The most anti-science, science-denying president of our lifetime was defeated by, you guessed it, science. While the election was close, it still has to rank as one of the biggest ironies in history.
Even so, seeing how tens of millions of people voted against their own self-interest is one of the most baffling and infuriating phenomena I know. It helps to prove that a belief can overpower a fact, how a lie can (shall I say it?) trump the truth.
The facts and allegations are painful to repeat but, briefly, Donald Trump failed to disclose taxes or foreign entanglements; destroyed immigrant families; encouraged white supremacists; belittled women; covered up ties to Russia; illegally used campaign funds; threatened allies; praised dictators; created economic hardship with a trade war; killed environmental protections; undermined funding for education and the arts; enriched himself and his family at taxpayer expense; threatened political adversaries; mocked disabled persons; disparaged soldiers; attacked the news media; rammed through lifetime appointments to the judiciary; advocated voter suppression and intimidation efforts, and lied to the public — according to fact checkers — approximately 25,000 times.
But put aside his long list of self-serving, amoral, unethical, and likely illegal activities for a moment. It was the COVID-19 issue that Donald Trump handed to Joe Biden. While Trump won in some of the states hit hardest by the virus, the pandemic cost him the election. He and tens of millions of others may have ignored the science, but a bug less than 0.000004 inches across tipped the scales to Biden.
Trump cowed Republican leaders, tossed the Obama “Playbook for Early Response to High-Consequence Emerging Infectious Disease Threats and Biological Incidents” and all but disbanded the White House Coronavirus Task Force. He called Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and one of the world’s top infectious disease specialists, a “disaster,” said scientists were “idiots,” and falsely claimed “doctors get more money if somebody dies from COVID.”
Despite all of that and the desperate efforts to gaslight the public on the seriousness and deadly scope of COVID-19 — a White House press release claimed the president ended the pandemic — Trump could not alter the science of a viral infection. He couldn’t bully the virus away. He couldn’t short-circuit the careful research and development process required for new vaccines and therapeutics.
Joe Biden did push a few other campaign issues: Trump’s lack of character, morality, and empathy (“The Battle for the Soul of America”); the assaults on affordable healthcare and attempts to strip protections from those with preexisting conditions, and the diminished standing of the United Sates around the world. In fact, some reports had the economy and health care out-polling COVID-19 as key election drivers.
Yet the Biden team ended up displaying some remarkable consistency in messaging on the COVID crisis. Why? The economy and health care are complex issues. COVID-19 is not. It’s impossible to ignore. The virus is surging again and predictions are the worst is yet to come. Some will continue to claim it’s a hoax, that the numbers are inflated, and it’s not much worse than a bad cold. But the number of cases, positivity rates, hospital admissions, and deaths are hard to argue unless you’re locked into a belief system where no facts will ever penetrate.
Trump couldn’t help but to respond, not with actions to protect the public health but with more derision. “With the fake news, everything is COVID, COVID, COVID, COVID,” Trump complained at a mostly maskless rally. It was painful to see how he politicized science and it used as a wedge, driving people further apart.
A platform based largely on science, medicine, and public health won this election — barely. We will win the battle against this coronavirus with the right leadership and resources; naming a new coronavirus task force on November 9 was the president-elect’s first major announcement. But the fight comes with a terrible, sometimes irretrievable cost, the result of missteps and misdeeds from a malign, incompetent Administration.
Like hundreds of millions of others around the world, though, I’m hopeful that in the days and years ahead that facts will matter, and our scientific, political, educational, and journalistic institutions will again be held in the highest regard.