The US government’s drive for a coronavirus vaccine was named “Operation Warp Speed” by Peter Marks, an official at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and longtime Star Trek fan.
A staple of Star Trek storylines is alternative realities: someone slipping through a wormhole into a parallel universe where history took a radically different turn. Cable news viewers went through the wormhole at 2pm on Tuesday: two captains, two crews, two languages (one English, the other Klingon).
Those watching CNN and MSNBC could see a sombre president-elect, Joe Biden, opening his remarks by acknowledging the terrible Covid-19 death toll (more than 285,000 in the US), setting out an ambitious vision for his first hundred days in office (“Masking. Vaccinations. Opening schools”) and unveiling a healthcare team heavy on experience, science and diversity.
But those watching Fox News or other conservative networks found the lame-duck president, Donald Trump, making no mention of the dead (“In many respects we’re still doing incredibly, with our stock markets and everything else, which are hitting all new highs”), boasting about the speed of vaccine development and ranting egregious lies about a stolen election.
In what is now routinely described as a split-screen nation, the contrast was on the nose. It was also an unusual role reversal from the norm, with the outgoing president delivering happy talk and sunny uplands, while his successor offered a darker vision that warned of trouble ahead.
It was the latest of Biden’s team unveilings in his home city of Wilmington, Delaware. Speaking against a blue “Office of the president-elect” backdrop, he said bleakly: “Last week, Covid-19 was the number one cause of death in America.
“For Black, Latino, and Native Americans – who are nearly three times as likely to die from it – Covid-19 is a mass casualty. For families and friends left behind, it’s a gaping hole in your heart that will never be fully healed.”
Over in Washington, in the south court auditorium in the White House grounds, Trump spoke against a less subtle backdrop of stars and stripes icons and “Operation Warp Speed” written in block letters. His vaccine summit had been dismissed as a public relations stunt amid embarrassing reports that his administration passed on buying additional doses of Pfizer’s vaccine.
Despite a daily death toll that now rivals that of the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks, Trump began by taking a victory lap, praising Vice-President Mike Pence for doing “an absolutely incredible” job at the head of the coronavirus taskforce. “Stand up, Mike. Great job!” Applause.
“We’re here to discuss a monumental national achievement,” Trump went on, describing the race for a vaccine with an exaggeration that veered back into Star Trek – or Buzz Lightyear – territory. “Before Operation Warp Speed the typical time frame for development and approval, as you know, could be infinity.”
He then promised: “This will vanquish the problem, this horrible scourge, as I call it, the China virus, because that’s where it came from.”
At the same moment that Trump was dabbling in casual racism, Biden was saying: “We’re in a very dark winter. Things may well get worse before they get better. A vaccine may soon be available but we need to level with one other. It will take longer than we would like to distribute it to all corners of the country …
“We’ll need to persuade enough Americans to take the vaccine. Many have become cynical about its usefulness. It’s daunting, but I promise you that we will make progress starting on day one. We didn’t get into this mess quickly and it’s going to take time to fix.”
Clenching both fists, he added: “But we can do this. That’s the truth, and telling you the truth is what this team, Vice President-elect Harris and I, will always do.”
Trump, meanwhile, sat at his now infamous tiny desk and signed a reportedly toothless executive order which – “America first” to the end – is designed to give US citizens priority access to vaccines before they are shipped abroad. He was joined on stage by a dozen officials, all but two of whom were men. They included his daughter and senior adviser Ivanka.
But they did not include the infectious diseases expert Anthony Fauci, who had evidently realised the real party is now happening somewhere else. Fauci popped up on screen at the Biden event in Wilmington, stating: “I have been through many public health crises before, but this is the toughest one we have ever faced as a nation.”
The 45th and 46th presidents share a notoriety for gaffes. So far, both had managed to stay on script. But Trump could not resist taking questions from the press. Why, someone asked, are you still hosting Christmas parties despite public health guidelines discouraging them? Trump insisted that there were far fewer parties and most people wore masks.
Then came the question: why not include members of the Biden transition in this summit? “Hopefully the next administration will be the Trump administration because you can’t steal hundreds of thousands of votes,” the president said airily, despite the fact he lost the November presidential election. “You can’t have fraud and deception and all of the things that they did and then slightly win a swing state.
“And you just have to look at the numbers, look at what’s been on tape, look at all the corruption and we’ll see you can’t win an election like that. So hopefully the next administration will be the Trump administration, a continuation.”
He went on to extol that administration’s glories, including a soaring stock market and the creation of a space force, as if these would be enough to make defeat mathematically impossible. For the record, the homeland security department and state leaders have debunked Trump’s election disinformation and found no significant evidence of interference or fraud.
Change the channel at that moment – as many yearn to do on his presidency – and you found Biden’s pick for surgeon general, Vivek Murthy, delivering an apt warning: “The truth is that the best policies – and the best vaccines and treatments – will not heal our nation unless we overcome the fear, anxiety, anger, and distrust so many Americans are feeling right now.”
Does anyone have a vaccine for that?