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Learning the Right Lessons from the Trump Experience

Don’t forget the rule of stopped clocks.
October 19, 2020
Featured Image
U.S. President Donald Trump walks toward Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

As we gingerly permit ourselves to contemplate the possibility of a post-Trump era, it is important to remember that it would be foolish to summarily reject everything Trump has done, simply because he did it. It is possible to understand that Donald Trump was a very bad president, that America would be better off under different leadership, and also that some of the policies Trump enacted have turned out to be effective.

Negative partisanship has warped American politics. Let’s not allow it to warp policy, too.

Start with the most important subject: COVID. President Trump’s leadership on managing the pandemic has been somewhere between deeply flawed and catastrophic. But even so, his administration has not been wrong about everything, and it’s critical we recognize and retain things he’s done right, as well as learn from important deficiencies that he (inadvertently) exposed.

For instance: Operation Warp Speed. OWS is an ambitious public/private effort to accelerate vaccine development, in particular, by enabling significant work to advance at risk. So far, it appears to be working. The key insight behind OWS was recognizing that the long timelines typically associated with conventional medical product development reflect the stage-gate nature of the process.

When researching a new treatment, drug companies have been traditionally (and understandably) cautious about investing in sequentially more expansive and expensive stage developments until they’re certain they have cleared the earlier hurdles.

This stage-gating is part of what makes the development process so lengthy. With Operation Warp Speed, the federal government offset the costs associated with this risk, allowing companies to fully invest in and prepare for subsequent phases, so that if a product meets the (still strict) requirements of a previous stage, it can surge forward immediately into the next one.

This is precisely how the government should leverage its dollars to move along vaccine development without sacrificing the science.

Not only was the theory behind OWS sound, but Trump chose a strong and experienced leader for the project: a pharma industry veteran named Moncef Slaoui, who put his very comfortable life on hold to helm this effort. (For his troubles, Slaoui has received incessant criticism from many in the media who are inherently distrustful of anyone from the industry.)

Scott Gottlieb, whom Trump appointed as FDA Commissioner in 2017, was another savvy healthcare appointment involving the wisdom to value private sector experience. Gottlieb understood both Washington politics and the industry he was regulating. His selection was also greeted with predictable skepticism, based on the usual progressive canard that industry experience is intrinsically vulgar and inherently disqualifying, versus precisely what can enable someone, like Gottlieb, to be as effective as ultimately he proved to be – as I argued when he was nominated.

Without question, Trump’s discomfort with science resulted in a series of unexplainable, truly unforgivable decisions, best exemplified by his marginalizing of Drs. Brix and Fauci, and embracing instead . . . Peter Navarro. This is batshit crazy—full stop. It’s like having Josh Hader and Mariano Rivera warming up in the bullpen, and instead calling Joe Buck in from the press box. Trump’s meddling with the FDA and the CDC has been similarly destructive, undermining confidence that is desperately required.

In part, Trump seems to act this way because he believes that there is no “truth,” that everyone has an agenda, and corruption is a universal way of life. This is not the optimal lens through which to view the American government’s management of a pandemic.

But there is one way in which Trump’s post-truth belief in the universality of corruption turned out to be helpful: In Trump’s criticisms of traditionally “untouchable” institutions like the World Health Organization, whose elevated intentions have typically placed them beyond serious scrutiny, much less public reproach. (The United Nations Human Rights Council, from which Trump wisely withdrew in 2018, is another example.)

Certainly, the WHO has a worthy mission. And Trump’s criticisms of the group were self-serving. But they also turned out to be true. A rare and much-needed close look at the WHO, by the Wall Street Journal in February, suggested the organization had sucked up to Chinese leaders—and downplayed government missteps—to stay in the good graces of the authoritarian country.

So we should continue to pay close attention to the WHO and work to make sure the organization is reformed, and not a pawn of China’s geopolitical ambitions, or other political agendas.

Trump’s politicization of everything also revealed the extent to which other spheres of public life have been unhealthily politicized.

For instance, the public health community did themselves no favors by stifling themselves in the face of summer protests with which most were politically aligned.

Data from an academic political scientist at Stanford (likely left-leaning—he most recently donated to the Warren campaign, according to OpenSecrets) suggests that as a group, academics and journalists (along with the entertainment industry) skew farthest to the left of all the groups studied. Within medicine, some of the disciplines most involved in public health, including infectious disease experts, were subsequently found to be most progressive; spinal surgeons the most conservative. Among professions, “oil, gas, and coal” was the most conservative.

(Pharma, interestingly, exhibited a strikingly bimodal distribution, and on balance skewed more left than right.)

This politicization of professional life seems to have metastasized out from the media and academia. And it is deeply disturbing for a number of reasons, not least of which is that it creates an increasing lack of tolerance for unauthorized views—when such receptivity is the foundation of our liberal institutions.

While it’s routine for journalists to evocatively describe relationships between companies and others as “cozy” (code for compromised and corrupt), it’s hard to think of a cozier relationship than that between intrinsically politically aligned academics and journalists, whose careers—in terms of research funding earned and compelling narratives generated—are each concretely served and advanced by these personally syntonic and professionally synergistic relationships.

Consequently, it’s disheartening, but perhaps not surprising, that in both the media and academia, the intolerance has grown to the level of caricature, where independent, remarkably moderate voices such as Bari Weiss (Bari Weiss!) are vilified, and ultimately chased from premier publications, while few dissenting voices within academic institutions dare speak up, for fear of what might happen. See the tribulations of Erika Christakis, a distinguished Yale professor, who came under attack for suggesting, in the most gentle way, that perhaps students need not be protected from every conceivable environmental trigger. Naturally, this affront to the Yale environment triggered such outrage that Christakis stepped away from teaching.

Beyond these well-publicized stories are hundreds of other examples: thoughtful colleagues both within and outside of academia, who feel compelled to hold their collective tongues, keep as far as possible from the fray, and offer the expected utterances and affirmations. All because they feel convinced that to do otherwise would be to risk their professional standing and hold back their career development.

They are almost certainly correct.

And just because Donald Trump demagogued this politicization and used it as a pretext for racism, know-nothing-ism, and worse does not mean that we should embrace it.

Fealty to an ever-more-stringent political orthodoxy is now routinely demanded from a growing number of organizations. The pursuit of diversity is an important and worthy goal—especially compared to the alternative—but unfortunately, one that tends to be pursued only selectively, in a fashion that rarely includes diversity of viewpoint.

We have good reason to be concerned by this unhealthy, fundamentally illiberal trend, and to yearn for a thoughtful counterpoint, a powerful and compelling voice of reason.

Trump is not that voice.

The profound tragedy is that there are few remaining on the right—and perhaps none in the Republican establishment—who can credibly step into this role.

That’s because the GOP’s reflexive and complete embrace of Trump has resulted in their utter loss of moral or intellectual standing. A party that defined itself for a generation on convictions and ideas has abandoned almost everything it once stood for in order to remain in the good graces of an impetuous man-child. (Tim Alberta has richly documented this sad descent in his both American Carnage and a recent, dispiriting Politico update.)

None of us should wish for a one-party state. We need voices that can respond wisely to the excesses of our political poles. This is not to create a false equivalence: The excesses of the Trump years have been extraordinary, and with luck we will not see such again.

But in the normal course of political life, there will always be excesses. One expects that even a competent and successful Democratic administration will have its own share. A healthy political system is one which allows for constant self-correction and recalibration.

If we are lucky, then the silver lining of Trump years might be a reaction that rekindles an understanding that what we need from our leaders is that they be engaging and inclusive. That they admit the possibility of good intentions even from their most ardent opponents. That they appeal to our best natures, rather than our worst instincts.

And perhaps our encounter with Trumpism might even encourage us to model these behaviors ourselves.

David Shaywitz

David Shaywitz, a physician-scientist, is the founder of Astounding HealthTech, a Silicon Valley advisory service; an adjunct scholar at the American Enterprise Institute; and a Lecturer in the Department of Biomedical Informatics at Harvard Medical School.