After all this time, most of us realize that Donald Trump is a Russian asset. Not that he’s a secret mole necessarily or even The Manchurian Candidate, but Vladimir Putin plays him like a balalaika strumming Song of the Volga Boatmen.
No one but the two of them knows with absolute certainty why this is—whether it’s money-related (probably) or something else—but unwittingly or not, the cash-strapped president’s certainly playing the “useful idiot” role so beloved in spy fiction and such TV shows as “Homeland.” Doubtless to Putin’s delight, a second term would see an even more concerted effort on Trump’s part to tear apart the NATO alliance and other vital international coalitions, not to mention a further fracturing of these United States.
What’s more, the intelligence community has made us aware, in no uncertain terms, that Russian cybermeddling in our election is still hammering away at American social media with trolls, bots and fake websites favoring Trump, and that he has been informed that Rudy Giuliani is a primary conduit for made-in-Russia leaks and misinformation about Joe Biden and his son Hunter. Trump waved the allegations aside.
One of Rudy’s main sources is discredited Ukrainian Andriy Derkach, described by the US Treasury department as “an active Russian agent for over a decade, maintaining close connections with the Russian intelligence services.” Nonetheless, Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post has been publishing this rubbish (to the horror of many in its newsroom) and the primetime marionettes of Fox have pumped and bumped the story like a trumpet, even though the channel’s own news department doubted its veracity.
But this week, what strikes me as particularly in the style of the old Soviet Union are the actions of Dr. Scott Atlas, the neuroradiologist with absolutely no experience in virology, immunology or public health who Trump has plucked from the toxic airwaves of Fox to take over the increasingly moribund coronavirus task force.
As per The Washington Post:
Atlas shot down attempts to expand testing. He openly feuded with other doctors on the coronavirus task force and succeeded in largely sidelining them. He advanced fringe theories, such as that social distancing and mask-wearing were meaningless and would not have changed the course of the virus in several hard-hit areas. And he advocated allowing infections to spread naturally among most of the population while protecting the most vulnerable and those in nursing homes until the United States reaches herd immunity, which experts say would cause excess deaths, according to three current and former senior administration officials.
Atlas also cultivated Trump’s affection with his public assertions that the pandemic is nearly over, despite death and infection counts showing otherwise, and his willingness to tell the public that a vaccine could be developed before the Nov. 3 election, despite clear indications of a slower timetable.
Atlas’s ascendancy was apparent during a recent Oval Office meeting. After Trump left the room, Atlas startled other aides by walking behind the Resolute Desk and occupying the president’s personal space to keep the meeting going, according to one senior administration official. Atlas called this account ‘false and laughable.’
Colleagues described Atlas as “ill-informed, manipulative and at times dishonest.” So as I read and listened to these reports, the someone who Atlas’ actions and personality reminded me of the most was a controversial figure from the Soviet Union’s Stalinist era: Trofim Lysenko – a man who, as Sam Kean wrote for The Atlantic a few years ago, “probably killed more human beings than any individual scientist in history.”
Lysenko, a biologist—sort of—rejected the science of genetics in favor of screwy theories that said the environment in which crops are grown was far more important than a plant species’ genetic code. Food could be made to grow in the dead of winter, for example, if you soaked the seeds in cold water.
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His nutty ideas were embraced by Soviet officials as properly Marxist. Russia was wracked by famine and death. Collective farms were a failure so Stalin put Lysenko in charge. The pseudoscientist helped make it even worse. Kean notes, “Wheat, rye, potatoes, beets—most everything grown according to Lysenko’s methods died or rotted… Stalin still deserves the bulk of the blame for the famines, which killed at least 7 million people, but Lysenko’s practices prolonged and exacerbated the food shortages. (Deaths from the famines peaked around 1932 to 1933, but four years later, after a 163-fold increase in farmland cultivated using Lysenko’s methods, food production was actually lower than before.)”
Communist China adopted his methods, too—30 million died from starvation.
Russian scientists who dissented from the Lysenko school of humbug wound up denounced and jobless. Many were sent to prison and several were executed. His influence finally waned after the death of Stalin in 1953 although he remained at his job until 1965. Lysenko set back Russian agriculture by at least half a century.
Oddly enough, in Putin’s Russia today, there has been a bit of a revival of interest in Lysenko’s crackpot theories, in part because of an overall distrust in science and expertise. In other words, if Trump and Dr. Scott Atlas are any indication, Lysenko would fit right in at this White House.
Despite having contracted coronavirus himself, Trump still eschews masks and social distancing, attacks the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the FDA, then insults Dr. Anthony Fauci, the pandemic’s trusted voice of reason, as “an idiot” and “a disaster.” He mocks Joe Biden for listening to “the scientists,” says he’s “tired of covid,” of talking about and hearing about the pandemic, poor thing. He’d rather throw mudballs, hurl scurrilous QAnon conspiracy theories, egg on armed extremists and yell at his rallies that he wants to throw Biden in jail on bogus criminal charges – anything to distract and keep from talking about an estimated 225,000 dead Americans by Election Day, 400,000 by year’s end. In fact, according to the CDC, if we count undiagnosed cases and COVID-related sickness and death, the terrible human toll already is closer to 300,000.
COVID-19 is on the rise in forty states. On Sunday’s Meet the Press, Dr. Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, warned Chuck Todd, “The next six-to-12 weeks are going to be the darkest of the entire pandemic. Vaccines will not become available in any meaningful way until early to third quarter of next year. And even then, half of the U.S. population, at this point, is skeptical of even taking the vaccine… [P]eople don't know what to believe. And that's one of our huge challenges going forward, is we've got to get the message to the public that reflects the science and reflects reality.”
But the message from Trump and Dr. Atlas remains one of denial. Trump says the disease “is disappearing,” that a vaccine is imminent. And just this past weekend, Atlas tried tweeting that masks are useless, only to have his message rejected by Twitter for misinformation. Although Atlas denies he supports the idea of herd immunity – letting the disease rage through the population until it burns out – he recently endorsed the so-called “Great Barrington Declaration,” a pro-herd immunity document conjured by researchers affiliated with the libertarian American Institute for Economic Research and, as reported by The New York Times opposed by eighty “alarmed and angry” experts believing that “the declaration’s approach would endanger Americans who have underlying conditions that put them at high risk from severe Covid-19—at least one-third of U.S. citizens, by most estimates—and result in perhaps a half-million deaths.”
The bottom line is that Trump suffers from a different virulent disease, a callous indolence complicated by indifference and a lack of compassion, not to be unexpected from a lazy and ignorant man who has never worked an honest day in his life. When the nation fell deathly ill, he failed to do what needed to be done and now embraces Atlas as an expert who reverse engineers the president’s lassitude and apathy and tries to make it look like smart policy. Marc Lipsitch, director of Harvard’s Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics said it well, telling The Washington Post, “If your goal is to do nothing, then you create a situation in which it looks okay to do nothing [and] you find some experts to make it complicated.”
If you would seek an elected official who seems to know what he’s doing—at least on the pandemic front—look again to New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo, who, for all his many faults and infuriating anti-reform efforts, has managed to preside over a largely successful statewide campaign against COVID. (Although as The New Yorker's Nick Paumgarten recently pointed out, "Many of the moves Cuomo made in the earliest days of the pandemic were indicative of a governing style often hampered by political calculation and personal pique.")
Watch his media briefing this past Sunday, when he made a thoughtful presentation on vaccines and what needs to be addressed before successful inoculations can be administered to vast numbers of people. Some have suggested that he would make an excellent pandemic czar in a Biden administration; theoretically, a job he could hold while continuing as governor—much as Fiorello LaGuardia ran the nation’s civil defense during World War II yet remained mayor of New York City.
In Scott Atlas, Donald Trump has found his Dr. Death, a Lysenko-like sidekick to the Superman that the president fantasizes himself to be. Yet in reality, this horrific pandemic turns out to be the Kryptonite that may take away his real and imagined political powers and send him, weakened and alone, back to the dark Bizarro world from whence he came.