Scott Atlas, senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, speaks with President Donald J. Trump during a COVID-19 coronavirus briefing in the James S. Brady Briefing Room at the White House on Wednesday, Aug 12, 2020 in Washington, DC. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

How anti-choice propaganda trained Republicans to accept Trump's coronavirus denialism

Trump's new medical adviser peddles a familiar model of deceit: Wrap lies and right-wing ideology in a lab coat



Amanda Marcotte
September 2, 2020 4:58PM (UTC)

Donald Trump didn't like what the experts were telling him about the coronavirus pandemic, so he found a guy with "Dr." in front of his name who will tell the president the bedtime stories he wants to hear. Dr. Scott Atlas isn't an expert in infectious disease or epidemiology, as are coronavirus task force advisers Dr. Deborah Birx and Dr. Anthony Fauci, whom he has pretty much usurped. Atlas is a radiologist and, more importantly, a senior fellow at the far-right bad-idea incubator known as the Hoover Institution (previously home to the infamous prediction that the U.S. death toll from the COVID-19 pandemic would be around 5,000).

According to the New York Times and the Washington Post, Atlas — who apparently caught Trump's eye the way so many of his advisers do, by peddling BS on Fox News — is ready and willing to say all sorts of medically unsound things that just happen to align with everything Trump wants to believe about the coronavirus. So Atlas has risen rapidly as a power player and is reportedly even getting venerable institutions like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to echo his unscientific beliefs. 

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Atlas has questioned whether wearing face masks slows viral spread (it does) and pushed for the CDC to change its recommendation on coronavirus testing to cover only people with symptoms, even though the science clearly shows that asymptomatic people are spreading the disease — and may indeed be a principal vector for spread. 

Perhaps most distressingly, Atlas is reportedly behind Trump's new enthusiasm for "herd immunity," which is the latest euphemism for a non-policy letting the coronavirus run rampant, like a nationwide chicken pox party. Actual scientific experts in disease are uniformly against this idea, because it would dramatically raise the death rate and likely wouldn't restore the economy anytime soon, as huge percentages of the population would continue to stay home rather than be part of President Bleach-Injector's deadly science experiment. 

For pro-choice activists and reproductive health experts, Trump's embrace of a quack in a lab coat is feeling all too familiar. This strategy of putting lies and misinformation in the mouths of people who have an "MD" after their name has been standard practice for the anti-choice movement for decades. This has allowed anti-choice activists to push for policies that harmed public health, especially women's health, while pretending they were doing it in the name of science. The George W. Bush administration, in particular, was fond of using doctors who shamelessly used their medical authority as cover to advocate for harmful ideas with little or no scientific basis. 

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This strategy, as well as those employed to push misinformation about climate science, helped train Republican politicians and conservative voters in the skills being currently used to muddy the waters around the science of the coronavirus pandemic. The result is that more than 6 million Americans are infected and nearly 185,000 have died, and that number is likely to continue growing at an alarming rate, especially as Trump now has a doctor to hide behind when justifying his hostility to public health. 

Bush had a nasty habit of hiring doctors who were eager to use their credentials to justify their promotion of anti-choice propaganda. One of his FDA appointees, Dr. David Hager, was a gynecologist but more importantly a Christian conservative who rarely hesitated to make false claims that depicted both abortion and contraception, which have robust safety records, as medically dangerous. Hager advocated against making emergency contraception available over the counter, falsely implying that doing so posed a threat to the health of teenage girls. Even though the majority of FDA experts disagreed with Hager, the Bush administration blocked the policy based on his opinion.

It later emerged that Hager's ex-wife, Linda Davis, had accused him of abusive behavior during their marriage, alleging that he withheld money unless she had sex with him and giving her sleeping pills so he could sodomize her without consent. Hager is still a popular talking head on the religious right, advocating for using the coronavirus pandemic as an excuse to forcibly cancel women's abortions

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Under the Obama administration, emergency contraception became legal over the counter, without age restrictions. And there has been no measurable effect on the health of women or teenage girls, unless you count the record low rates of teen pregnancy, which are directly attributable to expanded contraception access under Obama.

Another precursor to Atlas is Dr. Eric Keroack, a Bush appointee to oversee a contraception program in Health and Human Services, who was hired because he opposed contraception use. Like Hager, Keroack was happy to leverage his medical degree to put a scientific gloss on misogynist misinformation. He went so far as to claim that women who have premarital sex become physically incapable of experiencing love and bonding in marriage

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Even Trump's reported manipulation of CDC recommendations to reflect his hostility to virus testing has a precursor with the Bush-era war on sexual health care. Under Bush, the CDC altered information on its website about condom use to mislead readers into believing that condoms weren't effective at preventing sexually transmitted infection transmission. 

Beyond just the Bush years, the anti-choice movement in general has a long-standing habit of promoting doctors who will shamefully ignore medical science in order to present their anti-choice and anti-woman views as "science." They even form organizations, like the American Association of Pro-Life Obstetricians and Gynecologists, that will use the auspices of medical science to create the illusion that there's merit to anti-choice myths such as the claim that abortion causes breast cancer (it doesn't), that abortion causes mental illness (it doesn't) or that abortion is more dangerous than childbirth (it's about 14 times safer). 

Trump's coronavirus denialism is spreading past the White House and into the Senate. Earlier this week, Republican Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa echoed a QAnon-linked conspiracy theory accusing doctors and hospitals of exaggerating the number of coronavirus cases and deaths, claiming that clinics profit from falsifying that data. 

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"These health-care providers and others are reimbursed at a higher rate if COVID is tied to it, so what do you think they're doing?" Ernst said. 

In reality, medical researchers believe that coronavirus cases are being undercounted, due to lack of testing. 

This conspiracy theory also has a precursor in the anti-choice movement: The false claim doctors lie about the effectiveness of contraception in order to trick women into having sex and getting pregnant, so they can get that sweet, sweet abortion money. 

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This conspiracy theory was endorsed by Bush's HHS appointee Keroack, who ran a "crisis pregnancy center" that claimed birth control "actually increases (rather than decreases) out-of-wedlock pregnancy and abortion." That myth has since become hardened into common wisdom in the anti-choice world. Abby Johnson, the anti-choice speaker at the Republican National Convention, has repeatedly claimed that contraception access increases the abortion rate by lulling women into believing we "could separate sex from procreation."

It's no surprise that Republican voters so readily sign onto Trump's obvious attempts to spread misinformation about the coronavirus by dressing it up as "science." They've had decades of practice of choosing to believe fake medical science, which is all too often peddled by doctors who should know better. As the Queen in Lewis Carroll's "Through the Looking Glass" astutely observed, the trick in learning to believing impossible things is simply practice. 


Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a politics writer for Salon who covers American politics, feminism and culture. Her new book, "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself" is out now. She can be followed on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte.

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