Editor’s Note: Michael D’Antonio is the author of the book “Never Enough: Donald Trump and the Pursuit of Success” and co-author with Peter Eisner of “The Shadow President: The Truth About Mike Pence.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are the author’s. View more opinion articles on CNN.
In the middle of a global measles outbreak, the wife of White House communications chief Bill Shine, Darla Shine, is boosting the dangerous anti-vaccine movement. After falsely tweeting that the measles vaccine won’t confer lifelong immunity, she boldly declared, “Bring back our #ChildhoodDiseases they keep you healthy & fight cancer.”
As any physician will tell you, Shine is entirely wrong. Before the two-shot measles-mumps-rubella vaccine was introduced, thousands of Americans were hospitalized and hundred died of measles each year.
However, anti-vaccine propagandists have made vaccinations part of their culture war on science. They want the freedom to ignore their obligation to help establish the “herd immunity” that protects even infants too young for vaccines. And they have gotten plenty of support from President Donald Trump.
Trump first weighed in on vaccines in 2012 on Twitter, writing, “Massive combined inoculations to small children is the cause for big increase in autism….” Then, he tweeted two months later, “Autism rates through the roof–why doesn’t the Obama administration do something about doctor-inflicted autism.” And he tweeted these falsehoods despite the fact that countless of scientific studies have concluded that there is no link between vaccines and autism.
The danger, of course, is that Trump is eroding public confidence in authorities like the Centers for Disease Control, which strongly recommend vaccination. And no number of CDC bulletins will undo the damage that he has done. It’s critical Americans at large battle the anti-vaccine movement. As the measles outbreak spreads across the country, we cannot ignore our children – who are often at greatest risk of contracting the illness.
Of course, the tactic of raising doubt in order to undermine science is not new. For many years, tobacco companies used this trick – questioning the medical community’s assessment that smoking put Americans’ health at grave risk. More recently, opponents of efforts to address climate change have paralyzed US policy by manufacturing doubt about the science used to predict changing weather patterns. (Trump only fuels climate change doubt when he tweets about it following snow storms and cold temperatures.)
But when it comes to sowing doubt about vaccinations, Trump has been particularly aggressive. In 2014, Trump reported on Twitter: “Healthy young child goes to doctor, gets pumped with massive shot of many vaccines, doesn’t feel good and changes - AUTISM. Many such cases!” In that same year, he declared, “If I were President I would push for proper vaccinations but would not allow one time massive shots that a small child cannot take - AUTISM.”
Obviously, Trump saw an advantage in opposing scientists and other experts whom he could vilify as lacking the commonsense which he and, presumably, his supporters possess in abundance. According to Trump logic, you shouldn’t even trust your child’s pediatrician and should, instead, trust your instincts.
Trump’s instinct, which he cited when he and I discussed immunizations in 2014, was that shots that children get to prevent measles, mumps and rubella are too much for their bodies to handle. In other words, he seemed to think that scientists either didn’t know what they were doing or had some ulterior motive.
Either way, Trump was arguing that his instincts were superior to the expertise and experience of the entire field of immunology. To quote CNN’s chief medical correspondent Sanjay Gupta, while we do not know what was causes autism, we know that “vaccines do not.”
Unfortunately, as Trump repeatedly demonstrated, he is as immune to facts as vaccinated children are to measles. Despite the outrage expressed by experts, Trump has never corrected the record. Instead, as a candidate, he consulted with a British physician who lost his medical license over fraudulent research on the topic. (The physician produced a documentary in which he argues he did nothing wrong.) And during the presidential transition period, Trump speculated about forming a committee to investigate the false controversy over autism and vaccines.
Why can’t Trump accept the science in this case? Well, first of all, he hates to admit error, and accepting the facts now would mean reversing his initial positions. Also, the anti-vaccine position aligns with his general tendency to dismiss experts and promote himself as an authority. The President believes that his “gut” can tell him more than “anybody else’s brain.”
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That was what he meant when he declared during his campaign, “I alone can fix it.” The specific reference was to politics, but the attitude extends to every realm – terrorism, taxes, energy, trade, even health.
As skeptic-in-chief, Trump exploits a longstanding American tradition of anti-intellectualism that makes scientists and professors seem impractical and untrustworthy figures who need to be resisted. They are elitists – and are therefore untrustworthy. The latest twist in this practice is the specious claim that climate researchers do their work not out of scientific interest, but in order to get rich.
Since becoming President, Trump has largely kept silent on vaccines. But his silence provides cover for Shine to call concern about measles “hysteria” and falsely claim that Baby Boomers benefitted from contracting the disease.