On 9 November 2016, the world awoke to an unexpected result: Donald Trump had been elected president of the United States.
This journal did not hide its disappointment. But, Nature observed, US democracy was designed with safeguards intended to protect against excesses. It is founded on a system of checks and balances that makes it difficult for a president to exercise absolute power. We were hopeful that this would help to curb the damage that might result from Trump’s disregard for evidence and the truth, disrespect for those he disagrees with and toxic attitude towards women.
How wrong we turned out to be.
No US president in recent history has so relentlessly attacked and undermined so many valuable institutions, from science agencies to the media, the courts, the Department of Justice — and even the electoral system. Trump claims to put ‘America First’. But in his response to the pandemic, Trump has put himself first, not America.
His administration has picked fights with the country’s long-standing friends and allies, and walked away from crucial international scientific and environmental agreements and organizations: notably, the 2015 Paris climate accord; the Iran nuclear deal; the United Nations’ science and education agency UNESCO; and even, unthinkable in the middle of a pandemic, the World Health Organization (WHO).
Challenges such as ending the COVID-19 pandemic, tackling global warming and halting the proliferation and threat of nuclear weapons are global, and urgent. They will not be overcome without the collective efforts of the nation states and international institutions that the Trump administration has sought to undermine.
On the domestic front, one of this administration’s most dangerous legacies will be its shameful record of interference in health and science agencies — thus undermining public trust in the very institutions that are essential to keeping people safe.
Joe Biden, Trump’s opponent in next month’s presidential election, is the nation’s best hope to begin to repair this damage to science and the truth — by virtue of his policies and his leadership record in office, as a former vice-president and as a senator.
Four years ago, some hoped that Trump’s excesses would be reined in by his conservative Republican party, which has long valued the rule of law. Previous Republican presidents have also ascribed to a bipartisan tradition of supporting funding for science and innovation. But Trump has sought to remake the Republican party according to his own populist values.
Populists, from all points on the political compass, are on the rise around the world. They divide the world into ‘people’ and ‘elites’. The latter, according to populists, include researchers and the institutions where they work. The Trump administration has undermined trust in their knowledge, interfered with their autonomy, and expressed disdain for the essential role they have in national life. Supreme Court justices, civil-service professionals and journalists have been similarly attacked.
The Trump administration’s disregard for rules, government, science, institutions of democracy and, ultimately, facts and the truth have been on full display in its disastrous response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In the pandemic’s earliest days, Trump chose not to craft a comprehensive national strategy to increase testing and contact tracing, and to bolster public-health facilities. Instead, he flouted and publicly derided the science-based health guidelines set by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for the use of face masks and social distancing.
The administration later rewrote guidelines when the message did not align with its agenda. Trump has lied about the dangers posed by the virus and has encouraged people to protest against policies intended to slow its transmission. The result, if not the goal, has been to downplay the greatest crisis the country — and the world — has faced in at least half a century.
These actions have had devastating consequences. With the nation’s death toll now exceeding 215,000, the coronavirus has killed more people in the United States than anywhere else. Even adjusting for population size, the country has fared spectacularly badly. Despite having vast scientific and monetary resources at his disposal, Trump failed catastrophically when it mattered most.
This undermining of research advice has been accompanied by the systematic dismantling of scientific capacity in regulatory science agencies.
The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which was created 50 years ago under a Republican president, Richard Nixon, has helped many nations to better understand the dangers of pollution, and has pioneered regulations that have cleaned up the environment and saved millions of lives. But under the Trump administration, the EPA has withered as its scientists have been ignored by the senior leadership. Those at the top of the agency have worked to roll back or weaken more than 80 rules and regulations controlling a spectrum of pollutants, from greenhouse gases to mercury and sulfur dioxide.
Likewise, the CDC, which should have led the coronavirus response, was quickly made subordinate to a task force whose leaders include vice-president Mike Pence and Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner — neither of whom has expertise in infectious diseases. Then, in July, the administration took away the CDC’s responsibility for coronavirus data collection, management and sharing, and handed this to the Department of Health and Human Services — the CDC’s parent institution, whose head, Alex Azar, is answerable to the president.
No president in recent history has tried to politicize government agencies and purge them of scientific expertise on the scale undertaken by this one. The Trump administration’s actions are accelerating climate change, razing wilderness, fouling air and killing more wildlife — as well as people.
Trump has also promoted nationalism, isolationism and xenophobia — including tacitly supporting white-supremacist groups. The administration has rewritten immigration policies, beginning in 2017 with a controversial travel ban on people from seven countries, including five Muslim-majority states. Even now, with the election weeks away, the Department of Homeland Security is proposing to limit the length of visas for international students.
The United States’ reputation as an open and welcoming country to the world’s students and researchers has suffered. International talent has clearly played a crucial part in helping the country to become a research and innovation powerhouse. Trump’s efforts to close borders, limit immigration and discourage international scientific cooperation — especially with researchers from China — are precisely the opposite of what is needed if the world is to succeed in tackling the mounting global challenges before us.
Biden must lead
Trump has not grown into his position as president, and has demonstrated that he can neither lead nor unite the United States.
Joe Biden, by contrast, has a history in the Senate as a politician who has reached across to his political opponents and worked with them to achieve bipartisan support for legislation — a skill that will be needed now more than at any time in the recent past, because he will inherit a nation that is even more divided than it was four years ago.
He has shown that he respects the values of research, and has vowed to work to restore the United States’ fractured global relationships. For these reasons, Nature is endorsing Biden and urging voters to cast a ballot for him on 3 November.
Biden’s campaign has worked closely with researchers to develop comprehensive plans on COVID-19 and climate change. He has pledged that decisions on the pandemic response will be made by public-health professionals and not by politicians; and he is rightly committing to restoring the ability of these professionals to communicate directly with the public.
In addition, Biden is promising to ramp up test-and-trace programmes and to provide more support for people hit hardest by the coronavirus. Combined with vaccines and medicines, these are the kinds of policies that will be essential to ending the pandemic.
On climate change, Biden would return the United States to the Paris agreement, and is proposing the most ambitious domestic climate policies ever advocated by nominees from the country’s major parties. A US$2-trillion plan would invest in clean energy and low-carbon infrastructure, with the ambition of weaning the United States off fossil-fuel-generated electricity by 2035.
If elected, Biden would have the chance to reinstate and strengthen the climate and environmental regulations rolled back under Trump; restore the EPA’s depleted scientific capacity; and return the CDC’s leadership role in the pandemic. He should also move to reverse egregious policies on immigration and student visas, and hold the United States to its international commitments — not least its membership of the WHO and UNESCO.
Donald Trump has taken an axe to a system that was intended to safeguard and protect citizens when leaders go astray. He has become an icon for those who seek to sow hatred and division, not only in the United States, but in other countries, too.
Joe Biden must be given an opportunity to restore trust in truth, in evidence, in science and in other institutions of democracy, heal a divided nation, and begin the urgent task of rebuilding the United States’ reputation in the world.
Nature 586, 335 (2020)