The president of the United States is a menace to public health.
I don’t mean that I disagree with him on policy, although I do. I don’t mean that I abhor the president’s expressed bigotry toward religious and ethnic minorities, although that is also true. I am not referring to Donald Trump’s efforts to corrupt the Justice Department, shield his criminal associates from legal peril, or funnel taxpayer money to his tacky hotels and golf courses, although all of these things are reason enough to oppose the president.
What I am referring to is the fact that, soon after the coronavirus outbreak emerged in China, the rest of the world began to regard it as a threat to public health, while Trump has seen it as a public-relations problem. Trump’s primary method of dealing with public-relations problems is to exert the full force of the authoritarian cult of personality that surrounds him to deny that a problem even exists. This approach has paid political dividends for the Republican Party, in the form of judicial appointments, tax cuts for the wealthy, and a rapid erosion of the rule of law. But applied to the deadly pandemic now sweeping the planet, all it has done is exacerbate the inevitable public-health crisis, while leaving both the federal government and the entire swath of the country that hangs on his every word unprepared for the catastrophe now unfolding in the United States. The cardinal belief of Trumpism is that loyalty to Trump is loyalty to the country, and that equation leaves no room for the public interest.
Neither the tide of pestilence sweeping the nation nor the economic calamity that will follow was inevitable. They are the predictable outcomes of the president’s authoritarian instincts, his obvious incompetence, and the propaganda apparatus that has shielded him from accountability by ensuring that the public is blinded to his role in the scale of this disaster.
Trump’s first public remarks on the coronavirus came during an interview with the CNBC reporter Joe Kernen on January 22. Kernen asked, “Are there worries about a pandemic at this point?” To which Trump replied, “No. Not at all. And—we’re—we have it totally under control. It’s one person coming in from China, and we have it under control. It’s—going to be just fine.” In February, he falsely declared that “we are very close to a vaccine,” and that “within a couple of days [the number of cases] is going to be down to close to zero.” In early March, he was still urging Americans to ignore the issue, saying, “It will go away. Just stay calm. It will go away.”
One might argue in the president’s defense that panic serves no one. It is important, in fact, that political leaders urge calm in the face of a crisis, even as they prepare for the worst.
Except Trump was not preparing. He was consciously contradicting his administration’s own public-health officials at the time. In February, while Trump was lying to the public about being “close to a vaccine” and that cases “were going to be down to close to zero,” the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention official Nancy Messonnier was telling reporters that Americans should get ready for “significant disruption to our lives.” The day after Trump told the public that “it will go away,” Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, testified to Congress that “we will see more cases, and things will get worse than they are right now.” Trump wasn’t trying to maintain firm resolve in the face of a crisis. He was lying to the public about the dangers it was facing in order to preserve his public standing.
Nor were the president’s dismissals of the dangers posed by the coronavirus an attempt to buy time for the federal government to appropriately respond. Trump has dealt with the pandemic with all the competence you would expect from someone whose main experience is pretending to be a tough businessman on television. The administration failed to ramp up testing capacity in time to determine the scope of infections, while lying to the public that “millions of tests” were available; it failed to mobilize federal resources such as the Department of Veterans Affairs, the National Disaster Medical System, or the Army Corps of Engineers. Trump declared a state of emergency only on March 13, reportedly concerned that doing so earlier “could hamper his narrative that the coronavirus is similar to the seasonal flu and could further agitate Wall Street.” As of Tuesday, according to The New York Times, the Army Corps of Engineers was “still awaiting orders.”
In the meantime, doctors, nurses, and EMTs are getting sick. Medical workers are running out of face masks and gloves. The United States does not have enough ventilators for critically ill patients who need them. States lack sufficient testing capacity to measure the scale of the outbreak. Emergency rooms are overwhelmed. Hospitals are running out of beds. The president is tweeting praise of himself.
Nor has the president’s party evinced any greater sense of civic obligation than the president himself. Instead, as Trump downplayed the potential consequences of an outbreak, did nothing to prepare the federal government to curtail one, lied to the public about the availability of coronavirus tests, falsely claimed that the number of cases was going down, and misled the public about measures being taken to contain new infections, Republicans were echoing the servile praise of conservative media outlets and Trump officials, even as they quietly understood that the nation was about to be overwhelmed by a global pandemic, having been briefed in late January about the seriousness of the contagion. But instead of informing their own constituents about the danger they were in, several allegedly attempted to profiteer off of a pandemic by selling stocks right before one of the biggest Wall Street market crashes in American history. Properly warning the public of impending catastrophe might have drawn condemnation from the president, so they watched the cataclysm silently while turning a profit.
Other nations not led by Trump have also struggled to restrain the spread of the coronavirus. But the United States had advance notice of how bad the pandemic would get not just from China, but from Italy, where the potential severity was apparent in late February. South Korea, whose first case of the coronavirus was detected in late January, around the same time as the first case in the United States, has already contained its own outbreak by rapidly developing and implementing a widespread testing regime. Trump spent the intervening weeks trying to pump stocks and lying to the public about having everything under control, while the conservative propaganda apparatus that surrounds him did the same. Even public-health officials were forced to serve two masters, having to juggle their responsibilities coping with the widening coronavirus pandemic while maintaining a Juche-like commitment to lavishing the president with praise.
The bizarre ritual of public-health officials fawning over the president during coronavirus briefings is not some trivial matter. In fact, it illustrates how democratic backsliding during the Trump administration has damaged the federal government’s ability to respond to emergencies and the credibility of its public statements on matters of life and death. Authoritarian leaders prize loyalty over expertise, and part of the way such leaders determine loyalty is through demanding sycophantic praise from underlings, smoking out those unwilling to bend the knee. This is how you end up with the president’s unqualified, pampered son-in-law, his foggy brain addled by Fox News propaganda, using his influence to undermine officials trying to turn back the outbreak.
A pandemic is precisely the kind of situation that shows why it is important to have a government staffed by qualified civil servants, rather than whimpering toadies who can’t deliver bad news to a mercurial president whose main priority is protecting himself. At least part of the federal government’s delayed response, Politico reported, is because Trump “rewards those underlings who tell him what he wants to hear while shunning those who deliver bad news.” The president’s fragile ego is proving deadly.
Trump is hardly the first politician to lie about the scope of a problem to preserve his public image. The distinction here is that, having decided that he would downplay the dangers of the coronavirus, the authoritarian cult of personality built up around the president and maintained by conservative media reverently amplified the president’s messaging. The conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh, to whom Trump recently gave the Presidential Medal of Freedom, told his listeners that “this virus is the common cold.” The Fox News host Sean Hannity proclaimed that the president’s critics were attempting to “bludgeon Trump with this new hoax,” while his colleague Pete Hegseth told viewers, “I feel like the more I learn about this, the less there is to worry about.” The network aired a parade of medical experts offering bogus health advice about the coronavirus, including the claim that the “worst-case scenario” is that “it could be the flu.” Republican legislators appeared on the network urging Americans to defy federal health officials’ advice to avoid large public gatherings and work from home if possible, with Representative Devin Nunes of California telling Fox News on March 15, “It’s a great time to just go out, go to a local restaurant,” or “go to your local pub.”
Trump and the conservative media apparatus have had the predictable impact of persuading audiences not to take health officials’ warnings seriously, viewing them as just another liberal “hoax.” One pastor in Arkansas told The Washington Post that “half of his church is ready to lick the floor, to prove there’s no actual virus,” adding that “in your more politically conservative regions, closing is not interpreted as caring for you. It’s interpreted as liberalism, or buying into the hype.”
Conservatives have argued that it is the mainstream media’s fault for being so relentlessly negative about the president. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich tweeted that “one of the dangerous consequences of having a totally dishonest left wing news media was that most Americans discounted their hysteria as phony.” Gingrich’s attempted indictment of the mainstream press is a backhanded acknowledgment that the conservative media do not conceive of their job as informing the public.
It’s true that the media often make mistakes; they are, after all, made up of human beings. Media conventions can be subverted, facts can be misunderstood or misreported, sources can mislead, reporters can succumb to confirmation bias, and editors can fail to see the big picture. For the most part, though, these outlets are trying their best to inform the public.
Trumpist media outlets, by contrast, have created a bubble of unreality where nothing but the most effusive praise of Trump is acceptable, where anyone who disagrees with or criticizes the president is part of a grand conspiracy to destroy him, and where the only facts that exist are those that reflect well on the president. Many conservatives don’t distrust the mainstream media because they are biased; they distrust the media because the media do not tell them what they want to hear, and their own outlets have trained them to believe that the truth can only be exactly what they want to hear.
Nor can mainstream media bias explain why many Trumpist media outlets, supposedly so much more committed to the truth than their mainstream counterparts, consciously endangered their audience by disregarding and dismissing public-health warnings. Fox News told its audience that the coronavirus was a minor problem their heroic leader was quickly resolving, while quietly having its staff follow the very precautions its hosts were ridiculing on air. The mainstream press didn’t force Fox News to do that.
The coronavirus pandemic provides a rigorous case study in the priorities of most of the conservative press: Faced with a choice between informing their own audiences about dire threats to public health and propping up a Republican president, they chose the latter, because informing the public is not their job. The job of outlets like Fox News is to ensure that the conservative masses believe that their leader is infallible, even if it causes them tremendous personal harm.
As cases began flooding into hospitals and medical facilities all over the country, the president shifted his tone, finally recognizing the reality of the pandemic and the economic catastrophe that threatens both the health and livelihoods of millions of Americans. On Tuesday, Trump declared that “this is a pandemic,” and that “I felt it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic.” Having denied that the coronavirus was a major issue for months, the president sought to recast himself as an oracle, and conservative media followed suit, shifting their tone from downplaying the severity of the pandemic to praising the heroic efforts of the president to address it.
Predictably, Trump drew praise from some cable-news personalities for doing a passable job of portraying a president on television, even as the administration’s failures continued to exacerbate the personal and economic toll of the pandemic. This is somewhat understandable; Americans want to believe that their leaders are competent, engaged, and concerned about their well-being. Recognizing that the presidency is occupied by an incompetent narcissist whose major life accomplishment is parlaying an inherited fortune into reality-show celebrity is rather less comforting, but it is the world we live in.
Yet the incentives for the president and the conservative media have not changed. All that has changed is that it is now in the president’s personal and political interest to cushion the terrible impact of the coronavirus pandemic. This is a positive development as far as it goes, in that, for the moment, the national interest and Trump’s interests are one and the same. But Trump’s authoritarian cult of personality persists, and where maintaining the image of the infallible leader conflicts with the needs of Americans affected by the pandemic, the former will take precedence. The president is a relentless scammer at heart, and even during a pandemic he will attempt to get what he wants while providing as little as possible in return, as though he were trying to save cash by stiffing a contractor.
Having failed to will the coronavirus pandemic into nonexistence, the president, his party, and his propaganda machine will seek to rewrite history to render the false impression that Trump was aware of the threat of the pandemic all along, and that he acted decisively to address it. The truth is that, in the weeks and months Trump and the conservative press were busy pumping stocks, juking stats, and misleading the public, valuable time to prepare for the pandemic was lost. Americans, both those who get sick and those whose workplaces and businesses will close as a result, will suffer dearly.
A global pandemic would have been a challenge for any administration, for any government. But the scale of this tragedy was not inevitable. America’s shuttered storefronts, overflowing emergency rooms, and shattered families are the toxic fruit of a political culture in which Donald Trump’s image, as the avatar of the will of the people, matters more than actual people do.