Read: What Donald Trump’s books say about winning
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.”