It is a truism in journalism that predicting the future is perilous, mainly because it hasn’t happened yet. So when we publish articles that, over time, prove their prescience, attention ought to be paid.
Our Ideas editor, Yoni Appelbaum, had asked Klain, then a private citizen and now President-elect Joe Biden’s chief of staff, to help our readers understand the risks ahead. Klain, who served as President Barack Obama’s Ebola coordinator, suggested keeping an eye on one question in particular: Whether President Trump could bring himself to listen to Anthony Fauci. That, Klain said, would be key.
In the article that resulted from this conversation, Klain wrote, “Five presidents—liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans—have looked to Tony Fauci for advice; it is not impossible to imagine Trump being the first to angrily dismiss the counsel he offers if it does not fit with his own poor instincts.”
I called Klain the other day to ask him how he knew, to such a granular degree, that the Trump-Fauci relationship would go sideways. “We knew already that Trump has a style of governing that rejects facts and that demands that people see the world his way, that they live in his counterfactual reality,” he said. “He also has a tendency to downplay threats, whatever kind of threats they are. I knew Dr. Fauci well enough to know that he was going to tell the truth and speak out and that sooner or later that would run afoul of the Trump approach to governance.”
Klain was in a unique position to make predictions about COVID-19. As the coordinator of Obama’s successful fight against Ebola, he had developed important knowledge about infectious disease. But he also gained an understanding of Trump’s destructive impact on public health.
“One thing people forget is that after ‘birtherism’ blew up on Trump, he faded from view for a little while and only emerged back into our politics around Ebola,” Klain said. “He was the leading public voice attacking Obama’s Ebola response. His tweets—there are studies that show this—were a main cause of the fear that galvanized around Ebola. He tweeted that the efforts to fight Ebola in West Africa were a mistake, that bringing home the doctor who had contracted Ebola in West Africa was a mistake—he said he should be left to die. Trump was completely unhinged from science, and this had a significant impact on the public psyche. It gave me an early indication of how he would handle a pandemic.”
What did Klain learn by watching Trump? Overpromising solutions in a pandemic is dangerous, but so is under-promising: “One of the reasons we’re in the mess we’re in is that President Trump believed, or simply said, that this virus would be gone like a miracle. It would be gone by Easter; it will be gone by Memorial Day.”
Biden, Klain said, will take a more nuanced approach. “President-elect Biden is very clear in saying that COVID is not going to go away in 100 days, that life will not go back to normal in 100 days. But it’s important for a leader in this situation to offer a mix of realism and hope. I don’t think you’re going to get people to participate in a response if you tell them that the slog goes on forever, that there are no midpoints, no progress. But you just can’t overpromise.”
What to read if … you’re looking to better understand the current state of the outbreak: