The early months of Donald Trump’s administration saw its approach to science routinely compared to George W Bush’s – both governments were highly sympathetic to large corporations, distrustful of anything to do with the climate crisis and enthused at the idea of delegating oversight to the states.
Trump’s version may have been more abrasive and bungling but it at least seemed a familiar extension of the last Republican administration.
More recently, however, scientists have been struck by Trump’s embrace of fringe beliefs and extreme, unsupported theories. Suddenly, it is not the profit-driven lobbyists and lawyers that are the worry, it is the quacks, cranks and conspiracy theorists.
“They have exceeded my imagination with their scientific denial,” said Gretchen Goldman, a research director at Union of Concerned Scientists. “Previous administrations at least gave the appearance of wanting scientific evidence and qualified people in positions of power. This administration clearly doesn’t care, which changes the game.”
Trump himself has a long history of defying mainstream scientific findings on the existence of climate change and the efficacy of vaccines, but his actions during the coronavirus pandemic have startled even his most vocal critics.
The president falsely claimed Covid-19 would evaporate in the April sunshine, expressed bewilderment that a vaccine wasn’t imminent and pondered the merits of injecting disinfectant as a treatment. Trump has also repeatedly touted the benefits of hydroxychloroquine, an anti-malarial drug he says he himself has taken as a precaution despite evidence it can cause heart problems in some patients. The World Health Organization recently halted trials to see if the drug could treat Covid-19, citing safety fears.
From its inception, the Trump administration has handed leadership of federal agencies to figures who have represented polluting industries. Andrew Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist, heads the Environmental Protection Agency, while David Bernhardt, another former energy lobbyist, is in charge of America’s public lands as secretary of the interior.
The deregulatory zeal of these agencies, often in the face of scientific advice, has seen droves of scientists leave the government. In a January estimate, 20% of high-level scientific positions within the government are vacant, with long-term officials complaining of being sidelined or silenced.
But the administration has also increasingly shown willingness to ally itself with groups far more fringe than the standard class of lobbyist that inhabits Washington DC.
The administration defended Trump’s use of hydroxychloroquine by pointing to supportive statements from the Association of Physicians and Surgeons, an outlier group that has questioned whether HIV causes Aids (it does), argued abortion causes breast cancer (it does not) and even alleged former president Barack Obama used hypnosis techniques to trick voters, especially Jewish people, into supporting him (there is no evidence of this).
In April, Trump unveiled advice from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that Americans should wear face masks to curb the spread of Covid-19, but has since echoed fringe rightwing views that masks are pointless or somehow unmanly. The president said on Tuesday it was “very unusual” that Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, was seen wearing a mask, calling its use “politically correct”.
“The elevation of fringe views is even more vivid with coronavirus, the impacts are more evident,” said Goldman.
Meanwhile, the Trump administration has aligned itself with an anti-abortion lobbying group called the Center for Family and Human Rights, helping spread its message to the UN, while Trump’s own spiritual adviser Paula White has said she hopes abortion laws are overturned, declaring on a video that emerged in January: “We command any satanic pregnancies to miscarry right now!”
The pandemic has obscured a determined push by the Trump administration to further roll back regulations designed to prevent pollution and protect public health, with some of these efforts jarring uncomfortably with the federal government’s own analysis.
For example, the administration is scaling back fuel efficiency standards for cars and trucks, a process that has provoked a lawsuit from 23 aggrieved states and, according to a study of the EPA’s own figures, will cause an extra 18,500 deaths over the next three decades from air pollution, as well as $240bn more in extra fuel costs for Americans.
“This administration is antithetical to science, there is an ideological mandate to roll back regulations. Facts and logic doesn’t matter, even the law doesn’t matter,” said Chris Frey, a a professor of environmental engineering at NC State University.
Frey was part of an EPA clean air advisory panel that was dismantled as part of a revamp that has seen agency panels filled with industry-aligned and fringe characters – including an official who has argued air pollution is good for public health – and the process of considering science rerouted to bypass a large body of research that links pollution to harm such as asthma and heart disease.
“It will take years to undo the damage. This administration is honestly a threat to public health,” Frey said. “The past three years have hurt the US scientific community in a lot of ways. If this continues for another three years, I don’t know if it’s robust enough to take it.”
US politics’ problematic relationship with science doesn’t just hinge upon one administration, however. Until the election of a handful of people with scientific backgrounds in the 2018 midterms, Bill Foster was the only member of Congress with a scientific PhD. Foster has admitted the experience often felt lonely and frustrating.
“We’ve achieved a lot with science but I’m embedded in a culture that doesn’t value science,” said Foster, an Illinois Democrat. “The heroes we are looking for are the people who have spent their careers in science.”
Foster added that Trump’s reaction to mask wearing has cost lives.
“If he had said masks are very useful and then apologized for the fact the stockpile of masks was so low, many tens of thousands of Americans would be alive today,” he said. “That is the tragedy that bothers me more than anything.”