For the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic, President Donald Trump has been undermining the doctors and scientists who are trying to keep the American people safe and healthy. His behavior is damaging faith in democratic and public health institutions.
It also puts American lives in danger. Those who believe Trump’s false claims are refusing to take proper health precautions, putting themselves and others at unnecessary risk. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was not allowed to release documents it had compiled, meaning that state and local governments and individuals were unable to access the most comprehensive information currently available.
Perhaps the most famous example of Trump spreading misinformation is his embrace of hydroxychloroquine, a drug used to treat arthritis, malaria and lupus. Trump claimed it can treat and even prevent COVID-19, but evidence suggests the drug actually increases the risk of death in COVID-19 patients. In spite of this, the president doubled down, recently announcing he was taking the drug as a preventative measure, which may or may not be true.
His claims, in addition to being actively harmful to those taking hydroxychloroquine for COVID-19, have led to a shortage for those who need it for what it is actually supposed to treat.
Furthermore, his administration and allies have peddled false science, promoted conspiracy theories and boosted the ideas of disgraced doctors. White House counselor Kellyanne Conway, while defending the administration’s decision to blame its failures on the World Health Organization and cut funding, said, “This is COVID-19, not COVID-1, folks,” falsely suggesting this was the 19th iteration of the disease.
Trump spends most of his press briefings congratulating himself, often based on misleading statements or outright falsehoods, rather than handing valuable time to medical professionals to share important information with the public. While he does occasionally give others credit for their work, he spends a significant amount of time placing blame. Statements of empathy or promoting national unity occur only about a quarter as often as his self-congratulatory statements.
Even worse than wasting time and distracting the public with useless remarks, he actively undermines and contradicts medical professionals, who should be front and center. He most famously lashed out at Dr. Anthony Fauci, criticizing his congressional testimony and his recommendations and predictions. He also suppressed the release of detailed CDC guidelines for safely reopening.
Furthermore, right-wing conspiracy theories are faring better than ever, with Fauci’s reasonable exasperation with the president’s behavior portrayed as evidence of a vast conspiracy to undermine him. A poll from Yahoo News and YouGov found that over 40% of Republicans believe that Bill Gates will use a COVID-19 vaccine to implant tracking chips in recipients, to list just one of many outlandish COVID-19 conspiracy theories.
Like anti-vaxxers and climate change deniers, COVID-19 deniers and conspiracy theorists are empowered by the irresponsible statements of a few greedy or dishonest individuals pretending to be experts, often aided by fabricated evidence or misleading portrayals of scientific findings.
Much of the time, it is easier to feel anger than compassion toward the people who believe Trump's conspiracy theories or take his unhinged medical advice over the advice of doctors. But Trump’s supporters, who are more likely to believe his false claims and misleading statements than non-supporters, are being exploited by conspiracy theorists and by Republican campaigns to reopen the economy at any cost with broad acquiescence.
Kaitlyn Radde (she/her) is a rising junior studying political science. She plans to pursue a career in public interest law.