As Trump heads out as ringmaster of a traveling super spreader circus, as his physician repeatedly misrepresents the status of his health, as the government’s top experts are being muzzled, as the number of new cases rises at a terrifying rate, the time to act is running out. For the past four years, Trump has successfully intimidated government scientists through sheer thuggery, threatening their careers and their livelihood as they tried to act to protect the public based on the best science. No one is more qualified to speak to this than Dr. William Foege, the former CDC director who led the successful effort to eradicate smallpox. In a recent, impassioned letter, he urged current CDC director Robert Redfield to speak out, to follow his conscience and ignore the orders of the President. The risk of silence is too high. The potential costs of not acting, of further enabling this President, are staggering. But the target of that letter was too narrow. A master bully, Trump never wants a fair fight. Ask Andy McCabe, Alex Vindman, Marie Yovanovitch, or Sally Yates what happens to solo voices who oppose Trump.
Trump demands loyalty and crushes individuals who speak out. That toxic environment has driven many scientists to quit. But what if they spoke truth to power collectively. Would Trump fire them en masse. He couldn’t fire hundreds of government scientists and bury it in a Friday night news black hole. Dismissing large numbers of government scientists would expose the scientific bankruptcy of his policies. Collective insubordination, strategically timed, could even help replace him.
The presidential illness
I know the serious physicians and public health experts in the government are watching in horror as Trump twists the reality of the pandemic to suit his personal and political purposes. We now know why Trump picked Sean Conley to be his physician. When Trump went to the hospital, the only things Conley wouldn’t tell us were the results of his chest x-ray and whether he required oxygen, the most critical information for determining the severity of his disease. Then, Trump wanted to end his isolation. The only thing Conley wouldn’t reveal was his temperature, the key criterion in the CDC guidelines for ending isolation. Conley has now declared him COVID free, but refused to provide test results, once again omitting the most important piece of information.
Ultimately, Trump’s viral load is irrelevant to whether he should go back to campaigning. Despite his narcissism, it is not all about him. We don’t need to worry about the risk posed by Trump directly spreading the virus. That is trivial. No one gets close to him anyways. It is not even the risk from his entourage, many of whom could be carrying the virus. What is truly deadly is the high-risk behavior he encourages among his crowds and his followers. Trump is misleading by example and, as a direct result, disease rates are exploding and thousands are dying every week. The point is not Trump’s health or whether or not he, as an individual, spreads the coronavirus. Trump spreads something far more dangerous. Misinformation.
Compassion and silence
The cruel truth is, at the very moment Trump was telling us not to let COVID run our lives, it appears that his own director of security was gravely ill with the disease. He has never expressed concern for him or any of the dozens more infected as a direct result of his disregard for their health at his events and rallies. His tweets and speeches never mention them or their battles with the illness or the potential consequences for their own health. Instead, he blocks the proper contact tracing essential to alerting those he has put at risk.
Of government scientists and physicians, I ask one thing. Don’t be Sean Conley. Conley skirted the truth from a position of trust. He allowed himself to be silenced. Silence is assent and assent is deadly. If you fail to speak because you were following orders, your inaction echoes the darkest moments in history. Evil prefers to work in the shadows. This is your moment to shine a light. Act now. If you don’t, if there was anything you could have done to stop him and didn’t, if Trump wins, think of how you will explain your silence to your children and grandchildren.