It has become a commonplace to say that Donald Trump is an unprecedented figure as president-elect. If we want to understand him, we need to look abroad, to examples of authoritarian rulers who’ve undermined democratic norms and the customary rule of law to consolidate their power—men like Vladimir Putin, to cite the most pertinent example, or Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Yet it would be a grave mistake to ignore significant precursors here at home, the better to illuminate the weaknesses Trump is sure to exploit.
While Trump’s authoritarianism and lack of political experience are striking and unprecedented, the underlying disconnect between reality and public perception that he feeds on and exacerbates is nothing new. The title of Jonathan Schell’s account of Nixon’s presidency says it all: "The Time of Illusion." Similarly straightforward is the title of Mark Hertsgaard’s book, "On Bended Knee: The Press and the Reagan Presidency," in which he quotes a former deputy White House press secretary Leslie Janka saying, “The whole thing was P.R. This was a P.R. outfit that became president and took over the country. And to the degree then which the Constitution forced them to do things like make a budget, run a foreign policy and all that, they sort of did. But their first, last and overarching activity was public relations.”
While most of the more than 150 journalists and news executives Hertsgaard interviewed “rejected the idea that Ronald Reagan had gotten a free ride from U.S. news organizations,” none other than Reagan’s director of communications David Gergen contradicted them, saying, “I think a lot of the Teflon came because the press was holding back.”
Echoing Hertsgaard, Lucas Graves’ new book, "Deciding What’s True: The Rise of Political Fact-Checking in American Journalism,” notes how the press basically abandoned fact-checking Reagan’s almost-constant flood of lies. Writing about the book for the Washington Post, Heidi N. Moore notes:
In the 1980s, journalists fact-checked Ronald Reagan, “who came to the White House with a well-established reputation for error and exaggeration,” in Graves’s words. Newspapers, particularly The Washington Post, truth-squadded every one of Reagan’s news conferences until readers demonstrated so little concern that the paper backed off, according to former Post reporter Walter Pincus: “It’s up to the Democrats to catch people, not us. We would quote both sides.”
The “quote both sides” approach was an abject surrender. If one ignores the origin story of why it was adopted, one can almost believe that it’s intended as a way to fair and impartial, even “objective.” (A tape recorder is objective, right? Even if everything it records is a lie.)
But to really appreciate how the way for Trump was paved, as well as what may lie ahead, we need to look much more closely at the presidency of George W. Bush — and not just famously outrageous Iraq War WMD lies, or Karl Rove’s contempt for “the reality-based community.” Rather, we need to examine something much more basic: How Bush’s science policy developed from the beginning, and how scientists, politicians and the media struggled to deal with Bush’s wide-reaching rejection of science.
The first few months of the Bush administration were marked by a severe disconnect from and hostility to the scientific community, which the mainstream media almost completely missed. That set the stage for what was to come, both Bush's failure to heed intelligence warnings in advance of 9/11, and for his disastrous response after 9/11, including the invasion of Iraq. Given where we are now, it's especially worth noticing how the mainstream media failed to register the early Bush warning signs, despite outcries in the scientific press, and how other democratic institutions failed as well. Trump has already suggested he will go much further in this direction than Bush ever dreamed of, but if people and institutions have yet to learn the lessons of the Bush years, they will surely be incapable of dealing with Trump.
Potential problems with Bush’s science policy were noted in Nature (“Bush's science flashpoints”) even before he took office, in late December 2000, citing “Bush's self-avowed lack of intellectual curiosity,” and three areas of likely conflict: embryonic stem-cell research, environmental science (including global warming) and Bush’s pledge to deploy a national missile defense. With a nod to the still raw sense of division after the election, it concluded by saying, “It will soon be apparent, from the scientific appointments alone, whether George W. Bush seeks to unite his nation, or to divide it yet more deeply.”
These three areas and more soon did prove to be sources of conflict, and the scientific appointments alone proved more political and less scientifically credible than anyone could have imagined in advance. Yet even though the mainstream media occasionally noted specific conflicts, it generally failed to grasp what a profound disconnect there was between the Bush administration and the community of scientists.
The first major conflict emerged on March 13, 2001, when Bush announced he wouldn’t regulate power plant emissions of carbon dioxide, reversing a campaign pledge made the previous September. Later in March, Bush withdrew regulations to reduce arsenic in drinking water drafted under Clinton, which would have lowered the amount of arsenic allowed by 80 percent.
Even before these two reversals, the release of Bush’s budget blueprint on Feb. 28 had drawn criticism for its seemingly arbitrary mix of increases and cuts to different parts of the science budget, reflecting the lack of any comprehensive vision. This led to articles in Science (“A Budget Out of Balance”) and Physics Today (“Science Community Lobbies for Balance in Bush Budget”) while Nature (“Science without a tinge of green”) focused specifically on proposed "drastic reductions in environmental research." A follow-up article in Physics Today on Bush's “mixed science signals” dealt with the related concerns of budgeting and failure to fill top leadership positions, most notably the president’s failure to find a science adviser.
Then in May, an article in the journal Contemporary Sexuality (“Report on sex ed may be dead”) reported that the "Surgeon General's Call to Action" on sex education, drafted between July and September 2000, had not been released and was apparently being suppressed.
The pattern was already disturbingly clear. In a March editorial, Nature observed that Bush had wasted little time in setting a hostile tone. "Rapid-fire decisions on ergonomics, arsenic levels and carbon dioxide emissions indicate that scientific opinion sits low in the pecking order of influence inside the new Bush administration," the editors wrote. Such broad-based criticism only spread over time, with additional high-profile editorials in Scientific American in June 2001 ("Faith-Based Reasoning") and then in Science in January 2003 ("An Epidemic of Politics").
Finally, in August 2003 — the month after former U.S. diplomat Joseph Wilson’s New York Times op-ed "What I Didn't Find In Africa" began a belated reassessment of the Bush administration’s national security follies — a congressional report revealed that the administration's pattern of fact-twisting, deception and suppression of contrary evidence applied across the board to science policy as well. It had undermined the integrity of information on more than 20 scientific issues, including lead poisoning, breast cancer research, wetlands policy, global warming, stem cell research, missile defense, abstinence education and condom use.
That report, "Politics and Science in the Bush Administration," made no mention of Iraq or the doctoring of classified intelligence, but the common pattern was as obvious as it was ominous. In both cases, the traditional presidential prerogative to make policy-level appointments had been vastly exceeded to corrupt the basic information on which honest policy arguments depend.
Because the report was prepared by the Democratic minority staff of the House Committee on Government Reform, at the request of Rep. Henry Waxman, it was quickly labelled a "partisan" report and shunted aside. That was hogwash. The complaints were compiled from the public record, from the scientific community itself, and from leading scientific journals such as the ones already mentioned. What’s more, the early articles I cited above included criticisms of Bush from Republican chairs of the science-related committees in the House. If anything, the fact that Democratic staff had to put out this report demonstrated how thoroughly the media had failed at its watchdog role, downplaying or ignoring dozens of outrageous individual cases, and failing to recognize the larger pattern of undermining scientific inquiry and scientific evidence.
The report identified three broad Bush strategies for subverting science: "by manipulating scientific advisory committees, by distorting and suppressing scientific information, and by interfering with scientific research and analysis." Federal law requires that scientific advisory committees be "fairly balanced in terms of the points of view represented" and free from undue influence "by the appointing authority or by any special interest." Yet, the Bush Administration, over and over again, appointed unqualified people with industry ties and ideological agendas.
For an advisory committee on lead poisoning, Bush appointed Dr. William Banner, an expert witness for Sherwin-Williams who had testified that lead levels seven times the current limit were safe for children's brains. As chair of the FDA's advisory committee on reproductive health drugs Bush nominated an anti-abortion activist with sparse research credentials, Dr. W. David Hager, who recommended that women read the Bible for relief of premenstrual symptoms. At the National Center on Environmental Health, Bush officials fired 15 of 18 members of its key advisory committee, replacing them with longtime industry consultants.
The record of distorting and suppressing scientific information was equally dismal. In ordering an end to stem-cell research, Bush claimed that more than 60 existing stem lines "could lead to breakthrough therapies and cures." In fact, only 11 lines were available for research, all grown in mouse cells. After the global warming section of the Environmental Protection Agency's "Draft Report on the Environment" was edited by the White House, agency scientists objected that it "no longer accurately represents scientific consensus," and the EPA deleted the entire discussion. The National Cancer Institute revised its website to suggest that evidence was divided on whether abortion increased the risk of breast cancer, long after the alleged link had been disproved.
Finally, the Bush administration directly interfered with scientific research. It increased scrutiny of research in fields as diverse as HIV and on "agricultural practices with negative health and environmental practices." It prevented the release of EPA analyses of alternatives to Bush's plans for weakening the Clean Air Act. It eliminated outcome assessments it didn't like, such as the "Programs the Work" initiative, which consistently found that "abstinence only" sex education doesn't work. It stifled evidence that industrial hog farming may contribute to antibiotic resistance in humans.
These broad patterns of suppressing science when it contradicted the administration's political goals were troubling enough on their own. Worse still was the media's complicity in giving the administration pass after pass on its outrageous conduct. If the press doesn't care about the truth, what reason does it have to exist? And if truth can be so easily suppressed, what chance does democracy have to survive?
Although the Waxman report said nothing about the press, it is the media's widespread failure, more than anything else, that should concern us now. Trump’s subversion of rational, empirical policymaking has already gone far beyond anything Bush and his minions could have imagined, but the press just keeps falling farther and farther behind.
What happened to science policy under Bush largely went unnoticed, because the old-fashioned notion of beat reporting had been abandoned. Outside the scientific press itself, there are relatively few reporters with the scientific expertise to understand the relevant issues and explicate them for general readers. Many more reporters cover politics as a beat, but very few do so with any sort of policy depth, so the intersection of the two — the politics of science — simply fell outside the mainstream media's structure of competency. There was one notable exception: Chris Mooney, who created his own beat by following these stories relentlessly, culminating in his 2005 book "The Republican War on Science."
But a beat must be more than one heroic reporter fighting the tide. A beat is a social construction, a publicly recognized way of doing reporting and thinking about the world. Facing the prospect of Donald Trump's presidency, we need beat reporting that will be commensurate to the threat. One part of that is surely the kind of science reporting Mooney has done. Another may be drawn from reporters who have covered authoritarian leaders and movements around the world. Other beats might encompass political and cognitive science.
But the point of a beat is that it’s more than the sum of its parts. It’s a conversation that draws them all together, out of which new insights can flow. There is a layer of metaphor to this analysis, because every institution in a democracy is threatened by authoritarianism, and must examine its flaws and failures with an eye toward redeeming its public function. Learning from the failures of the past, and preparing for an unpredictable future, is the challenge that journalism -- and every other institution of our failing democracy -- now faces in dealing with Donald Trump.