One of the mantras for interpreting the nature of Donald Trump has always been to take him ‘seriously, but not literally’. When this maxim was first introduced in September 2016, the advice was clearly useful. Journalists and pundits were in a constant state of outrage over his every utterance. The daily deluge of Trump jokes, wisecracks, obviously figurative exaggerations, and ALL CAPS tweets were incessantly ‘fact-checked’ in the most tedious fashion by members of the media who hated Trump. One illustrative example would be when Trump accused Barack Obama of being the ‘founder’ of Isis. In short order, the fact-checking brigades sprung into action to clarify that Obama had not in fact literally founded Isis. Of course, fact-checks of this sort had little to no value, because no one ‘literally’ believed Trump was claiming that Obama came up with the idea of Isis and ran its day-to-day terrorist operations. Rather, Trump was making a vulgar and largely false (yet ‘serious’) accusation that Obama’s conduct in various ways had created the conditions for Isis to form and gain territorial strength. If anything, these pointless fact-checks were actively harmful to the wider enterprise of ‘fact-checking’, because they reduced it to something that looked plain stupid.
It is with this in mind that we should analyze Trump’s public communications in the early phases of the coronavirus outbreak. Trump supporters often get extremely defensive when Democrats lambast him for allegedly describing coronavirus as a ‘hoax’. ‘HE DIDN’T SAY THAT,’ they indignantly shriek. OK then, let’s take a look at what Trump actually said at the February 28 rally in South Carolina where the ‘hoax’ remark was made. I’m providing the full excerpt here because I know otherwise Trump supporters will scream incoherently about the supposedly missing context:
‘Now the Democrats are politicizing the coronavirus, you know that right? Coronavirus, they’re politicizing it. We did one of the great jobs. You say, ‘How’s President Trump doing?’ They go, “Oh, not good, not good.” They have no clue. They don’t have any clue. They can’t even count their votes in Iowa. They can’t even count. No, they can’t. They can’t count their votes.
‘One of my people came up to me and said, “Mr President, they tried to beat you on Russia, Russia, Russia.” That didn’t work out too well. They couldn’t do it. They tried the impeachment hoax. That was not a perfect conversation. They tried anything. They tried it over and over. They’d been doing it since you got in. It’s all turning. They lost. It’s all turning. Think of it. Think of it. And this is their new hoax. But we did something that’s been pretty amazing. We have 15 people in this massive country and because of the fact that we went early. We went early, we could have had a lot more than that. We’re doing great.’
The most charitable interpretation possible of this unwieldy tirade is that Trump was claiming that criticism of his administration’s readiness to deal with the impending coronavirus outbreak was a ‘hoax’, not that the coronavirus itself was a ‘hoax’. On the other hand, it’s not like this is a lucidly clear speech. We could reasonably take him to mean that the virus itself was a hoax, or at least the alleged dangers posed by the virus were a hoax. But ‘out of an abundance of caution’, to use the crisis-control cliche, let’s just go with the more generous reading. Trump was communicating that the Democrats’ criticisms of his administration’s preparedness was a hoax, not the virus itself.
Our stable genius president continues:
‘Our country is doing so great. We are so unified. We are so unified. The Republican party has never ever been unified like it is now. There has never been a movement in the history of our country like we have now. Never been a movement. So a statistic that we want to talk about, go ahead. Say USA. It’s OK. USA. So a number that nobody heard of, that I heard of recently and I was shocked to hear it, 35,000 people on average die each year from the flu. Did anyone know that? 35,000, that’s a lot of people. It could go to 100,000, it could be 27,000. They say usually a minimum of 27, goes up to 100,000 people a year die. And so far we have lost nobody to coronavirus in the United States. Nobody. And it doesn’t mean we won’t and we are totally prepared. It doesn’t mean we won’t, but think of it. You hear 35 and 40,000 people and we’ve lost nobody and you wonder the press is in hysteria mode. CNN fake news and the camera just went off, the camera. The camera just went off. Turn it back on. Hey, by the way, hold it. Look at this, and honestly, all events are like this. It’s about us. It’s all about us. I wish they’d take the camera, show the arena please. They never do. They never do. They never do it. They never show the arena.’
Apologies for the large block of rambling text, but again, the ‘context!’ police would cry foul otherwise. Using the ‘seriously, but not literally’ approach, perhaps we can charitably infer that in saying that the country is ‘totally prepared’ for coronavirus, he wasn’t saying that literally every preparatory resource had been marshaled, just that things in general were going ‘great’. Maybe in bringing up the common flu, he wasn’t literally saying that COVID-19 was the same as seasonal influenza, just that we should think of the threat posed by the new virus as similar to the common flu. And when he slammed the press for entering ‘hysteria mode’, maybe he wasn’t literally saying that every single warning about the dangers of coronavirus was ‘hysterical’; just that the Democrat Fake News was hysterically weaponizing the specter of coronavirus to take down his incredibly successful administration.
Even if you accept all these charitable interpretations — which are very close to the ‘wildly implausible’ end of the spectrum — Trump had unambiguously committed a grave moral wrong. Every one of his comments on the subject of coronavirus, which his supporters take ‘seriously’ if not ‘literally’, conveyed that the threat of coronavirus was being shamefully exaggerated by his opponents for no reason other than to inflict political damage. Clearly, the sum total of his remarks on February 28 served to downplay and diminish the severity of the threat. If you’re one of Trump’s supporters there at the rally venue, or watching on TV, or picking up snippets on social media, are you getting the message that coronavirus is a grave issue requiring immediate precautions to safeguard your health and wellbeing? Uh…no. Quite the opposite. You hear the word ‘hoax’, you hear the word ‘hysteria’, you hear the Just The Flu, Bro dissembling. And if you generally trust Trump, you come away assuming that this whole coronavirus thing is pretty much a big joke.
That was certainly the message received by Trump’s most brainless sycophants throughout the conservative media. Trish Regan’s rant was so bad — dismissing the use of the word ‘pandemic’ as just another left-wing media hoax — that she was booted off her primetime perch at Fox Business Channel. The millions of Americans who look to figures like Trump, Regan, Sean Hannity and Lou Dobbs for authoritative guidance on current events spent roughly six weeks being told, in effect, that the threat of coronavirus was fictional. (Dobbs is currently under quarantine after one of his staff tested positive.) These weeks, from roughly late January to mid-March, would have been crucial to take preventive action. Resources could’ve been mobilized, for instance, to ramp up production of vital medical supplies like N95 masks and goggles, which nurses and doctors on the frontlines of the pandemic presently cannot acquire — putting them at enormous risk. Instead, the federal government lagged, even as it watched Italy and Iran descend into diseased ruin.
It should also be noted that another event was underway during this critical period: impeachment. I’ll bluntly admit that’s what I was focused on at the time, as well as the Democratic primary race. I’d faintly heard about what was happening in Wuhan, but I’m not an epidemiologist. I’m not particularly well-versed in the hard sciences. However, I (unfortunately) don’t have the full resources of the federal government at my disposal. Trump does. I didn’t have enough information to make an informed opinion, in part because the reality of the situation had not yet been relayed to me. On the other hand, Trump was going on TV declaring everything was ‘totally under control…it’s going to be just fine’. (January 22)
So the ridiculous impeachment trial consumed much of the political and media class’s attentional energies during a critical time when, in hindsight, the country’s focus should have obviously been on coronavirus preparations. That’s why it’s not sufficient to exclusively blame Trump for the massive state failure which has now given rise to this crisis. Our national political psyche wasn’t primed to take a real threat seriously and deal with it rationally, because our national media (as well as the Democratic party) had spent so much time over the preceding four years hyping up a nonstop series of fake threats: Russian interference, the Mueller report, impeachment over something involving Ukraine that barely anyone can even remember now, proclamations by numbnuts like AOC that Trump was overseeing a network of ‘concentration camps’, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. The everyday cycle of frantic Twitter ‘controversies’, fleeting Trump-related ‘scandals’ that inflate and deflate within hours when it transpires they were BS — it just never ends. So that’s where Trump has a point: the media, the Democrats, the intelligence agencies, and so forth really were out to get him — probably to an unprecedented degree. He’s right that bogus hysterics get hurled at him every single day, and much of it’s intended to harm him politically.
But as president, Trump has an obligation to distinguish between real criticism and fake criticism. Jibes like ‘Putin’s puppet’ and ‘we need to impeach before Christmas’ are largely fake criticism. Sounding the alarm about the federal government’s unpreparedness to competently handle a rapidly escalating pandemic was real criticism. Trump was either unwilling to discern the difference or incapable of doing so; the result is the vast, avoidable suffering that we will probably have to grapple with for months, if not years. Again, this doesn’t mean Trump is solely to blame. The generally deranged political climate that has prevailed since he first descended the escalator nearly five years ago is also culpable. But as the chief executive of the federal government, it was incumbent on him to firstly not spread misinformation about a dangerous infectious disease, whether to placate the markets or for any other reason, and secondly activate the resources necessary to protect the public. In both instances, he failed. And as a consequence, his presidency has been critically injured. The economy is in freefall. People are angry and afraid. Next thing you know, ‘Sleepy Joe’ could be sleepwalking straight into the White House.