Trump’s Epic Lies Become His Campaign Coronavirus Story Line
Sember 10, 2020
“Your state should be open! Your state should be open!” Trump told a crowd in North Carolina.
It would not seem possible that Donald Trump could sell himself as the hero of the coronavirus crisis, but, as he demonstrated on Tuesday evening, at the Winston-Salem airport, in North Carolina, he is not one to let either shame or the truth get in the way of a boast. The tally of Americans who have died of covid-19, according to Johns Hopkins University, is now more than a hundred and ninety thousand—a figure that is almost certainly too low, given testing shortages—but the number that Trump was interested in was the crowd size. “I was told fifteen thousand people!” he said. An airport official told the Winston-Salem Journal that he guessed there were seven to nine thousand people there. Some of the people in the stand behind the President were wearing masks, printed with “maga” or “trump,” but, judging from videos of the milling crowd and from press reports, few other attendees were. The President certainly was not. He told the crowd that he normally held rallies in indoor venues, “But because of, uh, China, the arenas aren’t working out too well, right? You can’t really do that anymore for a while.”
When Trump said “China,” he wasn’t just using a shorthand version of “China virus,” his xenophobic label for sars-CoV-2. He was referring to what might be called the Trump 2020 coronavirus story line, which is as epic as it is fictitious. The synopsis, a version of which he offered at the rally in North Carolina, goes like this:
Act I: Paradise Betrayed
“We built the greatest economy in the history of the world, we were forced to close it because of the China plague that came in,” Trump said. Leave it to Trump to dream up a myth of lost greatness about not only America but also about his Presidency. His plan seems to be to use his great failing as an all-purpose excuse—the coronavirus did it, not me. A Trump drama, though, demands more than an unthinking virus—it requires a villain. And so, later in the speech, returning to the subject of China, he said, “We just have the plague. We’ve had other plagues sent by them. I wonder if they did it on purpose. What do you think, huh?” The crowd cheered its affirmation. Perhaps it makes sense to Trump’s supporters that the Chinese government would unleash a pandemic on its own population in a bank-shot attempt to bring him down. It does not, however, make any logical sense.
Act II: Trump Versus the Virus
“People don’t realize we saved millions of lives,” Trump told the crowd. The President who, in the spring, during the depths of the pandemic, told governors to scrounge up the supplies they needed on their own, claimed to have masterminded “the largest national mobilization since World War II.” In fact, to this day, there is no effective national testing strategy, and even less of one for contact tracing. And the state, local, and public-health officials who were frantically trying to save lives had to push back against his dismissiveness, quackery, and conspiracy-mongering—even though, according to a Washington Post report on “Rage,” a new book by Bob Woodward, Trump was quite aware of how dangerous the virus was. (“I wanted to always play it down,” he said.) He simply chose to lie to the public, further undermining trust.
In North Carolina, Trump added, “We have achieved some of the great numbers, the case-fatality rates—we have the lowest of any major country in the world. People don’t know that because the fake news doesn’t want to write about it.” The United States does not have the lowest case-fatality rate of any major country, unless Japan and India aren’t major countries. And, by another measure—deaths per hundred thousand—the U.S. is doing very badly, and its relative position keeps getting worse. That’s because many countries in Europe that were badly hit now have the virus largely under control, and we do not. It’s true that there are scenarios in which far more Americans could have perished, for example if no distancing measures had been taken at all, or if Trump held indoor rallies at the rate he did before the pandemic. But too many did die, and too many are dying now.
Act III: Enter the Democrats as Saboteurs
“Your state should be open! Your state should be open!” Trump told the crowd in North Carolina. He urged his supporters to vote against Governor Roy Cooper, a Democrat, with whom he clashed over his desire to hold a non-socially-distanced Republican National Convention, in Charlotte—Cooper had too many rules—and who is up for reëlection. Many things in North Carolina are, in fact, open, including gyms and restaurants, albeit with limits on capacity, and other restrictions. For example, outdoor mass gatherings are supposed to be limited to fifty people, a cap that Trump dismissed by saying that he’d just call his rallies “peaceful protests.” (He also ignored the statewide mask mandate.)
But there are closures: the University of North Carolina, for example, switched to remote classes in early August after a hundred and seventy-seven students and staff tested positive for the virus. (Last week, cases at U.N.C. were more than a thousand. College towns across the country have become regional hotspots.) It should be clear by now that opening prematurely or without restrictions, contact tracing, and widespread access to testing in place, as many states did in the early summer, is counterproductive: doing so just leads to more outbreaks and more closures, perpetuating the pandemic cycle. But Trump seems willing to risk further infections, and deaths. He emphasized to the crowd that most young people would be just fine. He admired their immune systems. He said, vaguely, that there are ways to protect the vulnerable while everyone else goes back to work, as if the vulnerable—a very large category in covid-19 terms, including people with a wide range of preëxisting conditions as well as those who are obese—could be pushed aside indefinitely.
Trump also promised the crowd that, thanks to him, a safe, effective vaccine will be available by the end of the year, and maybe even “much sooner than that.” He wondered if any other Administration in American history would have been capable of this feat. Anthony Fauci, pharmaceutical companies, and any number of public-health experts have warned of the need for caution, and the fact that the actual distribution of a vaccine will take far longer; given that many people are already suspicious about vaccines, releasing a dangerous one prematurely, according to a timeline set by Trump’s need to make big promises at rallies, would be a disaster. But, as Trump told it in North Carolina, anyone who worried that pledges like his might lead to a politicized approval process was part of a “Biden-Harris effort to spread anti-vaccine conspiracy theories.”
After decrying the effect of closures on people in Michigan (“They want to have football!”), another state with a Democratic governor, Trump said, “They’re doing it for political reasons. They think by hurting the economy, by keeping all these store owners and all these people that work in shops, stores, buildings, offices—they think by hurting them they’re hurting our economy.” (He couldn’t help but add, “Our economy is doing phenomenally well.”) Also, Trump told the crowd, “They want to indoctrinate your children and implement their ruinous shutdown of the United States economy again.”
Who are “they”? In a particularly crude passage of his speech, Trump described “Biden people.” “If they win, the mobs win. You see these guys, they go around saying, ‘Yeah, I want your meal, gimme that food, gimme that’—a woman, sitting there, she wants to eat,” he said, pantomiming a person bent timorously over a plate, lifting a fork. “And they come and grab her food, they grab her drink, nobody’s ever seen stuff like this. This is all that ideology!” Behind him, the people in Trump gear shook their heads in horror. Pulling the threads of the plot together, he added, “It’s clear why both China and the flag-burning rioters want Biden to win. They know his policies will be the downfall of America. And they know my policies will lift America to new heights of national greatness like we’ve never seen before. That’s what’s happening.”
That’s not what’s happening. Trump has long required that his supporters cease to care about the truth—that they suspend disbelief when they listen to him. Now, though, he is asking that they not care about American lives, particularly those of the most vulnerable. “I got to tell you, I was sailing to an easy election. This was going to be so easy . . . and now we have to work against a guy that doesn’t know where he is!” Trump said. The election is going to be a lot of work, and it never was going to be easy. Defeating Trump will be worth it.
Amy Davidson Sorkin has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 2014. She has been at the magazine since 1995, and, as a senior editor for many years, focussed on national security, international reporting, and features.