Has Trump Reached the Lying-to-Himself-and-Believing-It Stage of the Coronavirus Pandemic?
The reality—in both public-health and crass political terms—doesn’t look good for the President.
May 8, 2020
On Tuesday afternoon, Gretchen Whitmer, the governor of Michigan, came on the line with a breaking-news bulletin. Just before our interview, Whitmer had heard that President Trump was talking about dismantling the coronavirus task force he had assembled to oversee the national response to the pandemic. Whitmer seemed stunned by this information—U.S. infections from covid-19 were well over a million, the daily national death toll was often more than two thousand, and, in Whitmer’s hard-hit state, the crisis had already claimed more than four thousand of her constituents’ lives. “It’s just shocking,” she said, as we both tried to absorb the news. “Something new happens every day.”
By the next morning, Trump had, once again, changed his mind. He told reporters that he had no idea how “popular” the coronavirus task force was, and that it would remain in operation while shifting its emphasis toward reopening the economy and away from a public-health catastrophe that has already caused more U.S. deaths than the wars in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq combined. These are crazy times in American politics. What’s a governor, or anyone trying to make sense of Trump’s on-again, off-again war on the virus, supposed to say?
Whitmer, a first-term Democrat in a swing state that helped Trump win the Presidency in 2016, has become such a lightning rod for Trump and his supporters that the President has given Whitmer her own derogatory Twitter nickname. After long-gun-toting protesters opposing her stay-at-home order entered the Michigan capitol last week—some of them wearing Trump campaign regalia, and some carrying Confederate flags, nooses, and swastikas—the President praised them as “very good people.” As Democrats nationally celebrate Whitmer’s unyielding response, and as Joe Biden considers her as his running mate, both the Republican-controlled state legislature and a Republican member of Congress have now sued her for using her emergency powers to keep the state closed during the crisis. Meanwhile, in heavily Democratic, heavily African-American Detroit, health-care workers are struggling to contain one of the worst outbreaks in the country.
Public polls show that the vast majority of Michiganders support social-distancing measures to combat the pandemic (as is true nationwide), and also Whitmer’s handling of the situation. In a state that Trump needs to win this fall, his approval ratings have dropped, while Whitmer’s have risen. Whitmer told me that Trump’s hyper-partisan approach did not make sense in terms of either public health or crass politics. “The enemy is a virus, and it doesn’t care what party you’re in, it doesn’t care what state you’re in,” she said. Trump, however, has not only persisted in his critiques of “that woman from Michigan” but nationalized his combative approach, with one policy for “Democrat states,” as he recently called them, that are the worst-affected by the virus, and another for Republican ones.
A fleeting image, captured on C-span inside the U.S. Capitol this week, highlighted the divisive absurdity of the moment: Mitt Romney, wearing a mask, walked out of the Senate Republican Conference weekly lunch meeting toting a large placard with a graph on it. “Blue states aren’t the only ones who are screwed,” read the headline on the placard. Romney, though, is a minority of one. The lone Republican in either the House or Senate to support convicting Trump in his recent impeachment trial, Romney, who was the Republican Presidential nominee in 2012, is now an outlier in a Party with a devotion to Trump so strong that it has not faltered even in the face of the President’s reality-defying response to the pandemic.
Romney’s pitch, in fact, appeared to be so unpersuasive that, by Wednesday evening, Politico reported that “Senate Republicans are settling on their pandemic message as they fight to save their majority: President Donald Trump did a tremendous job.” This, not at all coincidentally, is the theme of a new ad being run nationwide by the Trump campaign, in which the President is portrayed as a heroic leader who defied Democrats and media pundits, shut off the country from the Chinese virus, and will lead America’s cratering economy to recovery. In case the message is too subtle, the ad spells it out in big all-capital letters on the screen: “the greatest comeback story.”
When I went to college, we used to joke during exam period that you were really in trouble when you started to lie to yourself and believe it. The President and at least some of his most fervent supporters appear now to be in the lying-to-yourself-and-believing-it stage of the pandemic. Truth has become so inconvenient that it’s better left aside for some alternate, less inconvenient reality. This is, of course, not the first time in the Trump Presidency, or even the first time during this pandemic, that there has been such a gap, but it appears to be a moment when there is a widening and very likely unsustainable gulf between Trumpian truth and what is actually happening.
That’s because the numbers are the numbers and, for Trump and for America, they look terrible. On Wednesday, there were some twenty-six hundred deaths in the United States from covid-19, and, on Thursday, there were even more: around twenty-seven hundred. Leaked predictions from government scientists show an increase, by June 1st, to three thousand deaths, on average, every twenty-four hours. As Whitmer noted to me, that amounts to essentially a 9/11’s worth of victims per day. Even after some seventy-five thousand deaths and a couple months of social-distancing public-health measures, the charts demonstrate clearly that the national curve has not flattened, with sharp declines registered only in New York and New Jersey—which have already gone through the country’s worst ordeal—and a handful of other states. More than half the states have at least partially lifted strict stay-at-home orders, although none of the states that announced reopenings—not one—met the criteria established by the Trump Administration for doing so. At the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this week, a detailed, seventeen-page guide for how to return safely to workplaces and schools was quashed by the White House, and its authors were told it would “never see the light of day,” the Associated Press reported on Thursday. Testing capability is nowhere near the millions of additional tests needed to resume regular daily life, according to experts, nor is there widespread capacity to conduct contact tracing, another prerequisite.
Yet many states are reopening anyway, and Trump is not, at least for now, even bothering to hide the fact that more Americans may die as a result of these decisions. On Tuesday, he flew to a mask factory in Arizona for a photo op, where he appeared not wearing a mask, as the Guns N’ Roses version of the song “Live and Let Die” blasted over the factory’s loudspeakers. In an interview taped at the factory, Trump said, “I’m viewing our great citizens of this country to a certain extent, and to a large extent, as warriors. They’re warriors. We can’t keep our country closed. We have to open our country. Will some people be badly affected? Yes.” On Wednesday, he elaborated as to what he meant by “badly affected.” Asked if more Americans might die as a result of reopening too soon, he said, “Hopefully that won’t be the case.” But, he added, “It could very well be the case.” He also argued against more testing. “In a way, by doing all this testing, we make ourselves look bad,” he said. On Thursday, it was reported that, even as Trump was saying this, one of his personal valets, who delivers his meals, had tested positive for the virus. In response, Trump said he would now be tested every day. Reality, it turns out, is not just a matter of political optics.
In the past, when Trump has got too far away from what is actually happening and into his personal hall of mirrors, the press of events has forced him to abandon his position. He is adept enough at self-survival to make wild course corrections where necessary. This is a man, after all, who said in late February that coronavirus cases would soon be down to zero and, just two weeks later, declared a national emergency and vowed to wage war on the deadly “invisible enemy.” I’ve seen many possible explanations for Trump’s bizarre, reality-defying behavior in recent days. He’s bored. He’s clueless. He’s panicking about his reëlection. He doesn’t care about anything other than the stock market. He’d rather talk about his border wall or vanquishing the “deep state.” All of them might be correct. It’s also possible that Trump really is the greatest of all time at something: believing his own hype. On Sunday, he stared right into a Fox News camera and declared that he had been treated worse than Abraham Lincoln—while speaking at the national memorial to the slain President. Either Trump is the most brazen politician in the long line of brazen American politicians or he somehow had been brainwashed by his own B.S.
Still, Trump appears to me to be increasingly terrified at the very real prospect of losing in November, as both national polls and surveys in battleground states currently show him doing. Overnight Monday and again on Tuesday, he let loose about an ad being run against him by a group of Never Trump Republicans called the Lincoln Project. The ad, “Mourning in America,” shows haunting scenes of a devastated country, “weaker and sicker and poorer” after four years under Trump’s leadership. The President responded by calling the group “the losers project” and railing about its founders, among them George Conway, the Trump-bashing husband of the White House counsellor Kellyanne Conway. This did not exactly seem like a confident performance by the most powerful man on the planet. It seemed like the scared rant of someone who knows that, eventually, he might finally be called on his most bullshit of performances.
Even Corey Lewandowski—Trump’s 2016 campaign manager and as blustery a loyalist to the President as exists—is now publicly acknowledging that Trump has set an extraordinarily risky political course in declaring victory over a still-raging pandemic. “It’s a huge gamble,” Lewandowski said in an interview, released on Thursday, with Christian Broadcasting Network’s David Brody. He added, “If there is a resurgence . . . not just in the next four weeks or six weeks, but as the weather turns again, if, come the fall in September, in October, we see an uptick again in the covid-19 pandemic coming back because we didn’t handle it right the first time—we still don’t have testing and we don’t have a solution—that is devastating as an incumbent President of the United States.”
More than three decades ago, in his as-told-to memoir, “The Art of the Deal,” Trump bragged about the sheer, addictive effectiveness of lying—he called it “hyperbole”—in service of his goals. Yet he also acknowledged, “You can’t con people, at least not for long. You can create excitement, you can do wonderful promotion and get all kinds of press, and you can throw in a little hyperbole. But if you don’t deliver the goods, people will eventually catch on.” On November 3rd, we’ll find out if they did. For now, the scary prospect is sure to keep Trump up for many more nights to come, hate-tweeting in the dark.