Joe Biden has been largely staying out of President Trump's self-destructive way.Credit...Hannah Yoon for The New York Times
I almost — but not quite — feel sorry for Donald Trump. He's at war with two "invisible enemies" at once — the coronavirus and Joe Biden — and both remain highly elusive, the pathogen by nature and the politician by design.
Biden, who made a rare public appearance on Tuesday, has been wise to stay out of sight. Trump is now in a full-on race to the bottom with himself, pushing uglier and uglier positions that appeal to smaller and smaller segments of the American public. Why get in his way?
Of course, eventually Biden will debate the incumbent and will need a simple, clear message to counter Trump's tired "Make America Great Again" trope.
I have an idea for Biden's bumper sticker.
As I think about what kind of president Biden wants to be and what kind of president America needs him to be, the slogan that comes to mind was suggested to me by the environmental innovator Hal Harvey. Harvey didn't know he was suggesting it; he just happened to sign off a recent email to me by writing: "Respect science, respect nature, respect each other."
I thought — wow, that's a perfect message for Biden, and for all of us. It summarizes so simply the most important values Americans feel that we've lost in recent years and hope to regain from a post-Trump presidency.
Biden should highlight his commitment to all three values in every speech and interview he gives. They draw such a clear, simple and easy to remember contrast with Trump.
Start with respecting science. Trump's obvious disdain for truth-telling is annoying when he exaggerates his crowd sizes, his hand sizes, the size of his bank account or the size of his election victory.
But his disdain for science has become fatal, as we're seeing in this widening pandemic. Trump has gone from offering quack remedies, like disinfectant, ultraviolet light and hydroxychloroquine, to mocking people, including Biden, for adopting the easiest and most scientifically proven method for limiting the spread of the coronavirus: wearing a face mask.
The pro-Trump governor of Arizona, where the virus is now spiraling out of control, at one point actually barred local officials from mandating that residents wear masks. That's as crazy as when Trump declared, "If we stop testing right now, we'd have very few cases, if any."
Think about that: Stop testing. Then we'll have no knowledge. Then we'll have no numbers. Then we'll have no virus. Why didn't I think of that?
Stop testing people for drunken driving, and then we'll have no more drunken drivers. Stop arresting people for shootings, and then the crime rate will go down.
President Trump doesn't respect science, nature or other people. Credit...Pete Marovich for The New York Times
Attention, fellow Americans, this impugning of scientific methods, this embrace of conspiracy theories, this undermining of truth and data by our president and vice president — this is not happening in other countries. This is not happening in Germany, France, China, South Korea, Denmark, Canada, Israel or Japan. This is a form of American "exceptionalism" that we never imagined possible.
We're not leading. We're not following. We're lost.
"This is Dark Ages stuff," remarked Harvey, founder of Energy Innovation. "A prime difference between the Enlightenment and the Dark Ages is respect for knowledge, respect for science. The whole idea of progress requires objectively looking at problems, finding and testing solutions, and then spreading and using the best of them. That's how we grow, that's how we learn, that's how we prosper."
Indeed, it is amazing to think that in the year 2020 Biden could actually run for president with an ad that says: "I believe in the Enlightenment, Newtonian physics and the Age of Reason. The other guy doesn't."
As for respecting nature, that has two meanings. The first is to respect the power of nature, which Trump has utterly failed to do. She doesn't negotiate. You cannot seduce her or sue her. She does whatever chemistry, biology and physics dictate. Full stop. Which means in a pandemic that she will just keep infecting people — relentlessly, mercilessly, silently and exponentially — until she runs out of people to infect or a vaccine or exposure makes enough of us immune. She also doesn't keep score. She'll make you sick and then blow down your house with a tornado.
Trump's lack of respect for nature may be a political asset for him with his base, but it's been a disaster for the country. He has built no coordinated national strategy against a virus that demands coordination — because the virus evolved to exploit any cracks in your personal or communal immune system, and it pays no heed to the Oklahoma-Texas borderline.
Respect for nature also means understanding that we live on a hard rock called planet Earth with a thin cover of oceans and topsoil, enveloped by a thin layer of atmosphere. Abuse that soil, junk up those oceans with plastics, distort that atmospheric blanket and we will likely (further) destroy the perfect Garden of Eden that has been the basis of all human civilization.
And remember, as bad as this pandemic is, it's just training wheels for the big, irreversible atmospheric pandemic: climate change.
The latest evidence? See National Geographic online: "An extended heat wave that has been baking the Russian Arctic for months drove the temperature in Verkhoyansk, Russia — north of the Arctic Circle — to 100.4 degrees F on June 20, the official first day of summer in the Northern Hemisphere." That's 100 degrees in the Arctic!
Respect each other? That's not so easy in the midst of our other pandemic — a pandemic of incivility. You cannot exaggerate the impact on the whole civic culture of having a president who has elevated name-calling, denigration and lying to a central feature of his presidency, amplified by the White House.
We have social networks whose business model is to elevate and spread the most enraged voices from the far right and the far left, and generally bring out the worst in people. Almost every day now some public figure, or just everyday American, has to apologize for some inane or hurtful tweet.
But this pandemic of incivility is fed by many sources. We have white police officers who feel such a sense of impunity that one of them kept his knee on a Black man's neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds while people were recording him on their phones.
We have a level of inequality that is so endemic that your ZIP code is now a better predictor of life expectancy than your genetic code. Respecting each other means ensuring each other's equal access to the American dream — and right now, Black, Hispanic and white Americans are climbing very different housing, education and health care ladders, which simply has to be fixed.
We have so many important issues to discuss among ourselves right now, but for that discussion to be productive we can't just go from justifiable outrage straight to firings, public shamings or disbanding police departments — without pausing for respectful dialogue and moral distinctions.
I don't know what is sufficient to get more people respecting one another, but I know two things that are necessary. One is a president who every day models respect rather than denigration. That's Biden's job.
The other is getting people out of Facebook and into each other's faces again — not to shout or denounce, but to listen. It's important what you learn when you listen. It's even more important what you say when you listen. Listening is a sign of respect. And it is amazing what people will let you say to them if they first think that you respect them. That's our job.
Respect science, respect nature, respect each other. Biden 2020.