From Scientist-Politicians to an Anti-Science Demagogue: America’s Tragic Descent Into Madness
Trump has forever stained the disciplines of medicine, science, and technology with his clownish performance as a U.S. president.
Several of the founders of the United States were gifted scientists and scholars of the Age of Enlightenment. Benjamin Franklin was not only a statesman, but he was known as one of the leading scientists of the world in his own right. Franklin, who had to deal with his age’s numerous religious extremists, medical quackery, and various misanthropes, would have little time for the anti-science foolishness of the Donald Trump administration. In fact, taking the political appointee sector of the Trump administration as a whole, the United States enjoyed more scientific expertise in government during its early days than it does today.
Early American presidents like Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, James Madison, and George Washington were all committed to scientific pursuit. Jefferson was a mathematician, agronomist, and paleontologist. Franklin and Jefferson were inventors. Franklin invented bifocal lenses and the mid-room furnace known as the Franklin stove. Jefferson invented a sophisticated cipher machine. Madison had an interest in the environment and was keen on how “vital air becomes noxious.” Adams had a knack for astronomy. Washington was intent on relying on the epidemiology of the era to save his Continental Army from a smallpox epidemic, a pathogen that he had survived in his youth. In 1777, during the height of the War of Independence from Great Britain, Washington ordered his entire army to be inoculated against smallpox, the first such action in military history. Washington saw the mortality rate from smallpox among his army’s ranks drop from 17 percent to 1 percent.
Washington had a better understanding of viral epidemics during the Revolutionary War than Trump does today with COVID-19. Washington was assisted in his smallpox inoculation program by Surgeon General of the Continental Army and signer of the Declaration of Independence Benjamin Rush. A chemistry professor at the University of Pennsylvania, Rush would later teach a future president of the United States, William Henry Harrison.
A commitment to science has marked, from one degree to another, every presidential administration from Washington to Obama. That commitment ended with Trump, a person who has demonized America’s leading government epidemiologists, vaccine specialists, and public health officers, not to mention scores of climate scientists and environmentalists.
In April 1961, President John F. Kennedy, in a speech to the National Academy of Sciences, a body founded by President Abraham Lincoln, said, “In the earliest days of the founding of our country there was among some of our Founding Fathers a most happy relationship, a most happy understanding of the ties which bind science and government together.” President Theodore Roosevelt was such a committed environmentalist and conservationist, he founded the U.S. National Park System, which Trump and his mining, drilling, hunting, timber, and fracking business cronies are busy destroying.
In a July 25, 1944 letter to the Office of Scientific Research and Development, President Franklin D. Roosevelt urged those involved with American military research and development to “make known to the world as soon as possible the contributions which have been made during our war effort to scientific knowledge.” Roosevelt, a polio sufferer, was particularly interested in launching a “war of science against disease.” Roosevelt also wrote, “The fact that the annual deaths in this country from one or two diseases alone are far in excess of the total number of lives lost by us in battle during this war should make us conscious of the duty we owe future generations.” Roosevelt would have been horrified to know that a future successor in the Oval Office would contribute so directly to the deaths from COVID-19 of over 212,000 Americans due to malfeasance, incompetence, and reliance on medical quackery.
After his retirement from the Army, Dwight Eisenhower gained an appreciation for science and research from his stint as president of Columbia University in New York. The friendship that developed between Eisenhower and Columbia physicist I. I. Rabi would lead to Rabi becoming Eisenhower’s White House science adviser. It was Rabi who helped launch a national space effort, particularly after the Soviet Union’s launch of the Sputnik satellite in 1957. Eisenhower passed the space technology torch to John F. Kennedy. On May 25, 1961, Kennedy told the U.S. Congress, “. . . I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space.”
The investments made by Kennedy in the exploration of space and, eventually, the moon landing saw the world’s greatest transfer of technology from the government to the private sector. Harry S Truman, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, and George H. W. Bush all presided over government-private sector scientific achievements in medicine, environmental science, space technology and exploration, and energy production diversification. For the United States, the post-World War II years became known as the “Golden Age of Science.” This era produced Jimmy Carter, an engineer on the nuclear submarine, USS Seawolf, and a post-graduate nuclear engineering student at Union College in New York. Against the advice of sharp-knifed budget cutters, Gerald Ford signed legislation in 1976 creating the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.
The United States saw every presidential administration advance the United States in terms of science and technology until the Trump administration. Trump championed pseudo-science in combatting the Covid-19 epidemic-turned-pandemic. Ignoring his chief government epidemiologists, infectious disease specialists, and public health officials, Trump, projecting himself as nothing more than a fast-talking carnival barker, suggested dangerous and ridiculous cures for the Covid virus, including poisonous disinfectants being injected into the human body and reliance on untested medicines and vaccines. His relationships with educated world leaders like German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who possesses a PhD in quantum chemistry from the German Academy of Sciences, suffered. Trump was more comfortable with similarly-minded buffoons like Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who declared that Covid-19 was no worse than a common cold – just as Trump stated that Covid-19 was a hoax. Both Bolsonaro and Trump contracted the coronavirus. Trump’s political followers, including Republican U.S. Senators, U.S. Representatives, and Governors tried to outdo one another in demonstrating their ignorance of basic science.
Trump’s disdain for science and its deadly consequences has resulted in his re-election campaign being savaged by prestigious scientific journals, which have never weighed in on political endorsements. “The Lancet,” a major medical journal, stated in a May 16, 2020 editorial: “Americans must put a president in the White House come January, 2021, who will understand that public health should not be guided by partisan politics.” That president, according to “The Lancet,” had to be anyone other than Donald Trump. “The New England Journal of Medicine,” in a recent stinging rebuke of Trump and the Republicans, published a first-ever political editorial in its entire 208 years of publication. The journal’s editorial board wrote, “When it comes to the response to the largest public health crisis of our time, our current political leaders have demonstrated that they are dangerously incompetent. We should not abet them and enable the deaths of thousands more Americans by allowing them to keep their jobs.”
Similarly, “Scientific American,” which had never endorsed a single presidential candidate in its 175-year history, wrote, “The evidence and the science show that Donald Trump has badly damaged the U.S. and its people—because he rejects evidence and science. The most devastating example is his dishonest and inept response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which cost more than 190,000 Americans their lives by the middle of September. He has also attacked environmental protections, medical care, and the researchers and public science agencies that help this country prepare for its greatest challenges. That is why we urge you to vote for Joe Biden, who is offering fact-based plans to protect our health, our economy and the environment.” The respected journal “Nature” also uniquely editorialized against a second Trump term in office, warning that his “assault on science” during his term has had a devastating effect in the United States and around the world.
Through the written words of these sage scientific and medical journals, one can almost hear the voices of past American presidents, scientists, professors, and doctors. Trump has forever stained the disciplines of medicine, science, and technology with his clownish performance as a U.S. president.