He proceeded to demand a “a focus on speed, and saving lives.” But the reference to Election Day was the giveaway: The question for Mr. Trump was not simply whether the F.D.A. was dragging its feet or elevating medical caution over the urgency of a vaccine. That is a legitimate debate that must weigh the unknown long-term effects of an insufficiently tested vaccine with the known and immediate effects of its unavailability. By contrast, Mr. Trump was concerned not with prudential or objective assessments of proposed vaccines but rather with their “effectual truth.” By definition, the F.D.A. was moving too slowly because moving more quickly would help him politically.
A degree of skepticism can be a healthy disposition. Politically, it encourages the wariness of concentrated power appropriate to a republic. Intellectually, it values a prudent humility about what we can know over the certitude to which expertise is often prone.
But skepticism as a system for interpreting the world — which conservatives might once have called “nihilism” — is different from skepticism as a disposition. Systematic skepticism axiomatically questions the truth or relevance of anything that does not serve Mr. Trump’s personal ambition.
What has happened since the pandemic arrived in the United States has simply been the application of that system of thought to unfolding events. What is good for Mr. Trump is good for the nation, and a pandemic is not good for Mr. Trump. That is a more plausible explanation for his early denials than the president’s claim that he downplayed the coronavirus to prevent panic. Honesty about dangers, and a clear strategy for overcoming them, prevent panic. Lies fuel it, unless the panic to which Mr. Trump referred was personal fear about his own interests.
As a result of all this, the still evolving science surrounding Covid-19 is routinely interpreted based on its perceived effects on Mr. Trump’s re-election. The president’s personal refusal to wear a mask except when it seems politically convenient to do so — and his outright mocking of those have worn them — has transformed the single most effective device for preventing contagion into a statement of political loyalties. That has vastly more to do with the pandemic’s tragic toll than Mr. Trump’s policy choices do.
A Republican sheriff in Florida recently went as far as banning masks for deputies on duty and even for visitors to his office. The sheriff’s reasoning about wearing masks, which made national news, was rooted in systematic skepticism. He claimed that the effectiveness of masks was disproved by the fact that someone, somewhere, disputed it: “The fact is, the amount of professionals that give the reasons we should, I can find the exact same amount of professionals that say why we shouldn’t.” On the other side of the landscape lie Trump supporters who claim that his lies are obvious and transparent whoppers that no one believes, which is evidently untrue.
At this point, there is every reason to worry that a vaccine will be approved on an emergency basis before its safety has been fully established. The absurdity of the situation distills to this: Pharmaceutical executives, who have pledged not to seek authorization for a vaccine until adequate scientific evidence is gathered, are now acting as a check on federal regulators rather than the other way around.