Trofim Lysenko was an agronomist who in the 1930s caught Stalin’s ear with a bogus theory: that grain seed could be conditioned to grow quicker and more abundantly in all sorts of climates, like growing bananas in New York and apples in the Arctic. Stalin loved it and made Lysenko’s theory law. He became the Soviet Union’s leading geneticist. He was flacked in honors, including three Stralin prizes and six Orders of Lenin prizes. The moment scientists began questioning his method and evidence, Stalin had them fired, exiled or shot. (It was the reverse in the United States: an Oregon State University professor was fired in February 1949 for supporting his theory, though no one was shot over it.)
Lysenko was a charlatan, an impostor, and everything a scientist should not be. His fake science would have gone nowhere without Stalin. With Stalin, it became the only science in Soviet agriculture. His success was a triumph of lies under cover of power, a power he lost only when Kruschev replaced Stalin after 1953, though it took a while. But the damage was done on the scale of a crime against humanity. When Lysenko died in 1976, Harrison Salisbury, the celebrated journalist and Times correspondent in Moscow, described Russia’s biggest fake as “a zealot with the burning eyes of Savonarola and the narrow mind of a dogmatist.”
Lysenkoism is a lesson of the coronavirus pandemic on this one-year mark as we look back at what went wrong. A lot of the pandemic was not in our control. No amount of border control or travel restrictions or even quarantines would have kept the virus from coming in, whether it originated in Wuhan, China, Thule, Greenland, or Haskell County, Kansas, likely origin of the flu pandemic of 1918.
A lot of the pandemic was in our control. George W. Bush and Barack Obama had both prepared the nation. The theory of social distancing came to Bush’s attention in 2006 when he read about the flu pandemic. He ordered it to be a national strategy in case of a pandemic. Obama amplified the strategy through the Centers for DiseaseControl.
In 2019 Trump’s own Department of Health and Human Services held a series of exercises for eight months based on the following then-fictional scenario: a respiratory virus breaks out in China. It is soon detected in Chicao. The World Health Organization declares a pandemic 47 days later, but too late to keep 110 million Americans from becoming infected, 7.7 million from being hospitalized and 586,000 from dying. The scenario was called “Crimson Contagion.” The exercise revealed to what extent the country was ill prepared, its public health departments underfunded, its various agencies uncoordinated. Despite that, the CDC’s strategy was still a solid foundation.
Trump got the report. Trump did nothing. He did Nothing.
On March 19, 2020, days after the World Health Organization had declared the coronavirus pandemic, Trump said this: “Nobody knew there’d be a pandemic or an epidemic of this proportion. Nobody’s ever seen anything like this before.” He was lying. It was one of the 30,000 lies of his presidency, and one of its most consequential. The Crimson Contagion report he had in hand had predicted 586,000 deaths from that fictional pandemic. The pandemic that exploded out of Trump’s wilful ignorance will reach that number in the next few weeks.
He was aware of the severity of the coming pandemic. He’d told Bob Woodward as much. He was aware of the CDC’s strategy dating back to Bush and Obama. Even badly funded, had the strategy been executed and better funded along the way, it would have enormously diminished the suffering and deaths. Trump had other plans. One other plan, really: getting reelected, whatever the cost. Here we were chanting black lives matter all summer. But to this guy it wasn’t just black lives that didn’t matter. White lives, brown lives, whatever lives didn’t matter, not with his political life at stake. To Trump, all that mattered was Trump.
And so Lysenkoism came back in full force in the Trump White House as the United States began battling the coronavirus pandemic on two fronts. One front was the virus itself. The other was Trump, whose subsequent reliance on the likes of Mike Pence and Scott Atlas was like raising Lysenkos from the dead and installing them as his covid response czars, though Trump by himself was Lysenko enough. His strategy was simple. Downplay. Deny. Deflect. Divide. Ridicule. And above all, invent. He had once invented extra floors for his Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue, just so he could claim it was taller than neighboring buildings. He called it “truthful hyperbole,” the kind of Orwellian blackwhite that would later give us “alternative facts” and “truth isn’t truth.” Lying about a vulgar skyscraper’s length was good fodder for tabloids. Lying about national security in the face of a public health calamity was treason.
Certain egregious and possibly criminal mistakes like Andrew Cuomo’s seeding of nursing home deaths aside, this was the result of willfully bogus science on a national scale. Trump could have mitigated the catastrophe by letting the scientists and public health experts do their work. Instead, he turned quack and pushed one Lysenko lie after another, from inventing falling case loads to encouraging states–at times with insurrectionist language that would seed January’s actual insurrection–to reopen prematurely, to ridiculing claims of a second wave or the efficacy of masks. Atlas amplified the fake science when he was given his platform starting in August, accelerating the carnage. Trump was repeatedly urged to correct his course by saner heads, among them Deborah Brix and of course Dr. Anthony Fauci. He mostly ignored them.
As of today more than half a million Americans have died of covid. We have 5 percent of the world’s population but more than a fifth of the world’s covid deaths. Proportional to their population less than a dozen countries had more deaths than the United States. Italy didn’t know what hit it when it was the first European nation to take the brunt of the first wave. Britain initially and Hungary throughout followed Trump’s Lysenko-like lead. Asian countries, authoritarian or not, neutralized the pandemic and returned their societies to near-normal because their residents take public health seriously.
No need to even look so far. Seattle was ground zero of the outbreak a year ago, with most of the nation’s earliest deaths attributed to covid. Washington State’s leaders gathered, devised a unified strategy based on public health priorities, and stayed unified as they executed it. “One year later,” the Times reports, “the Seattle area has the lowest death rate of the 20 largest metropolitan regions in the country. If the rest of the United States had kept pace with Seattle, the nation could have avoided more than 300,000 coronavirus deaths. During a year in which the White House downplayed the virus and other political leaders clashed over how to contain it, Seattle’s success illustrates the value of unified and timely strategies: Although the region’s public health experts and politicians grappled behind the scenes about how to best manage the virus, they came together to present a united front to the public. And the public largely complied.”
Get even closer. We had something like that going in Flagler, as long as politicians allowed local public health, physician and emergency management leaders the room to set procedures. Between the local health department’s Bob Snyder and Dr. Stephen Bickel, emergency management’s Jonathan Lord and the school district’s David Bossardet, public health protocols prevailed more than not.
Palm Coast’s Milissa Holland led her fellow mayors and other elected and administrative officials to issue a joint statement of unity, emphasizing the importance of letting science and professionals do their job: “Subject matter experts,” the statement read, “must have the autonomy to determine, in concert with stakeholders, what a credible plan will be for the community and how it should look over time.” the implicit message being that politicians can only muck up the process (as a few locally did so miserably well). The result: Flagler maintained the lowest proportional number of infections among Florida’s 67 counties, and one of the lowest death rates. In Florida’s killing fields it’s a little like that proverb about the one-eyed man who boasts of his vision among the blind. But considering the Savonarola-Trump element in Flagler, whose shock troops agitated with the support of our more craven elected officials to undermine the message, it was quite an achievement.
But successes could not be the rule when a Lysenko was at the helm. Trump’s regime depended on conflict, turning Americans against each other and hoping he’d have the winning side come the election. The pandemic was just another battlefield. Trump mutated conflicts where there were none. He gave cover to millions of saps who thought flouting public health measures and infecting others was a patriotic statement.
The trade-off between safety and civil liberties isn’t a zero-sum game. It’s not a tradeoff. Public health when applied objectively is no more of a political or ideological issue than garbage pick-up, vaccination, clean air and water. Ensuring those neither infringes on civil liberties nor invokes one ideology or another, unless of course they’re politicized by opportunists who transform them into wedge issues. All it takes is a lie hooked to power. So it was with covid, which turned the lie as viral as the pandemic.
That’s why more than half a million Americans have died so far in the United States instead of a third that number. Comparing Trump to Stalin would of course in most regards be outrageous and irresponsible, not even rating as “truthful hyperbole.” That doesn’t mean the two are incomparable in all regards. Their embrace of Lysenkosim leads the way, with one difference. Stalin at first could claim ignorance about Lysenko’s lies, though the innumerable scientists Stalin silenced quickly did away with that excuse, turning Stalin’s embrace of Lysenco into reckless malice. Lives didn’t matter to him, either. Trump never had an excuse. He started off maliciously disregarding his two predecessor’s warnings, his own administration’s pandemic exercises, torrents of evidence starting more than a year ago, and billions, then trillions of dollars at his disposal to mitigate the calamity. His refutation of science for political ends was a premeditated crime. It was nowhere short of a crime against humanity. The Medal of Freedom he awarded Rush Limbaugh at the 2020 State of the Union Address might as well have been accompanied by a posthumous award to Trofim Lysenko. No one would have been surprised.
Lysenkoism wouldn’t be an issue if Trump was really gone. But he’s not. His quackery defines the Republican Party, whether it’s lying about science or electoral results. January’s insurrection was Lysenkoism by other means. Our own legislature is right now advancing a bill that would arbitrarily limit the duration of public health emergency orders. Ron DeSantis is the Sunshine State’s Lysenko as he positions himself for a presidential run on Trump fumes. Some of our own elected officials locally still peddle the bogus narrative on masks and vaccines.
Anti-science allied to ideological reaction is alive and immune to reason. A poll released Thursday shows 30 percent of Americans, and 41 percent of Republicans, not wanting the vaccine. Getting enough people vaccinated to reach community (or “herd”) immunity is becoming the new challenge as vaccines begin to flood the market. As is now routine with right-wing dissociation from reality, it’s clearly, largely, an ideological refusal. It will hurt the refuseniks as much as it will their neighbors, further slowing a recovery half a year where it could have been.
We’re finally emerging from the pandemic. But as long as Trumpism reigns, so does Lysenkoism. That’s a grim prognosis for the health of the Republican Party, if not for the Republic.