"It's scary going to work," White House economic adviser Kevin Hassett told CBS. "I think that I'd be a lot safer if I was sitting at home than I would be going to the West Wing."
Hassett's comment cogently captures the mood of the country. Even though President Trump, backed by some slavish Republican governors, is ardently urging a return to normal life, most Americans are still too skittish to follow his lead.
We know how to respond to, say, a (devastating) hurricane, or even a terrorist assault like 9/11. But this silent, sinister pandemic is so different, and so unnerving, that it's shaken the country to the core. In the latest ABC News/Ipsos poll, 3 out of 4 voters say slowing the spread of the virus should be the top national priority, even if that means keeping most businesses closed. Only 1 in 4 favor Trump's position, a rapid reopening that could lead to more infections.
But Hassett is frightened in another way, or at least should be. He's a first-rate economist (and a personal friend; we coached a Little League baseball team together), but he's working for a president who denies basic science, who traffics in "alternative facts," and who refuses to recognize reality when it contradicts his personal prejudices or political self-interest.
Now that's REALLY scary. It's also unpopular.
In the ABC survey, state governors receive an average approval rating for handling the coronavirus of 71%. Ohio Republican Gov. Mike DeWine, who has followed a steady, sensible approach that reflects scientific advice, is viewed favorably by 86% of state residents, including 9 of 10 Democrats. Trump's national positive rating, by contrast, is 43% -- exactly half of DeWine's.
Every American wants a return to normalcy. Democrats and Republicans alike are suffering from horrendous losses of jobs and income. Reenergizing the economy should not be a partisan issue. But Trump has made it one.
There's no way this country can rapidly and effectively defeat the virus unless our national response is rooted in facts, not fantasy; hard science, not soft sentiment. Yet from the day he entered public life, this president has rejected the basic principle that objective reality even exists, that professional researchers -- economists, scientists, intelligence analysts, prosecutors, judges, journalists -- can discover and describe a universe separate from Planet Trump.
Take just one issue: widespread testing as a way of ensuring public safety and restoring public confidence so reopening can get started. As Sen. Lamar Alexander, a Tennessee Republican, told a Senate hearing, "All roads back to work and back to school lead through testing, tracking, isolation, treatment and vaccines."
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the country's top epidemiologist, cautioned that if the country reopened prematurely, "the consequences could be really serious." And a study by Harvard researchers concluded, "The bottom line remains: We need a lot more testing."
And yet Trump directly contradicts this scientific consensus. He called testing "overrated" and said, "the whole concept of tests aren't necessarily great." Then there was his most memorable line: "In a way, by doing all this testing, we make ourselves look bad."
There's Trumpism in a nutshell. Deny the facts when they make you "look bad." Worry about the spin, the optics, the politics. Fabricate. Obfuscate. Prevaricate. Treat truth like an enemy.
That strategy might work against political foes, but microbes are immune to his insults and inanities. They can't be drowned out by a tweet-storm or a campaign rally.
"We're not reopening based on science," warns Dr. Thomas Frieden, former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "We're reopening based on politics, ideology and public pressure. And I think it's going to end badly."
Moreover, Trump has declared open war on scientists who contradict him. Dr. Peter Daszak, a pioneering epidemiologist with close ties to researchers in China, had his grant from the National Institutes of Health suddenly canceled. "This politicization of science is really damaging," he told "60 Minutes" on CBS. "It's sad to say, but it will probably cost lives."
Dr. Rick Bright has filed a whistleblower complaint against the Trump administration after he was removed as head of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority. "Time after time, I was pressured to ignore or dismiss expert scientific recommendations and instead to award lucrative contracts based on political connections," he said at a press briefing. "In other words, I was pressured to let politics and cronyism drive decisions over the opinions of the best scientists we have in government."
If that's not scary, then what is?
(Steven Roberts teaches politics and journalism at George Washington University. He can be contacted by email at email@example.com.)