Right on time—one week ago, to be precise—America’s leader informed us that COVID-19 “is a pandemic.”
No kidding. But as he finally assented to klieg-lit reality, Donald Trump could not resist touting his own foresight: “I felt it was a pandemic before it was called a pandemic.”
By now we are numb to Trump’s grotesque grandiosity. But that sentence may be the most frightening Trump ever uttered: It is so transparently false, so shamefully self-contradictory, so baldly contemptuous of freshly-curated reality, that it lays bare the infinitude of his crippling pathology—and, one worries, our own.
Certainly, it takes a special man to so blithely obliterate two months of willful lies and disinformation which endangered the lives of several million Americans amidst billions— or trillions—of dollars in economic devastation. But then, Trump is very special indeed.
Here’s a timeline of the unfathomable recklessness Trump wills us to forget:
On January 22, Trump claimed that the virus was “one person coming in from China, and we have it under control. It’s going to be just fine.”
On February 2, he told Sean Hannity: “We pretty much shut it down…”
On February 9, he suggested that warm weather in April would “kill the virus.”
On February 26, faced with statements by public health officials that the virus was spreading, he assured Americans that “We’re going very substantially down, not up… We could be at just one or two people over the next short period of time.”
On February 27, he predicted: “It’s going to disappear. One day—it’s like a miracle—it will disappear.”
On February 28 he added, “So far we have lost nobody to coronavirus.”
And why would we? On that same day he informed people at one of his appalling mendacious campaign rallies that the virus was the Democrats’ “new hoax”—merely a cynical sequel to impeachment and the Mueller investigation.
Besides, he said on March 3, our “great companies” were “going to have vaccines, I think, relatively soon.” This baseless prognosis was amended by Dr. Anthony Fauci : “ “relatively”, it transpires, actually means “a year to a year and a half.”
As the virus kept extending its fatal reach, so did Trump – resorting to yet more disinformation, manipulation, and demonstrable lies.
Faced with the World Health Organization’s prediction of a 3.4 percent death rate, on March 4, Trump told Sean Hannity “I think the 3.4 percent is really a false number… I would say the number is way under 1 percent.”
Besides, he assured the country on March 6, “anybody that needs a test can have a test.” This particular fabrication was so blatant that his own HHS secretary was forced to retract it.
On March 7, Trump said breezily “I’m not concerned at all,” that the virus might be getting closer to the White House, adding: “We’ve done a great job.” A day later, his new chief-of-staff self-quarantined.
Faced with communicable reality, Trump resorted to political exploitation. “We need the Wall more than ever!” he tweeted on March 10.
Bobbing and weaving, on March 13 he falsely claimed that Google was developing a website “to determine whether a test is warranted and to facilitate testing at a nearby convenient location ” -which, apparently, was conveniently located in his own head.
On March 15, Trump belatedly allowed at a press briefing: “This is a very contagious virus. It’s incredible. But it’s something we have tremendous control of.” Yet again the commendable Dr. Fauci felt compelled to refute him – this time in Trump’s presence – by saying, “The worst is, yes, ahead for us.”
And so the next day, at last, Trump acknowledged the pandemic—which, of course, he had always seen coming.
Once considered, Trump’s claim of foreknowledge is even more remarkable than it seems. Effectively, Trump is admitting to deliberately endangering his fellow citizens by squandering precious time while spreading falsehoods and Panglossian palliatives for his near- term political ends—thereby inducing his followers to stake their lives on his own callous blather.
Jennifer Rubin suggests an alternative to such lethal dishonesty: that he was covering up his hitherto impenetrable ignorance. But why choose? Other human beings have no more reality to Trump than does reality itself.
We have seen the markers of Trump’s pathological narcissism since the first day of his candidacy: The demented sense of self-importance. The unwarranted belief in his own superiority. The total inability to recognize the humanity of anyone else.
The need always to be right. The refusal to acknowledge error. The inability to brook criticism or critics. The compulsion to conform his ever-shifting sense of the world to satisfy his innermost cravings.
The compulsion to lie so routinely that objective truth loses all meaning. The proliferation of inconsistent statements and behaviors dictated by his needs of the moment. The incapacity to think beyond the immediate or learn from his own mistakes. The congenital failure to assess the consequences of his actions in new or complex situations.
In sum, the total inability to separate the world from his own psychodrama.
It will get no better. For Trump, every day is Showtime: a new soundstage for glorious self-reinvention.
Now, he informs us, he’s “a wartime president”—clearly re-imaging himself as a leader who, like FDR, will repel the Asian invader who has assaulted our shores. Indeed, “I think we’re going to do it even faster than we thought, and it’ll be a complete victory.”
Once again, Americans have nothing to fear but fear itself—save for Trump’s treacherous critics. One can feel FDR stepping aside in the pages of history.
Never mind that Trump’s administration stripped the NSC of its global-health arm, established to fight global pandemics—a loss that Dr. Fauci bemoaned. In its place Trump has continued to tout phantom miracle cures. Yet he is strangely reluctant to invoke his very real authority to accelerate production of essential medical supplies.
But what else can we expect? For Trump, forever chained to his hamster wheel of self, the past is always prologue.There will be more heroic posturing.More epochal incompetence. More political self-aggrandizement. More slanders against Democrats. More solipsistic press briefings. More efforts to subcontract federal responsibilities to struggling states and cities. More banishment of scientific truths and those who dare speak them. And much more misinformation – like the medical breakthroughs which never materialized, or the relief for embattled renters which doesn’t exist.
With luck, Trump’s self-preservation instinct will occasionally compel him to do something right—like listening to public health experts as a function of his self–proclaimed “natural ability” as a public health savant. Perhaps the flow of events will rescue him—a market rebound by Election Day, a flagging of the virus which restores a sense of normalcy. Or, failing that, an enormous rescue package passed by Congress in sheer desperation—for which, with a stroke of the pen, Trump will take full credit.
Will it work? As Bill Kristol notes: “If you’re willing to go further than any predecessor in deploying federal resources, unembarrassed to take advantage of disinformation and misinformation, and eager to collaborate with foreign powers, then your chances of victory simply can’t be ruled out.”
Because of the electoral college Trump need not muster a majority of Americans. He simply requires enough strategically-placed voters inclined to support the president who, in their hopeful imaginings, brought them to the brink of presumptive safety. After all, as even the historically-illiterate Trump surely knows, Democrats powered FDR’s reelection by insisting that “you don’t change horses in the middle of the stream.”
Is a dispositive plurality of Americans really that forgiving—or credulous? This much we know: a substantial minority dwells in Trump’s alternative reality. There are plenty of polls which find that a preponderance of Republicans believe that the media has exaggerated the virus for political purposes. On publishing his latest survey in mid-March, Peter Hart appended this sobering admonition:
Donald Trump’s political trademark has been polarization. For Republicans the support has ranged from the mid–eighties to the mid-nineties and for Democrats from about 5 percent to 15 percent. So through it all, Americans have divided along partisan lines on this president and his leadership. At this moment, nothing has changed. For those who believe we have seen an inflection point in the 2020 election, think again. There have been at least 20 inflection points since the day Trump announced to today’s current COVID-19 emergency. In each instance, partisan Democrats were certain this was the turning point. As dire as the news of today may seem, it remains to be seen if this will be the breaking point.
If it is not, then America’s sickness—like Trump’s own—goes deeper than any pandemic.