Donald Trump’s presidency performs a great service for the world. It is to lay bare our vulnerabilities. He reveals the fragility of institutions once thought to be rock-solid (the Republican Party, the free press, the FBI, NATO, NAFTA…). And he highlights new threats whose urgency many of us hadn’t yet appreciated—like foreign cyber influence in democratic elections, or algorithms that subdivide ‘public discourse’ into a collection of tribal rallies.
The great harm that Donald Trump’s presidency performs is to steal our attention away from so many other threats.
For me, the starkest example of the latter came this past week, when the US Centers for Disease Control announced plans to scale back its Global Health Security initiative, put in place in the aftermath of West Africa’s 2014 Ebola epidemic. Few people noticed that boorish headline, coming as it did the same day as news that the new Trump-appointed head of the CDC, Brenda Fitzgerald, was resigning under scandal for a conflict of interest: after her appointment, she recently invested heavily into Big Tobacco.
The logic for setting up and funding the Global Health Security Agenda (GHSA) was as pure and simple as policy-making can get:
- The next pandemic is coming. We know this because, as we all witness every year, Nature never gives up trying to make a deadlier flu.
- It is far cheaper to prevent a pandemic than to fight one after it breaks out.
- The hot spots where the next pandemic is most likely to emerge are also the countries least able to prevent, detect and respond to outbreaks.
The 2014 Ebola epidemic that hit Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia was supposed to be the case that spurred developed-world governments to act upon this obvious logic. Ebola causes massive bleeding throughout the body and kills 50% to 90% of the healthy people it infects. In research labs, it is stored with the same precautions as anthrax and smallpox, and for a brief time in 2014 it roamed free in West African cities linked to the world by air- and seaports. By 2015, over 11,000 people had died in the region. It nearly became a global catastrophe. It could have been isolated to a single village—with proper preventive measures.
To its credit, the US Congress did act in 2014—with a five-year, $600 million funding boost to the CDC to bolster global health security. The new money has seen the CDC train disease detectives and strengthen emergency response in countries where disease risks are greatest. The goal is to stop future outbreaks at their source. (Last year, CDC-trained responders quickly contained just such an outbreak of Ebola in Congo.)
Relative to the risks, $120 million per year is a cheap insurance policy. (The 2014 Ebola outbreak, which didn’t reach US shores, still cost US taxpayers $5.4 billion in federal emergency funding, and tens of millions more in overseas military deployment, municipal prevention efforts and global business disruptions.)
In 2019, that insurance policy runs out. Every indication is that the Trump Administration will not renew it: his budget for 2018 calls for an 18% cut to Health & Human Services, which includes the CDC. It also calls for the CDC’s sister program at USAID—another $72 million budget for global health security—to be eliminated entirely.
With no new money in its future, the CDC has already begun scaling back its preventive programs—in the very same hot spots where, over the past four years, it has prevented outbreaks.
What big questions might this story make us think about? For me, there are three.
First, what time horizon does Donald Trump consider when he decides what to do with his presidency, and what does that mean for the rest of us? A story in The New Yorker about Trump’s speech at Davos two weeks ago said this:
Trump spoke to the only reality he is ordinarily capable of perceiving: right here, right now. As is normal for Trump, his rhetoric implicitly denied the very possibility of a tomorrow in which his Administration’s policies may have consequences beyond an immediate market boost.
When it comes to ‘Making America Great Again’, Donald Trump’s metrics of greatness are so short-term, they are practically ephemeral: the price of the US dollar, the level of the Dow or the NASDAQ, last month’s unemployment figures.
Yes, the short-term matters. Sometimes, it’s all that matters. But often, the long-term matters more. I’d encourage my American cousins, especially in American media, to force Trump to draw the line he sees between his present actions and long-term prosperity. How will his proposed cuts to Health & Human Services help to secure Americans against the next pandemic? How will his healthcare reforms reverse the fall in US life expectancy? How will his tax plan help reinvent US education, industrial relations and social security for a more automated, AI-assisted, gig economy?
Second, what time horizon do we consider? I, personally, spend a lot more time each week laughing with Stephen Colbert about unflattering images of Donald Trump playing tennis than I do encouraging my elected representative to invest more of my tax dollars into pandemic preparedness. The former comes straight to my lap each morning while I munch my Cheerios; the latter seems far, far out of my way. And yet, if and when the next global health crisis does come, that crisis will flip from ‘nowhere on no one’s to-do list’ to ‘the only thing on everyone’s list.’
Third, how on earth might we change our time horizon—or even believe that it’s possible to choose it? Our technology is luring us into a shorter and shorter awareness of ‘now.’ Our electoral and market cycles lure us into short-term decision-making. And in a world full of ‘disruption’, ‘the long term’ is so unknowable that it seems foolish to plan too much around it. Yet many of the biggest threats to our future can only be met with a long-term view.
I don’t know how we solve that paradox. But the first step, I think, is simply to recognize that the flip-side of attention is inattention. Those of us (like me) who have become so interested in the daily ‘fire and fury’ of Trumplandia, must now be less interested in a bunch of other things. That’s the honest price we pay for our fixations. Here in the UK, where Brexit is…well, no one really knows what’s happening right now with Brexit, and that’s one of the big fears growing among long-term civil servants. Whichever way Brexit goes, whatever happens, whole years of government time, attention and salaries will be spent doing something that might have tremendous symbolic importance, but which probably won’t leave the public any better off, in tangible terms. It might, however, make us worse off if, in the future, it turns out we neglected something we shouldn’t have.
Our fixations are costly. We might one day arrive face-to-face with a fresh crisis and wish we had spent more attention elsewhere…