Trump Is Building a Dystopia in Real Time

Every day, the president’s coronavirus briefings broadcast an alarming argument: that public health is best understood as a matter of PR.

Getty / The Atlantic

Yesterday, as part of the White House briefing on the coronavirus pandemic, William Bryan, the undersecretary for science and technology at the Department of Homeland Security, shared preliminary government research suggesting that “heat and humidity suppress COVID-19” and that “commonly available disinfectants work to kill the virus.”

Then Donald Trump took to the briefing room’s lectern. Seizing on the notion of efficient virus-slayings, he said, in part, this: “Supposing we hit the body with a tremendous—whether it’s ultraviolet or just very powerful light ... supposing you brought the light inside the body, which you can do either through the skin or in some other way.” And then the American president wondered aloud whether disinfectants might be used inside the body, in the lungs, as “almost a cleaning.”

Even for Donald Trump, whose far-flung moods during the briefings have included feral rage and fanciful optimism, the musing was remarkable. Light. Disinfectant. Almost a cleaning. Shortly after the briefing aired, a video circulated: a close-up of Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus task force coordinator, seated near the president, stony-faced. Shortly after that, doctors began weighing in on the musings that had been broadcast. (Vin Gupta, a pulmonologist and global-health-policy expert, to NBC News: “This notion of injecting or ingesting any type of cleansing product into the body is irresponsible, and it’s dangerous. It’s a common method that people utilize when they want to kill themselves.”) Shortly after that, the owner of Lysol issued a statement: “We must be clear that under no circumstance should our disinfectant products be administered into the human body (through injection, ingestion or any other route).”

In dystopias imagined in literature, television is a common character. The totalitarian regime of Fahrenheit 451 banned books but encouraged watching TV. George Orwell’s 1984 has the telescreen, a device that broadcasts and surveils at the same time. In Brave New World, Aldous Huxley imagined the “feelies”—movies whose tactile approaches to storytelling made them, allegedly, “far more real than reality.” The briefings that air on American television each day are tragically nonfictional. But they fit squarely in this dystopian tradition. They summon the sober set design of a government at work for its citizens: charts, slides, data, flags. But, because they are led by Trump, they typically sow chaos rather than provide comfort. They alchemize tragedy into a TV show. They end, sometimes, with people wondering whether they should drink Lysol to combat COVID-19. They lull, they lie, they muse, they confuse, and they do a version of what anxious authors warned might happen when television doubles as a means of control: They steadily underplay the human cost of a crisis. They are evidence of our own dystopia—aired live, every evening, on CNN.

“Because the ‘‘Ratings’’ of my News Conferences etc. are so high, ‘Bachelor finale, Monday Night Football type numbers’’ according to the @nytimes, the Lamestream Media is going CRAZY. ‘‘Trump is reaching too many people, we must stop him.’’ said one lunatic. See you at 5:00 P.M.!”

That was Trump, in late March, comparing the viewership of his coronavirus press briefings to the ratings of reality-TV shows. The tweet was, as so many things are when Trump is involved, both deeply unsettling and deeply unsurprising: The president has long made a habit of filtering American politics through the prism of American entertainment. When Trump announced his presidential candidacy in 2015, in the brass-hued atrium of Trump Tower, he made his entrance using the choreography that had been established for him on The Apprentice: descending the building’s escalator, smirking, like a god from a gaudy Olympus. (Reports soon followed that the candidate had hired the crowd who assembled to cheer him on that day, like extras on a TV set.) If Trump lost the election, the rumors went, he would parlay his newfound ubiquity into the founding of a TV network.

Instead, he built a presidency of stage production. Under the Trump administration, the nomination of a Supreme Court justice—a person who has outsize power over the bodies, minds, and freedoms of Americans—manifested as a Bachelor-style rose ceremony. His most recent State of the Union address—a text so laden with falsehoods that it stretches the definition of a presidential “speech”—resembled a talk show. In 2018, Trump began issuing video monologues that took after the talking-head interviews of reality television. The president instructed his videographers, according to one report, to “shoot me like I’m shot on The Apprentice.”

In one way, the press conferences are a logical continuation of Trump’s tropism toward spectacle. But they also crystallize precisely what is so abhorrent about his low-stakes, entertainment-inflected approach to politics. The briefings are meant to convey information about, literally, life and death. And within a functioning system, indeed, they would inform people and instruct people and, when possible, reassure people. Instead, Trump uses the events to insist on the merits of his own power—a rhetorical move that, since it cannot be proved by evidence, typically involves him downplaying deaths and fears and human suffering. On March 6, during a visit to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, he was asked whether passengers on a cruise ship anchored near San Francisco—some of whom had been exposed to the coronavirus—should be brought ashore. Trump responded, in part—again, to a question that involved the fates of people suffering from COVID-19—that he’d defer to medical experts but would prefer to prevent the passengers from coming ashore. Because “I like the numbers being where they are.”

The dystopias imagined in the 20th century—fictions molded by the blunt-force realities of totalitarianism—often treat TV as a metaphor for the curtailing of free speech and free thought. They also treat TV as a tool. But Trump, James Poniewozik argues in his 2019 book, Audience of One: Donald Trump, Television, and the Fracturing of America, isn’t merely a fan of television or a product of television or a user of television. In a very real sense, he also is television. He brings the logic of TV as a medium—its emphasis on spectacle, its frenzy, its insatiability, its moral vacuity—to his presidency. He is in many ways the manifestation of the anxieties expressed in the classic dystopias.

But his press conferences embody another kind of fear as well: the ones conveyed in The Hunger Games, in which TV works as a harbinger not only of curtailed freedom, but also of cruelty. And complacency. And complicity. The Hunger Games, that distinctly 21st-century dystopia, flips the Huxleyan premise: In Suzanne Collins’s political universe, The Hunger Games—a TV show that pits 24 young people against one another in a gruesome fight to the death—does not make for entertainment that is realer than real. TV, instead, works even more insidiously: It steadily nullifies the distinction between spectacle and reality. Under the show’s influence, citizens of the Capitol become capable of watching children murder one another and of applauding the exhilaration of the “games.” Collins got the idea for the story when, channel surfing, she happened upon a reality-TV competition—and then flipped to footage of the Iraq War.

The president has little regard for truth; the press conferences are evidence of what can happen when that failing collides with public health. Chaos reigns. The president downplays the severity of the crisis by contradicting both himself and the medical experts he brings to his stage. There was “When somebody is the president of the United States, the authority is total” … after there was “I don’t take responsibility at all.” There was “The CDC is advising the use of nonmedical cloth face covering as an additional voluntary public-health measure” … and, immediately afterward, “I don’t think I am going to be doing it.” On March 10, my colleague Adam Serwer notes, Trump told the public that the virus “will go away”; on March 11, Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, offered this testimony to Congress: “We will see more cases, and things will get worse than they are right now.”

There’s so much more. On March 30, Trump invited the inventor of My Pillow to join him at the lectern, to proclaim that “God’s grace” had allowed Trump’s election. Discussing projected-fatality models in early April, Trump saw fit to joke that the only type of model he’d dealt with was the female kind. As is his wont, he has repeatedly dismissed questions he doesn’t like—and the reporters who ask them—as “nasty.” During Monday’s briefing, he invited Todd Semonite, the head of the Army Corps of Engineers, to inform the country about the group’s work with pandemic-related infrastructure projects at hospitals and other public facilities—and then required Semonite to talk about Trump’s pet project: the wall at the nation’s southern border. During yesterday’s event, after Trump mused about whether the disinfectants used to clean kitchens might also be used to clean lungs, The Washington Post’s Philip Rucker noted that “people tuning into these briefings—they want to get information and guidance, and want to know what to do. They’re not looking for rumors.” Trump replied: “I’m the president and you’re fake news.”

These are not press conferences. They are not evidence of government in action. They are not news. They are reality shows that have no winners. “With each briefing, Trump is making us worse people,” Tom Nichols wrote earlier this month. The president is making America a worse country too. One insight of The Hunger Games is how easily political manipulation can be disguised by the shininess of pageantry. Our version of Collins’s reality show is not outwardly violent, not brazenly apocalyptic. It works much more insidiously. It suggests that human deaths are best understood as ideas—“numbers,” as the president puts it. It does not spend time mourning those lost, because mourning is also an admission of defeat against Trump’s “invisible enemy.” Hydroxychloroquine, the antimalarial drug, is a miracle one day and an afterthought the next. The American president wonders aloud whether lungs can be Lysoled, not seeming to care that there are real people on the other end of his wonderings. Public health is presented as a matter, fundamentally, of PR. Life, death, fear, hope—they all serve the president’s “ratings.”

Dystopia, as an idea, tends to conjure images of bleak landscapes and lockstepped armies and evidence of precipitous calamity. But dystopia, as a lived reality, does not announce itself so readily. Things fall apart gradually before they fall apart suddenly. Failing states fail in real time. The leader treats suffering as fiction. And still, the show goes on.