Watching the Trump Admin’s Coronavirus Response is Like Watching a Bumbling Cult

CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield. Image: National Institutes of Health/Flickr

I want to say that reading this Politico piece on the Trump administration’s predictably botched response to the emerging coronavirus pandemic puts me in mind of a cult organization. I want to, but that’s probably a slight against cults, many of which have more sophisticated emotional dynamics, organizational skills, and fashion sense than the Dollar General-meets-Versailles gang currently occupying the White House.

So let’s stick with saying the article reminded me of many of the fine criticisms of religion, the best criticisms. The obvious and overbroad parallel might be that Trump requires his supporters to subscribe to the tenets of faith healing: having faith in him to heal the nation, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding. Again, I’d make a crack comparing Trump and his followers to snake handlers or Christian Scientists, but those groups are respectively personally braver and better educated than the president.

Then there’s the commonplace that religious organizations are run by immoral or corrupt leaders. Let’s set Trump’s personal morality to one side: I’m typing this on an empty stomach. But corrupt, certainly. Not in the sense that Trump has taken a bribe in this case, though he has allowed his allies to circumvent the disease control system, and his courtiers do spend an ungodly amount of time jockeying for position. But in the authoritarian sense, that as a God-appointed man, Trump can do no wrong—there the president truly shines.

Certainly that impression is supported by some of the details of Trump administration toadying included in the piece: Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar calling Trump “the greatest protector of religious liberty who has ever sat in the Oval Office”; Centers for Disease Control Director Robert Redfield citing Trump’s “decisive leadership” as the most important thing to speak about at a press conference; Medicare Director Seema Verma wearing an Ivanka Trump-brand bauble to suck up to the president. I’d never seriously argue that Trump, his lackeys, and his supporters make up a cult, but there are days I wonder.

Ultimately, many criticisms of faith boil down to the ways in which critics see religion as corrupting an independent truth, and those aspects are on full display in this story. Most obvious is Trump’s resistance to information that contradicts his settled worldview. Instead of wrestling with the not-particularly-difficult idea that in a global society, a virus like COVID-19 would inevitably show up in the U.S., Trump has latched onto the daily count of coronavirus cases, citing the low number of confirmed cases as evidence of his ability to manage the crisis.

The president is a profoundly ignorant man incapable of understanding that quarantining an entire cruise ship might have dire consequences. He is incapable, really, of understanding much of anything about the true nature of the situation, and he has bent the entire reins of government to the task of maintaining his ignorance. The Inquisition didn’t require the strictest suppression of knowledge, either: after a while, the people did it themselves.

Perhaps worse is that the maintenance of ignorance is done for the primary purpose of feeding the leader’s ego. Trump rages like a street-corner prophet, and the minions rush to smooth ruffled feathers:

After senior CDC official Nancy Messonnier correctly warned on Feb. 25 that a U.S. coronavirus outbreak was inevitable, a statement that spooked the stock market and broke from the president’s own message that the situation was under control, Trump himself grew angry and administration officials discussed muzzling Messonnier for the duration of the coronavirus crisis, said two individuals close to the administration.

Worst of all is that the corruption moves beyond covering up the obvious-but-inconvenient data to warping truth itself. And here we have to remind ourselves that Trump is but the symptom of a much deeper disease. It’s true that the president has declared war once again on “fake news,” by which he means reporting unfavorable to him. And it’s probably true that some poor fools have gone full Winston Smith on this, as they have on so many other issues with this strongman president.

But the pathos of this tidbit is what really sticks out to me:

Azar, having just survived a bruising clash with a deputy and sensing that his job was on the line, spent part of January making appearances on conservative TV outlets and taking other steps to shore up his anti-abortion bona fides and win approval from the president, even as the global coronavirus outbreak grew stronger. [Emphasis mine.]

There can’t be more than a handful of people in the United States who truly believe that an effective response to COVID-19 demands the correct position on abortion, yet like some obscure medieval shibboleth on the presence of Christ in the sacrifice, here it surfaces as one of those weird pieces of dogma that separate true believers from infidels.

For every person who really, truly, deeply believes that banning abortion is critical to the administration of healthcare, there are many many more who believe it’s critical that we keep a particular party in power. If that means the Secretary of Health and Human Services has to spend valuable time defending this entrenched belief that he might otherwise use to respond to a disease capable of killing millions, well, so be it. If Andy Azar can’t toe the line effectively on abortion, he might cost the president re-election, and then where would we be?

Compared to Trump’s constant self-promotion, this is a very subtle form of idolatry, one that prioritizes allegiance not even to anti-choice positions, but to the politics of anti-choice positions, over the free flow of scientific evidence in addressing a threat to public health before it mushrooms into a full-blown crisis. And Azar and Pence and all the rest of them see the world through this lens, and Trump is happy as always to take advantage of it for his own ends; which is to say, being named “the greatest protector of religious liberty who has ever sat in the Oval Office.” Say what you will about the Christian church, but this is f*cked up.