On Sunday, as Covid-19 cases in Michigan surged, Governor Gretchen Whitmer announced a new set of temporary restrictions on certain indoor gatherings and activities. The three-week pandemic order will shutter bowling alleys and movie theaters while leaving childcare facilities and in-person learning for preschool through eighth grade open. In response, White House coronavirus task force adviser Dr. Scott Atlas—who, it should be noted, specializes in radiology, not virology—tweeted, “The only way this stops is if people rise up. You get what you accept.”
Coincidentally, it was just last month that the FBI announced a series of charges against members of a right-wing militia who, according to the criminal complaint, plotted to kidnap Whitmer for issuing a separate pandemic order over the summer. “I don’t know, boys, we gotta do something,” one said on a Facebook livestream in response to gym closures. A funny thing, right?
Atlas initially breezed past reporters asking for comment before sitting down with Fox News to apologize—not for the clear implications of his post but for the fact that he is simply, as he went on to explain, not very good at Twitter. “What I meant, and I’m sorry I’m not very articulate on Twitter, is that basically if you want to change things you have to have your voices heard,” he said. “I didn’t mean anything more than that.”
When not accidentally egging on violent mobs—oops!—Atlas spreads anti-science theories to anyone who will give him the time of day, a crowd that just happens to include the outgoing president. In mid-October, Atlas tweeted, “Masks work? NO,” before listing a string of false information. (Twitter ultimately removed the posts.) Atlas also turned heads before Election Day by participating in an interview with Russian propagandist outlet RT, in which he again railed against mask-wearing, lockdowns, and testing the asymptomatic. Much like the rest of Trump’s inner circle, Atlas isn’t an expert or true public servant. He was recruited by the president for a simple reason: to be a loyal soldier in this administration’s political death cult. He’s served that role well.
As Atlas was trying to backpedal on Monday, he was criticized from all angles, by a chorus that included Dr. Anthony Fauci, CNN’s Jake Tapper, and President-elect Joe Biden. Stanford University—Atlas’s alma mater, where he was a fellow of the university’s Hoover Institute—called out his reckless comments as “inconsistent with the university’s approach in response to the pandemic.”
Atlas works on two levels as a blunt political instrument, though both are fundamentally about inciting Trump’s base: Some of the men arrested in the Michigan plot in October were discovered to have been among the hundreds who attended rallies at the state capitol in March, following executive action undertaken by Whitmer to help stop the further spread of the virus. People armed with assault rifles flooded the building and its front steps. You might even call what they did rising up.
In an interview with Nightline last month, Whitmer said that her experience this summer “kind of tells you how the rhetoric really can have horrible, disastrous, dangerous consequences for others,” and went on to cite Trump’s refusal to crack down on his white supremacist supporters as creating a void that has “made safe harbor for people that are engaged in these activities.” In his Fox News interview, Atlas said that he did not mean to “threaten or incite violence.”
But it’s not just about incitements to direct violence. Atlas is also there to facilitate the slow, deadly violence of a failed pandemic response. Described by The Washington Post as “Trump’s favored pandemic adviser,” Atlas, who was appointed in August, has spent his time in that role campaigning for a herd immunity approach and pushing for schools, restaurants, and other businesses to be allowed to fully reopen. He believes that young, ostensibly healthy people “don’t have a problem with the disease.” These aren’t just ideas being drunkenly cranked out by random fools looking for their Parler dopamine hit at 2 a.m. Atlas has been encouraging public officials for months to limit testing only to people showing symptoms—he even went on a tour with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis in late August to spread that message to local leaders in the state. CNN reported that Florida’s testing efforts were halved between mid-July and early September as a result.
The best critique of Atlas’s work in this advisory role came from another task force member, Dr. Fauci, who told the Post, “He’s a smart guy who’s talking about things that I believe he doesn’t have any real insight or knowledge or experience in.” And that much is plain: In May, Atlas told Fox News that he rejected models estimating 134,000 coronavirus deaths by August, saying, “We don’t need to rely on hypothetical projections.” Even after the projection turned out to be low, he attacked the same models again in his interview with RT in October, saying that “anybody who’s even focusing on models has not learned from the past.” (The model he was referencing, conducted by the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, was surpassed by actual death rates in November, thanks in part to people like Atlas.) And yet, despite—or rather, because of—Atlas’s abject rejection of reality, in a separate interview with MSNBC, Fauci admitted, “I definitely don’t have [Trump’s] ear as much as Scott Atlas right now.”
This is what idiocy and spitefulness in power looks like. More than 247,000 people have senselessly died from the coronavirus in America as of writing, and that number may be 399,000 by February. The best anyone can hope for by then is that Atlas will be focused on pumping up the numbers for his new Substack and that Trump will be relegated to tweets with content warnings and sinking publishing houses. But even after the death cult is excised from D.C., there will be no getting back those who died on their watch. There will only be rage, and a clear vision of who was responsible but will likely never be held accountable.