Peter Navarro isn’t a doctor, but he plays one on TV. And in the Situation Room. And, it turns out, in memos to the president.
Recently, the Trump trade adviser who is, as CNN’s John Berman put it, “a social scientist with no medical training,” clashed with Dr. Anthony Fauci, a real expert who says we do not currently know whether hydroxychloroquine, a yet unproven treatment of COVID-19, will work.
In fairness to Navarro, he is something of a Cassandra, having warned the White House about the dangers of a pandemic back in January.
But those warnings were issued via internal memos, the second of which was left unsigned. Unlike with his support of hydroxychloroquine (a position that puts him in Trump’s good graces), Navarro did not immediately take to the airwaves of CNN to aggressively make the case for taking the coronavirus seriously.
Still, Navarro’s zeal for boosting this yet-unproven treatment makes perfect sense, at least for this White House and this president. Donald Trump has to believe things are going to magically work out, and acolytes like Navarro have every incentive to endorse a plausible happy ending premise.
This puts more cautious advisers like Dr. Fauci in a tough spot. If we’ve learned anything, it’s that the real experts stand little chance when matched against Trumpian acolytes. Aside from the brain drain, this leads to a situation where Trumpian wish-casting doesn’t just go unchallenged: It gets egged on. This is bad enough when we’re not in a global pandemic. If we’re not careful, we could end up listening to Dr. Oz.
The thing to understand is that Trump desperately needs to believe in a deus ex machina. This is a guy who literally said, “It’s going to disappear. One day, it’s like a miracle, it will disappear.”
And—I want to be clear—maybe hydroxychloroquine will be a game changer. But maybe it won’t. Or maybe (perhaps this is the most likely scenario) hydroxychloroquine will moderately help some patients, while proving to have dangerous side effects that make it impractical for others. On top of that, there are reports that patients who depend on the drug for other maladies are now having trouble locating it.
We just don’t know, which suggests that it’s wildly premature for a president to publicly hype it. And yet, he does. Constantly.
In so doing, he is violating every rule of both responsible, prudent governance and public relations.
Leaders must give hope, but false hope only demoralizes, which is the last thing we need in the event that this turns is a marathon, not a sprint. Imagine you are running a race and you believe that you have just two more miles to go, so you put everything you have into those two miles. And then, you find out that there are really 10 more miles to the finish line. Do you make it? That’s the danger with raising our hopes about some quick fix solution. Oh yeah, and there’s also the fact that people might hear your words and then, like, you know, start drinking fish tank cleanser.
Most normal political aides would advise a president to downplay this miracle drug—to “under-promise and over-achieve.” That way, if it pans out, then the president looks good, but if it falls through, he doesn’t look foolish.
This is why any worth-his-salt commercial airplane pilot will overestimate how long your ground delay is supposed to take. If he tells you you’re going to sit there for an hour, but you actually take off 30 minutes late, he’s suddenly a hero. If he tells you it’s going to take five minutes, but it really takes 30, you’re ready to start flipping over Delta bar carts and deploying that inflatable emergency slide.
But Trump psychologically needs this to work, and he keeps asking, “What have we got to lose?” How about hope? Or, how about the fact that, according to the experts, there could be very serious (maybe deadly) side effects and complications. The “What do you have to lose?” line strikes me as a metaphor for Trumpism, writ large. The question was literally asked of African-American voters in 2016, but it was implicitly asked to all of us. And if you were a down-and-out working class guy in the Rust Belt, perhaps it resonated.
Don’t write off the efficacy of this admittedly desperate appeal. But please, please be advised, my friends, we still do have a lot to lose.
And it’s more than just Donald Trump’s re-election chances. Or Peter Navarro’s reputation as a medical expert.