How Terrified Should You Be of Donald Trump, Really?
How Donald Trump's anti-science views threaten us all
Posted Nov 17, 2016
The recent election of Donald Trump has American scientists very worried, to say the least. As Michael Lubell, director of public affairs for the American Physical Society in Washington, D.C., observed, Trump will be “the first anti-science president we have ever had.” Trump has openly stated that he believes that vaccines cause autism and that climate change is a “hoax” supposedly invented by the Chinese. And let’s not forget his completely hysterical response to the Ebola epidemic, demanding that people from the U.S. who went to Africa to respond to the crisis and ended up contracting the disease not be allowed back in the country because they should “suffer the consequences.”
In each instance, Trump displays all of the familiar characteristics of the anti-science charismatic leader. One need not look much further than his Twitter feed for confirmation of his:
- Paranoia: “Any and all weather events are used by the GLOBAL WARMING HOAXSTERS to justify higher taxes to save our planet! They don't believe it $$$$!”
- Drama: “Ebola is much easier to transmit than the CDC and government representatives are admitting. Spreading all over Africa-and fast. Stop flights”
- Evocation of “justice” and moral “right and wrong” in the context of settled scientific matters that really have nothing to do with morals or justice: “I am being proven right about massive vaccinations—the doctors lied. Save our children & their future”.
In all of these aspects of his rhetoric, Donald Trump can be proud to join the ranks of some of the most damaging and reviled anti-science leaders of our time, such as discredited British doctor Andrew Wakefield and previously respected scientist Peter Duesberg (who now leads the HIV denialist movement).
What happens when dangerous fringe opinions become mainstream?
But what happens when an anti-science leader actually becomes the leader of an entire country, rather than just a fringe movement or cult? One absolutely tragic example from recent history comes immediately to mind: South Africa’s infamous president Thabo Mbeki. Mbeki was the elected president of South Africa from 1999-2008. Throughout the years of his presidency, he was outspoken in his conviction that the HIV virus is not the cause of AIDS. Instead, Mbeki insisted that a conspiracy he called the “AIDS industry,” which included various actors from the private sector and developed countries, had cooked up the idea that HIV causes AIDS in order to sell antiretroviral drugs (ARVs). Mbeki told his constituents that these drugs are dangerous and that the cure for AIDS is instead good nutrition and the cultivation of a healthy immune system through “natural” means.
What were the results of President Mbeki’s ideas? A 2008 study by Harvard University researchers established that roughly 350,000 South Africans died as a direct result of them.
Although the scientific community has proven beyond any doubt that HIV is indeed the cause of AIDS and that antiretroviral drugs control the infection to the point that most HIV-infected individuals live nearly normal lifespans, Mbeki ensured that South Africans had little or no access to these vital medicines. As a result, hundreds of thousands of people died. What’s more, he convinced an entire generation of South Africans to be suspicious of treatments that could save their lives. Dangerous and often fatal behaviors, from failing to use condoms to refusing to take lifesaving medications, quickly followed. The country is still trying to recover from the direct effects of Mbeki’s misguided and devastating views.
The Mbeki case of science denial tells us that if we ignore our leaders’ attitudes about science and elect politicians who claim climate change is a hoax or that evolution is an unproven theory, we place ourselves and our children in serious peril. And now we’re really not being dramatic to say that our children’s lives are being endangered by the government.
The president’s actual power is much broader than the powers granted to him by the Constitution
In the aftermath of election results that have shaken many Americans to their very core, there has been some discussion of how much power the president really has. One could argue that the situation with Mbeki could never repeat itself in a country like the U.S. with its elaborate system of checks and balances, its many government agencies like the CDC and the NIH staffed with respected scientists, and the ability of states to govern relatively independently.
But the president’s power is not just about the ability to make policy. To begin with, the president of the United States has a whole range of what Richard Neustadt has called “informal powers.” In short, the president’s power comes not simply from what the Constitution allows him to do. The president gleans power simply from the symbolic weight and influence of the office he holds and the prestige the position carries. As a result, the president is often in an optimal position to persuade others, including lawmakers.
Even putting direct and indirect powers aside, the leader of a country sets the tone and determines the culture that will dominate under his or her influence. Donald Trump has not even officially taken office yet and his bullying rhetoric and intolerant attitudes have already begun to create a culture in which explicit hatred of ethnic and racial minorities is suddenly acceptable. The scientific community is justifiably terrified that, even if Trump enacts no policies that have anything to do with science (although this is actually quite unlikely), his unrelenting skepticism of and outright disrespect for science will effectively “rub off” on the American public. As we know, many people are already skeptical of the scientific community and anti-science views are not terribly uncommon these days.
Electing a leader who creates a culture in which the individual reigns supreme over the “establishment” can only mean one thing: people will be emboldened to completely ignore decades of consensus in the expert scientific community in favor of their own opinions, which have often been formed under extremely biased conditions, are usually left unchecked, and are almost always completely unaccepting of any kind of new information. It is a version of American isolationism and individualism taken to the extreme, and it is very dangerous.
All we can do now is hope that the lessons of Mbeki and the needless deaths of hundreds of thousands of South Africans will resonate with Americans. And of course we must, now more than ever, teach our children how to think deeply and well about complex scientific issues and how to discern truth from lies.
 Richard E. Neustadt, Presidential Power and the Modern Presidents: The Politics of Leadership from Roosevelt to Reagan. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1991.