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“He’s got a certain talent for this,” President Donald Trump said of Vice President Mike Pence when entrusting him with the response to the COVID-19 coronavirus crisis. Pence’s perpetual grimace is the new face of the U.S. response to the coronavirus, after a chaotic week when the White House health team’s internecine squabbles and revolving-door corruption got a bit too public for Trump’s comfort. GOP operatives are likely relieved that their “adult in the room” has taken over. After all, Pence may be a fundamentalist zealot, but he is at least an actual “normal” policy-maker.
But a Pence-led response is dangerous, not in spite of, but precisely because he is a typical Republican. His coronavirus task force — which includes several Pence loyalists — is not particularly Trumpian. Its members are long-time political operatives, some of whom even have medical degrees. For the most part, their problem is not incompetence. It’s that they apply their competence and considerable resources in exactly the way a “normal” Republican administration would: protection for the powerful, callousness for the afflicted, and a special disdain for the “other.” In the Pence coronavirus task force, we have a clear window into what a Pence presidency would look like. The answer should scare you.
For the last few days, reporters have granted an overdue spotlight to Pence’s foot-dragging response to an HIV outbreak in Scott County, Indiana while he was governor. Dirty needles drove the outbreak, but Pence’s refusal to set up a needle exchange led almost 10 percent of the county to be infected before any government action was taken. Pence’s current coronavirus response team includes long-time allies who had their own roles in the Indiana crisis, like Surgeon General Jerome Adams. He was appointed Indiana State Health Commissioner in October 2014, just before the outbreak. Though he rebranded himself as “a strong advocate of needle exchanges” after his appointment, during the crisis, Adams dodged repeated questions about whether he’d stand up to Pence on the issue. He showed the same loyalty on Sunday, when he told a panicked nation on CNN that President Trump “sleeps less than I do and he’s healthier than I am.” Perhaps his doctor should test him for sycophancy.
Then there’s Seema Verma, the administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Verma made her name helping Pence and other Republican governors add work requirements and exorbitant premiums to their state’s Medicaid programs — which, by definition, are designed for people in poverty. Scott County ranked last of Indiana’s 92 counties for poverty, unemployment and uninsured people as a percentage of the population. In other words, Verma earned reverence in conservative circles for oppressing the broke users whom Pence and Verma abandoned in Scott County. As HIV cases spread in Indiana, Verma both consulted on Pence’s Medicaid design and worked for one of the state’s largest Medicaid vendors. Today, Verma faces a Hatch Act lawsuit for publicly railing against Medicare for All, and spent a few million taxpayer dollars on a bid to make the cover of Glamour.
Don’t forget Alex Azar, the Health and Human Services secretary who came up in Indianapolis-based pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly. Azar is not a doctor or a researcher. He is a former lobbyist who tripled the price of insulin as the company’s president. Pence took over Azar’s leadership of the coronavirus team after a disastrous hearing, but that hasn’t prevented President Trump from meeting personally with Azar’s old Eli Lilly colleagues to talk business.
The thing is Verma, Adams and Azar are run-of-the-mill Republican operatives, the kinds of people you’d expect in a Marco Rubio or Chris Christie administration. They are long-time associates, policy aides and fundraisers for Pence, who want to wield power in the service of making themselves and their allies rich while punishing the poor for their hardship. They were all doing this long before Trump ran in 2015. It’s nothing new; it’s just how modern American conservatism works.
And they are just the coronavirus task force members Pence brought with him to the White House. CDC Director Robert Redfield was on the board of Children’s AIDS Fund, an anti-LGBTQ charity which preaches abstinence-only education in Zambia and Uganda (sometimes on taxpayer dollars.) In 1985, he fought the agency he now runs to force HIV screenings in the US military. In the mid-90’s he was accused of fabricating research for an HIV vaccine, and though he was later cleared of the charges, the reason why he was cleared remains classified. His mismanagement is also why, despite what Adams says, the CDC can only process a few hundred test kits per day.
A Trumpy yet orthodox Republican member of the task force member is Ken Cuccinelli, the number-two official at Homeland Security. Cucinelli nearly rode a combination of Tea Party and social conservative extremism to the statehouse in a narrowly unsuccessful gubernatorial campaign in Virginia in 2013. His long history of homophobia includes saying in 2004 that same-sex marriage activists planned to “dismantle sodomy laws” and “get education about homosexuals and AIDS in public schools.” When he’s not struggling with paywalls, he’s stoking conspiracies about the virus’ origins on Fox News and feeding xenophobia at CPAC: “When you are talking about a pandemic, and you have a border crisis … we do not have facilities that can quarantine tens, scores, hundreds, or thousands of people.”
While disturbing, Cuccinelli’s bigotry is hardly unusual. Plentiful psychological literature finds that conservatives tend to react more strongly to disease and disgusting imagery, and mere exposure actually exacerbates conservative thinking. Recall the right’s hyper-reaction to the 2014 ebola scare, the mere awareness of which psychologists found activated conservative impulses. That was long before Trump descended an escalator.
Sure, Trump’s personal incompetence is a serious factor in the coronavirus crisis. But the people actually driving executive policymaking aren’t so different from who they’d be under any other conservative government. Wouldn’t other right wingers look for ways to make a buck, or flatly refuse to use the federal government’s vast powers to protect the public? Would we be surprised if a President Pence or Cruz appointed a task force including religious figures with shameful histories in the HIV crisis? Wouldn’t they also scaremonger about the border?
The Republican operatives on the COVID-19 response team disdain expertise, adore profiteering and are loath to help the needy. That’s what got them this far in their careers. Trump was right; Pence does have “a certain talent for this.” He, like the right wingers in his circle, has a talent for protecting the powerful and forgetting the helpless, even in the middle of a pandemic.
Max Moran is a research assistant at the Revolving Door Project.