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A neuroscientist explains why Trump’s rhetoric is making the coronavirus even more deadly

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President Donald J. Trump delivers a speech during the "Make America Great Again" rally held at the Mohegan Sun Arena. (Brandon Stivers / Shutterstock.com)

No matter which way you lean politically, it is hard to dispute the fact that the president has not handled the pandemic optimally. His slow and negligent response has undoubtedly increased the death toll and the damage done, both economic and psychological. The only question is by how much. If the coronavirus had originated in the United States then we would not be able to accurately assess Trump’s response, because there would be nothing to fairly compare it to. However, we not only had examples of how bad it would get if we did not take the necessary precautions—from countries like China, South Korea, Iran, and Italy—some of those governments actually showed us exactly what we needed to do to handle it. Despite all the warnings and instructions, the United States went from having nearly the lowest number of cases of any infected country to being number one. In true Trumpian fashion we might say, “America is winning, and it’s not even close,” and this time it would be no exaggeration.

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Some may say now is not the time to criticize our leader or our government; we can score our political points after we have come together to defeat the common enemy. While this sounds nice and reasonable on the surface, it is not just flawed logic, in this instance it is dangerous logic. It is not about scoring points—it is about holding our leaders accountable, not after it is too late, but when that criticism can actually save countless lives. Trump does not make decisions based on his own ideology, because deep down Trump isn’t Christian and he isn’t even Republican—his religion is power, and his ideology is winning. His ultimate goal above all else is getting re-elected, and the way he responds in any given situation is based moment-by-moment on his approval ratings. If handling something a certain way is hurting him in the polls, he adjusts by pivoting in the direction of popular opinion. This way of operating, as dumb and disastrous as it can be, gives us an opportunity. We can get him to do what he needs to do to really save this country from the full destruction of the pandemic. With enough public outcry, about decisions like the one he made when he cut the government’s pandemic response unit, we can hold his feet to the fire.

Some may say that it won’t work because he only does what makes his base happy, and most of them, at least the most fanatical ones, typically don’t believe in science, and many of them don’t even believe in the virus, since their supreme leader told them months ago that it was a “Chinese Hoax.” While it is true that Trump usually acts to please his base, in rare instances he has been known to do or say things that slightly upset them, but this only happens when he is forced to. He is forced to when his prior decisions and behavior are so reckless to the welfare of the country that not publicly changing his position would sink him in the general election. We have just witnessed an example of this flip-flop—he no longer considers the coronavirus to be a hoax, but only because that stance endangers his electability in the upcoming general election.

Again, Trump does not truly care about his base or his political peers—he only happens to be a Republican because he is an opportunist. By that, I mean his full transformation into a conservative was fueled by the popularity he gained from proposing another bogus conspiracy theory; that President Obama, who he was jealous of because he had more power than him, faked his birth certificate. That positive feedback prompted Trump to become a full-blown conspiracy theorist, and when he began tweeting in support of the bogus claim that vaccines routinely cause autism, or worse yet, are part of a maniacal government plot, his transformation into Alex Jones-style nut-job was officially complete.

This fact brings us to the point of this article, which is that the deadliest effects of Trump’s stance regarding the coronavirus are yet to be realized. While a nationwide quarantine can help slow the transmission of the virus, flattening the curve and preventing hospitals from being overwhelmed, the only true and permanent solution to the pandemic is a vaccine. But a vaccine, as powerful of a solution as it is, is only effective if the majority of the country actually goes ahead and gets the vaccine. We have seen deadly epidemics from standard flu breakouts in communities where conspiracy thinking and anti-vaccination attitudes are trendy.

A Trump loyalist may claim that blaming the president for the popularity of the anti-vaxxer and conspiracy theorist movement is unfair, but peer-reviewed science proves that the blame is well-deserved, if not understated. A 2020 study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology found that Trump’s anti-vaccination tweets significantly increased distrust of vaccines among his supporters.

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In the study, conducted by researchers at the University of Queensland, self-identified Trump supporters were presented with actual tweets taken from Donald Trump’s twitter account and then given a survey that asked whether they shared these views, and if so, why.

The scientists found that Trump supporters were much more likely to believe that vaccines had dangerous side effects, and were also more likely to not get their children vaccinated. Interestingly, the answers to the survey questions revealed that those who held these beliefs were also much more likely to believe in a wide range of conspiracy theories, such as 9/11 was an inside job, or that Princess Diana was intentionally assassinated. It was as if conspiratorial thinking was shaping this entire worldview that created a general distrust not just in authorities, but in general—leaking over into suspicion of any mainstream views, like mainstream medicine.

It is no secret that the president has been a major catalyst in making conspiracy-theory thinking go mainstream. Professor Matthew Hornsey, who led the study remarked that, ““Trump is the most conspiracy-friendly President in memory: he’s spread several conspiracy theories in the past, like Obama faking his birth certificate, climate change being a hoax invented by the Chinese, and Ted Cruz’s father helping assassinate JFK.” This statement is supported by his findings, which showed that Trump voters became increasingly “anti-vaxx” after reading his old tweets.

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This finding is critical, because it suggests that Trump truly has the power to shape his supporters’ views, in a very broad and direct sense.

The results of this study imply that the true deadliness of the virus has yet to be seen. If the U.S. population as a whole does not immediately adopt the coronavirus vaccine, Americans will never really be safe from its effects. The epidemic will drag out forever, crippling the economy and destroying countless lives.

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For this reason, as a nation we must collectively urge Donald Trump to address his supporters directly with a speech that unequivocally denounces all his past heinous statements about the dangers of vaccines, and really all his statements that promote bogus conspiracy theories in general. Since conspiracy theorists have built up such a robust structure of false beliefs in their mind, dismantling that will not happen in an instant. To effectively fight the virus, the president will have to make a prolonged effort to break down the dangerous web of lies that he’s built up in his supporters’ minds.

But we all know that won’t happen. So maybe the real solution to the virus, the real cure for the larger disease that is irrational and illogical thinking, is to vote Donald Trump out of office in November.

Bobby Azarian is a neuroscientist affiliated with George Mason University and a freelance journalist. His research has been published in journals such as Cognition & Emotion and Human Brain Mapping, and he has written for The New York Times, The Atlantic, Psychology Today, and Scientific American. Follow him on Twitter @BobbyAzarian. 


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