay home,’ ” Burr said.
“We’re going to send a military hospital there; it’s going to be in tents and going to be set up on the ground somewhere,” Burr explained. “It’s going to be a decision the president and DOD make. And we’re going to have medical professionals supplemented by local staff to treat the people that need treatment.”
The second March 19th bombshell report on Burr’s private activities came later that day from ProPublica. On February 13th, he’d sold “a significant percentage of his stocks, unloading between $628,000 and $1.72 million of his holdings in 33 separate transactions,” two weeks before his February 27th private speech. It was the most stock he’d sold in a single day in over a year and came before the market volatility. In 2012, Burr was one of three Senators to voice opposition to The STOCK Act which passed, thereby prohibiting elected officials from utilizing private information for trades by requiring them to disclose securities transactions.
By May 13th the FBI had begun an investigation of Burr’s stock sales. The next day, he stepped down from his role as Chairman of the Senate Intel Committee. In the following days, reports surfaced of three other Senators who sold major holdings around the time Burr did: California Democrat Dianne Feinstein, Oklahoma Republican James Inhofe and Georgia Republican Kelly Loeffler. On May 26th, the Justice Department closed the insider trading investigations of all Senators except for Burr’s.
March 6th: The accidentally truthful admission
By March 6, there were 100,000 coronavirus cases worldwide in at least 83 countries, leaving at least 3,460 people dead. There were 326 known reported cases in the U.S. in 26 states. The official death toll in our country was 15.
Trump’s denial-based strategy of all things COVID-19 was to be expected. What was not anticipated was the kind of unforced error that rarely befalls him: he told the truth.
In a televised makeshift press conference at the CDC in Atlanta, he was discussing the undocked Grand Princess cruise ship floating off California’s waters, stuck in a bureaucratic purgatory. Vice President Pence had told reporters that of the 3,500 people aboard the ship, 21 of the 46 who’d been tested came back positive. Flanked by silent accessories HHS Secretary Alex Azar, CDC Director Robert Redfield, Republican Georgia Governor Brian Kemp, Republican Georgia Senator Kelly Loeffler and CDC Lab Science & Safety Associate Director Steve Monroe, Trump accidentally stumbled into the closest he’s come to a federal strategy on COVID-19.
Trump: “If there’s somebody coming off a ship – like the big monster ship that’s out there right now, which, you know – again, that’s a big decision. Do I want to bring all those people on? People would like me to do that. I don’t like the idea of doing it.But anybody that needs a test can have a test…”
Question: “Can I clarify…about the cruise ship, has a decision been made?”
Trump: “Ah, that’s a very good question.”
Question: “And are you the final decider?”
Trump: “Yes. From my standpoint, I want to rely on people. I have great experts, including our Vice President, who is working 24 hours a day on this stuff. They would like to have the people come off. I’d rather have the people stay, but I’d go with them. I told them to make the final decision. I would rather – because I like the numbers being where they are. I don’t need to have the numbers double because of one ship.That wasn’t our fault, and it wasn’t the fault of the people on the ship, either. Okay? It wasn’t their fault either. And they’re mostly Americans, so I can live either way with it.I’d rather have them stay on, personally. But I fully understand if they want to take them off. I gave them the authority to make the decision.”
Question: “But isn’t that putting the preference over not having more attractive numbers over having the people be treated?”
Trump: “No. No. No. I’m saying whatever it is that takes precedence over the numbers. No, I like the numbers. I would rather have the numbers stay where they are. But if they want to take them off, they’ll take them off. But if that happens, all of a sudden, your 240 is obviously going to be a much higher number, and probably the 11 will be a higher number too.
Question: “There must be some risk in leaving them on the ship though, right, in terms of community spread?”
Trump: “There’s probably risk to both. Probably risk to both.”
April 6th: The bad faith argument
Scott Gottlieb is one of the few Trump appointees who managed to leave the administration with his reputation still intact. On March 14th, the former FDA Commissioner from 2017-2019 and recent CNBC contributor, tweeted a CNN article, titled “Infected people without symptoms might be driving the spread of coronavirus more than we realized”. He added, “It’s becoming clearer that spread of #COVID19 by people who are asymptomatic or mildly symptomatic may be responsible for more transmission than previously thought; making control of the virus more difficult.”
For a snapshot of where the U.S was during that moment, these were some New York Times front page print headlines for that week ending March 15th, all of which were printed in all caps and bolded text:
March 10: “MARKETS SPIRAL AS GLOBE SHUDDERS OVER VIRUS”
March 12: “U.S. LIMITS TRAVEL AFTER W.H.O CITES PANDEMIC”
March 13: “WORST ROUT FOR WALL STREET SINCE 1987 CRASH”
March 14 : “EMERGENCY IS DECLARED; HOUSE PASSES AID BILL”
Up until April, Governor Kemp had put off responsibility for the safety and health of his Georgia constituents for as long as he could, one of the last GOP hold-outs to sign a stay-at-home order. On April 1, he claimed he didn’t know that asymptomatic people were capable of transmitting coronavirus, roughly 15 days after the first reports that asymptomatic people were capable of transmitting coronavirus.
“The CDC has announced that individuals can be infected and begin to spread coronavirus earlier than previously thought, even if they have no symptoms. From a public health standpoint, this is a revelation and a game changer,” Kemp told the press.
He also said, “Finding out that this virus is now transmitting before people see signs – so, what we’ve been telling people from directives from the CDC for weeks now that if you start feeling bad, stay home. Those individuals could’ve been infecting people before they ever felt bad. But we didn’t know that until the last 24 hours, and as Dr. Toomey told me, she goes, ‘this is a game changer for us’.”
The other announcement Kemp made that day was that Georgia had reached 4,638 cases of COVID-19, spanning 139 state counties with 139 deaths.
By April 1st, the damage had been clear for weeks and there was no pretending otherwise. There were 211,149 reported cases and 4,735 deaths in the country. By that point, projections had already been released that even if all 50 states did nearly everything that experts had advised, the number of deaths could still total 200,000.
Looking forward to the months ahead – what direction will the Trump Administration and GOP take the nation?
The public admission of lying about science for years only after profiting off of a career in professional deception. The private conversations, and sometimes, dire warnings to donors behind closed doors in contrast to public reassurances that everything is fine. Statements and op-eds betraying the public’s trust, health and lives. All the while, ditching stock to profit off of a plague. The rare, accidental admission that fudging the numbers is going to double as a pandemic plan and election strategy. Even when those numbers are American lives. The disingenuous take that publicly available information was suddenly only revealed moments before.
In March 2017, just two months into a Trump presidency, historian Timothy Snyder’s “On Tyranny”, was released – a slim book focused on 20 signs to look for in a democracy under attack. Reading it today is a chilling experience that illustrates how and what to anticipate could happen based on past events. When discussing Orwell’s 1984, Snyder writes of constraining the language of visual media, “to starve the public of the concepts needed to think about the present, remember the past, and consider the future”.
As we begin to consider the future, no one can afford to underestimate what this President and his party will do next. When it comes to how they will use the pandemic, we must remember their past statements, think about their present actions and consider the future possibilities of what they won’t say or wouldn’t do. As Stuart warns, “What is happening now is the inevitable result of a party that embraced fear, weaponized xenophobia and regarded facts as dangerous, left-wing landmines that must be avoided.”
*Featured image by author, Brent Korson. Taken at White House protest during D.C. Climate March on April 29, 2017