Words matter

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Science  09 Oct 2020:
Vol. 370, Issue 6513, eabf0577
DOI: 10.1126/science.abf0577

For more than 200 years, U.S. presidents have strived to deliver words of inspiration and humility that will stand the test of time. Even in a contentious debate in which the Oval Office is at stake, we expect a standing president to inspire and unite the country. Not surprisingly, President Donald Trump used the occasion of the first presidential debate of 2020 to deny reality, insult his opponent, and praise himself—all with his customary lean vocabulary.

Over the ages, U.S. presidents have pored over parchment, legal pads, and laptops to create the scripture of the nation: “…the only thing we have to fear is…fear itself,” “a date which will live in infamy,” “ask not what your country can do for you…,” and “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall” resonate ever stronger over time.

There are no such inspiring words today. President Trump has no interest in lifting up Americans or the rest of the world. He only wants to bring society down with his rhetorical carnage. During the past 4 years we’ve heard “very fine people, on both sides,” “I need loyalty,” and “shithole countries.” And from the debate stage, he told one group of militant right-wing thugs to “stand back and stand by,” as if he was asking them to cool it for now while awaiting further orders.

When it comes to the crisis of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), Trump’s words could not be more destructive. When scientists tried to tell him a crisis was coming, he called it “their new hoax.” About the extraordinary number of lives lost he says, “it is what it is.” His plan for conquering the virus is simply that “like a miracle, it will disappear.” His communications strategy is “I always wanted to play it down.” And as for his role as the leader of a country in crisis, he says, “No, I don’t take responsibility at all.” It’s safe to say that Presidents Roosevelt, Kennedy, and Reagan would have said something more comforting and profound.

His words are particularly painful for science. Long days and nights have been spent by scientists working at the bench, fighting to understand the causative virus and methods to defeat it. Epidemiologists have been analyzing their models trying to devise mitigations. Physician-scientists and their colleagues in academic hospitals have developed new approaches to bring down the death rate substantially. And through all this, these researchers rarely have heard one word of acknowledgment from their president. It’s no wonder that the braggart who said, “I alone can fix it” can’t bring himself to admit that he is not the person who will get us through the pandemic. Even with the vaccine that so many have worked toward, Trump has manufactured a rationale by which he is the one who deserves the credit.

Now that Trump himself has been diagnosed with COVID-19, he is seeing first-hand the benefits of the science he has long undermined. The experimental antibody cocktail that he is taking is the fruit of a gargantuan effort by scientists fighting hard to understand the viral spike protein and characteristics of the most potent neutralizing antibodies. That effort stands on the shoulders of decades of fundamental research in immunology and structural biology, science that Trump has insulted and devalued by cutting funding for the National Institutes of Health in every budget he has submitted, but even more so with his words. Words that criticized science for discouraging use of hydroxychloroquine, a drug that he is not taking now that he has COVID-19. Words that discouraged public health interventions that cost lives and led directly to his own superspreader event in the White House’s Rose Garden. Words that painted career scientists at the Food and Drug Administration, who have devoted their lives to protecting the public’s health, as the “deep state.” And words that implied that the only reason scientists were working so hard was because of his compelling exhortations to do him a favor and speed it up. A speedy recovery is hoped for President Trump and everyone who is battling this disease, as science strives to provide an effective vaccine.

Those of us who live in Washington, DC, are surrounded by the words that define America. We can go on long walks to the World War II Memorial, along the Reflecting Pool, and up the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. We can stand where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “I have a dream.” And we can see chiseled into marble the words of Abraham Lincoln: “Let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”

By now, we know that we will not get such uplifting rhetoric from Donald Trump. For the scientists and many others who have made sacrifices to fight this pandemic, we’d settle for just two words. Two words he has a hard time saying. Two words that he has rarely said to the vaccine scientists who have worked 18-hour days, their kids out of school and family members affected by the pandemic. Or to the health care workers, their faces raw from their protective masks and their souls crushed because they are living in self-isolation to protect their families, who have labored in the wards to bring down the death rate. Two words that he says now, only because he has been diagnosed with COVID-19 himself. Two words he should say constantly to those who have borne the battle of COVID-19. Two words Donald Trump struggles to say:

“Thank you.”

  • * Editor’s note: An earlier version of this editorial was published online as “Two words Trump can’t say” prior to the president’s diagnosis of COVID-19.

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