Lately I’ve found myself thinking about Trofim Lysenko.
Who? Lysenko was a Soviet agronomist who decided that modern genetics was all wrong, indeed contrary to Marxist-Leninist principles. He even denied that genes existed, while insisting that long-discredited views about evolution were actually right. Real scientists marveled at his ignorance.
But Josef Stalin liked him, so Lysenko’s views became official doctrine, and scientists who refused to endorse them were sent to labor camps or executed. Lysenkoism became the basis for much of the Soviet Union’s agricultural policy, eventually contributing to the disastrous famines of the 1930s.
Does all of this sound a bit familiar given recent events in America?
Those worried about a crisis of democracy in the United States — which means everyone paying attention — usually compare Donald Trump to strongmen like Hungary’s Viktor Orban and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, not Stalin. Indeed, if the GOP has become an extremist, anti-democratic party — and it has — it’s an extremism of the right.
But while nobody would accuse Trump of being a leftist, his political style always reminds me of Stalinism. Like Stalin, he sees vast, implausible conspiracies everywhere — anarchists somehow in control of major cities, radical leftists somehow controlling Joe Biden, secret anti-Trump cabals throughout the federal government. It’s also notable that those who work for Trump, like Stalinist officials, consistently end up being cast out and vilified — although not sent to gulags, at least not yet.
And Trumpism, like Stalinism, seems to inspire special disdain for expertise and a fondness for quacks.
On Wednesday Trump said two things that both, if you ask me, deserved banner headlines. Most alarmingly, he refused to commit to a peaceful transition of power if he loses the election.
But he also indicated that he might reject new guidelines from the Food and Drug Administration for approving a coronavirus vaccine, saying that the announcement of these guidelines “sounds like a political move.” What?
OK, we all understand what’s going on here. Many observers worry that the Trump team, in an effort to influence the election, will announce that we have a safe, effective vaccine against the coronavirus ready to go, even if we don’t (and we almost certainly won’t have one that soon). So the Food and Drug Administration was trying to reassure the public about the integrity of its approval process.
And we really need that reassurance, because the Trump administration has given us every reason to distrust statements coming from public health agencies.
Last month the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued new guidance to the effect that people exposed to the coronavirus but not having COVID-19 symptoms didn’t need to get tested — contrary to the recommendations of just about every independent epidemiologist. Subsequent reporting revealed that the new guidance was prepared by political appointees and skipped the scientific review process.
More recently, the CDC warned about airborne transmission of the coronavirus — this time matching what experts are saying — only to suddenly pull the guidance from its website a few days later. We don’t know exactly what happened, but it’s hard not to notice that the retracted guidance would have made it clear that recent Trump rallies, which involve large indoor crowds with few people wearing masks, create major public health risks.
So the FDA was trying to assure us that it won’t be corrupted by politics the way the CDC apparently has been. And Trump basically cut the agency off at the knees; his assertion that the new guidelines sound political actually meant that they weren’t political enough, that he wants to keep open the possibility of announcing a vaccine as a way to help retain power.
But if political hacks are calling the shots at the CDC, and the FDA is being told to shut up and follow the party line, who’s advising Trump on pandemic policy? Send in the quacks.
Trump’s disastrous push, back in April, for early reopening was reportedly influenced by the writings of Richard Epstein, a law professor who somehow decided that he was an expert in epidemiology and that COVID-19 would kill no more than 500 people, a number he eventually increased to 5,000 — roughly the death toll we’re currently experiencing every week.
But the quack of the moment is Dr. Scott Atlas, a radiologist with no expertise in infectious diseases who nonetheless impressed Trump with his appearances on Fox News. Atlas' opposition to mask requirements and advocacy of just letting the coronavirus spread until we’ve reached “herd immunity” are very much at odds with what actual epidemiologists are saying, but they’re what Trump wants to hear, and Atlas has apparently become a key adviser on pandemic policy.
That’s what had me thinking about Trofim Lysenko. Like Stalin, Trump denigrates and bullies experts and takes advice on what should be scientific issues from people who don’t know what they’re talking about but tell him what he wants to hear.
And you know what happens when a national leader does that? People die.
Paul Krugman, Ph.D., winner of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Science, is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.