The Pro-Trump Culture War on American Scientists
Some are trying to turn the lab-leak theory into a potent political weapon.
Two questions have dominated politics throughout the coronavirus pandemic. Democrats and public-health experts have asked: What should we do? Former President Donald Trump, for his part, minimized the need to act. He instead spoke incessantly about a very different question: Whom should we blame?
“In recent months, our nation and the world has been hit by the once-in-a-century pandemic that China allowed to spread around the globe. They could have stopped it, but they allowed it to come out,” Trump said as he accepted the Republican Party’s nomination in August 2020.
“It’s China’s fault. It should have never happened,” he said at a presidential debate with Joe Biden in September 2020.
“We built the greatest economy in the world; it was horribly interrupted by something that should have never happened, came in from China—the plague. The plague from China,” he said on Fox & Friends on the morning of Election Day 2020. There are hundreds of similar examples from the president and his inner circle.
In November 2020, a solid majority of American voters decided that the first of the two questions—What should we do?—was more urgent, and that Biden and his party offered the better answer.
But now that Biden’s administration is succeeding at bringing the pandemic under control within the United States, Trump’s preferred alternative question—Whom should we blame?—is reclaiming attention.
Trump’s question was of course, from the beginning, politically motivated. He and his supporters hoped that if enough Americans blamed China for creating the problem, that blame would somehow exonerate Trump from so callously mismanaging it. More than that: Trump and his supporters hoped that if enough Americans blamed China for creating the problem, they would agree that he ranked as its most pitiable victim. As Gabriel Sherman reported for Vanity Fair in May 2020:
As he headed into Memorial Day weekend … “He was just in a fucking rage,” said a person who spoke with Trump late last week. “He was saying, ‘This is so unfair to me! Everything was going great. We were cruising to reelection!”
The public’s rejection of Trump’s attempt to deploy blame as an excuse does not, however, make the question go away.
Early on, it became clear that Chinese authorities were lying about the disease’s human toll. Nick Paton of CNN in December 2020 reported on 117 pages of internal Chinese government documents suggesting that the local authorities in Wuhan had massively underreported COVID-19 infections in the early weeks of the outbreak. In January 2021, HBO aired a documentary by the director Nanfu Wang minutely detailing the Chinese undercount.
From the beginning, though, many have suspected the Chinese authorities of concealing an even darker secret about the outbreak than China’s count of the sick and the dead. Those doubters suspected that the Chinese were also lying about how the outbreak started. They suspected that the official story of a spread from bats to humans was an excuse to conceal the fact that the virus had originated in a Chinese lab.
If you read the responsible American press, you likely first heard of those suspicions only from the reports denouncing and rebutting them. On January 29, 2020, The Washington Post ran a story headlined: “Experts Debunk Fringe Theory Linking China’s Coronavirus to Weapons Research.” When Senator Tom Cotton voiced suspicions in February, The New York Times headlined its report: “Senator Tom Cotton Repeats Fringe Theory of Coronavirus Origins.”
Over time, the suspicious modulated their accusation a little. In the spring of 2020, Trump world was also arguing that the virus was no big deal, no reason to shut down the U.S. economy. The president and his supporters wanted to argue that masking was stupid and that public-heath officials were hysterical. You couldn’t argue both that the virus was absurdly exaggerated and that it had begun its existence as a Chinese superweapon. By the time Secretary of State Mike Pompeo endorsed a lab-origin theory of the virus in May 2020, the suspicion about the virus’s origin had been downgraded from “superweapon” to “medical experiment gone wrong.”
Despite this softening, the scientific community for the most part continued to emphatically reject the lab-origin theory. Past pandemics had started when a virus leaped from animals or birds to people, so why should this new coronavirus be any different? U.S. scientists were perhaps also influenced by their respect for their Chinese counterparts. While Chinese officials had tried to stifle the flow of information to the rest of the world, Chinese scientists had generally proved highly cooperative with their Western counterparts. When Chinese scientists cracked the virus’s genetic code early in January 2020, they promptly posted full results for all to read. That did not seem to most Western scientists to be the behavior of conspirators.
When the Trump administration ended in January, even Pompeo’s State Department had to admit uncertainty in its final official statement about the coronavirus pandemic:
The U.S. government does not know exactly where, when, or how the COVID-19 virus—known as SARS-CoV-2—was transmitted initially to humans. We have not determined whether the outbreak began through contact with infected animals or was the result of an accident at a laboratory in Wuhan, China.
The virus could have emerged naturally from human contact with infected animals, spreading in a pattern consistent with a natural epidemic. Alternatively, a laboratory accident could resemble a natural outbreak if the initial exposure included only a few individuals and was compounded by asymptomatic infection. Scientists in China have researched animal-derived coronaviruses under conditions that increased the risk for accidental and potentially unwitting exposure.
Scientists can live with uncertainty. Politics abhors it.
Through 2021, advocates of the lab-escape theory have become more emphatic and explicit.
Trump’s former CDC director endorsed the lab-accident theory in March. “I am of the point of view that I still think the most likely etiology of this pathogen in Wuhan was from a laboratory, escaped,” Robert Redfield said in an interview on CNN. Redfield acknowledged, however, that “other people don’t believe that. That’s fine. Science will eventually figure it out.” Through the spring, journalistic interest in the lab-escape theory jumped the barrier from the Fox News universe to more centrist media.
Then, earlier this month, the science reporter Nicholas Wade published an argument for taking the laboratory-origin hypothesis seriously. Wade’s case was fortified by thick scientific detail and the prestige of his byline: He was for many years an eminent science reporter at Nature and The New York Times. And the article was spiced with an extra-exciting ingredient: It accused not only the Chinese state but also the U.S. scientific community of complicity in a cover-up.
If the case that SARS2 originated in a lab is so substantial, why isn’t this more widely known? As may now be obvious, there are many people who have reason not to talk about it. The list is led, of course, by the Chinese authorities. But virologists in the United States and Europe have no great interest in igniting a public debate about the gain-of-function experiments that their community has been pursuing for years …
The US government shares a strange common interest with the Chinese authorities: Neither is keen on drawing attention to the fact that Shi’s coronavirus work was funded by the US National Institutes of Health. One can imagine the behind-the-scenes conversation in which the Chinese government says, “If this research was so dangerous, why did you fund it, and on our territory too?” To which the US side might reply, “Looks like it was you who let it escape. But do we really need to have this discussion in public?”
Even better for the pro-Trump world, Wade extended his criticism to the mainstream media too:
To my knowledge, no major newspaper or television network has yet provided readers with an in-depth news story of the lab escape scenario, such as the one you have just read, although some have run brief editorials or opinion pieces … What accounts for the media’s apparent lack of curiosity?
The virologists’ omertà is one reason. Science reporters, unlike political reporters, have little innate skepticism of their sources’ motives; most see their role largely as purveying the wisdom of scientists to the unwashed masses. So when their sources won’t help, these journalists are at a loss.
Another reason, perhaps, is the migration of much of the media toward the left of the political spectrum. Because President Trump said the virus had escaped from a Wuhan lab, editors gave the idea little credence. They joined the virologists in regarding lab escape as a dismissible conspiracy theory.
If there is any group of people more disliked by Trump supporters than Chinese Communists, it is the U.S. scientific community. For months, scientists had irritated Trump supporters by not falling in line with the pro-Trump argument that the coronavirus was much exaggerated and no big deal.
Anthony Fauci in particular has become a hate figure to the pro-Trump world and the Fox News network. It’s weird, it’s hard to explain, but it is an organizing fact of American politics: More than Biden, more than Vice President Kamala Harris, more than any Democrat in Congress other than Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Fauci has become the emblem and totem of everything that Trumpists resent. Abuse. Name calling. Mob chants for his firing. Even thinly veiled calls for violence. All has been directed at Fauci. In the minds of the core Trump cadre, Fauci is the real culprit in Trump’s defeat.
So when Fauci testified in the Senate a few days after Wade’s article appeared, Senator Rand Paul made the most of it. “Dr. Fauci, do you still support … NIH funding of the lab in Wuhan?” Paul asked. Fauci denied that the National Institutes of Health supported so-called gain-of-function research in Wuhan, but that made no difference. Paul was relying on an authority more respected in Trump world than any scientist: the Fox News Tucker Carlson monologue of the night before.
Wade lays out a nearly insurmountably large amount of evidence that this virus originated at the Wuhan Institute of Virology in central China. It seems to make sense. This show and others have raised the possibility from the early days of the pandemic. But this piece all but proves it. At the time the outbreak began last fall, the Wuhan lab was conducting experiments on how to make bat viruses infectious to human beings. Those experiments were funded by American tax dollars. Those experiments, their funding, was approved and directed by Tony Fauci in Washington. By Tony Fauci. That is hard to believe, but it’s true, and the piece lays it out.
Republicans in the House and Senate are now demanding formal investigations not only of the virus’s origin, but of the American scientific community’s role as well.
In many ways, what is happening is highly reminiscent of the anti-Communist battles of the late 1940s and early 1950s. In those days, the United States faced a dangerous external challenge from Soviet Communism. Isolationist Republicans had little interest in meeting that challenge: It would cost money and implied foreign commitments. They opposed the Marshall Plan, NATO, everything that really mattered. Instead, they used the foreign threat to justify launching a purge against an enemy within: domestic ideological opponents.
The United States is today in danger of repeating that sorry history. Pro-Trumpers want to use Chinese misconduct—real and imagined—as a weapon in a culture war here at home. They are not interested in weighing the evidence. They want payback for the political and cultural injuries inflicted on them by the scientists. They want Fauci to have time in the barrel.
What the rest of us should want is the truth.
Although the Biden administration should defend U.S. scientists against partisan defamation, it has no reason to protect China against the truth, whatever that may be. In April, Biden’s director of national intelligence testified to the Senate that the intelligence community remained open to the two possibilities that the virus “emerged naturally from human contact with infected animals or it was a laboratory accident.” CIA Director William Burns concurred, adding that “the Chinese leadership has not been fully forthcoming or fully transparent.” The only thing that is certain is that these leaders are starting to disbelieve the Chinese story that the virus originated in the Wuhan markets where live animals are sold.
By actively seeking the truth, the Biden administration will deny the Trump dead-enders the culture-war weapon they want. In the pursuit of the truth, the Biden administration can recruit as allies the scientists whom the Trumpists want to malign as enemies. Eighteen distinguished academics published an open letter in Science on May 14 describing both the species-jump theory and the lab-accident theory as equally “viable”—and urging an objective and impartial investigation.
More than scientific expertise may be required to reach the truth. The truth may depend less on analysis of the virus itself and more on intelligence from inside the Chinese government. Very possibly—and this theory is often heard from intelligence officials—the Chinese national authorities themselves do not know for certain how the virus originated. If there was a lab mistake, the people culpable in that mistake may be very frightened of their own government, and may have organized their own cover-up to protect themselves. One big reveal from the early phase of the coronavirus disaster is that local Chinese big shots can often effectively deceive and frustrate their own national government.
What we can know is this:
The people who supported this failed president should have no standing to accuse anybody else of fronting for China.
It was Trump who wasted crucial time in December 2019 and January 2020 by gullibly accepting Chinese assurances that all was okay. Trump had started a trade war, was losing it, and wanted a face-saving deal to goose the stock market in an election year. He praised the Chinese state and Xi Jinping at least 15 times in those decisive early days, according to a tally by Politico.
Trump supporters called on seniors to die for the economy. They mocked the masks that stopped the spread. They disparaged the vaccines that are bringing the pandemic to an end.
Trump’s supporters have no interest in the truth about the virus’s origin, whatever that truth ultimately proves to be. They care about attention-grabbing conflicts with fellow Americans, not about real-world problems. And if the Chinese state has more culpability for the pandemic than acknowledged to date, that is one hell of a real-world problem.
The Biden administration can defeat this squalid scheme to convert a real-world problem into a culture-war battlefield by acting fast and tough to take possession of the truth about the virus. If the current knowledge of the truth is ambiguous, it’s okay to say that too—and to say it loud, say it clear, and say it frequently. The faster that problem is transferred from self-seeking outrage merchants to rational actors who can actually do something about it, the better for the United States and the world.