The Political Genius of Donald Trump

The president is transmuting his calamitous failures into political gold.

President Trump
Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

Donald Trump is presiding over one of the worst calamities to befall the nation in living memory, and anyone who has followed his response since the coronavirus morphed from a worrisome outbreak in a Chinese province into a global pandemic knows the truth: Trump’s response has been disastrous. It’s no wonder that just a couple of weeks ago, a writer in this magazine concluded that “the Trump presidency is over.”

It seemed reasonable, logical. But once the polls started coming in, it turned out the American public—at least for now—disagrees. Despite his well-documented incompetence and lies, Trump is now enjoying some of the highest approval ratings of his presidency. Even more baffling, a majority of Americans—as many as 60 percent in one poll—think he’s doing a good job tackling the crisis.

Give the president his due: Trump is a genius. He is a master manipulator, a political alchemist capable of transmuting calamitous errors into political gold. Even as he continues to lie and deceive, the president has seized control of the narrative, taking possession of the national microphone to saturate the public with his self-serving version of events.

And it’s working.

All the fact-checkers, scientists, journalists, doctors, nurses, mayors, and governors may be telling a different story. But Trump takes to the White House podium day after day, crafting a narrative, offering the same staccato sentences over and over—“We’ve done a great job”—taking credit for each positive development, conjuring nonexistent progress, blaming others for every failure, demanding that those around him sing his praises before the cameras, and extorting praise from governors in exchange for federal aid. He repeats this until the extent of his failures, however well documented, fades from the minds of a large segment of Americans, desperate to feel protected in the face of a mysterious and frightening threat.

When Trump stands at the podium and Vice President Mike Pence and others slather him with adulation, some viewers may find it stomach-turning. Those of us who have witnessed similar displays in dictatorships are sickened to see it in the United States. It may seem like pointless ego massaging for an insecure man, but it has tactical value. Every desperate governor who refrains from pointing out Trump’s outrages, every Trump toady who lavishes praise, helps erect a monument to Trump’s greatness, obscuring the facts.

That Trump failed in his responsibilities as president at the worst possible time should be beyond dispute. Shelves will creak under the weight of volumes describing all that made the pandemic explode out of control; dissertations will delve into the horrific mistakes made not just by the Trump administration but by the president, personally.

The virus is not Trump’s fault, and not every one of his decisions was a mistake, but his failings kept the United States from taking actions that might have prevented a crisis whose full toll, overwhelming as it already is, remains unknowable: thousands of deaths, trillions in government spending, trillions more in lost government revenues, personal bankruptcies, lost businesses, and national trauma.

The timeline of the pandemic is a story of Trumpian misinformation. Trump’s alternative reality has grown familiar, but this time the consequences are deadly.

“Are there worries about a pandemic?” a reporter asked Trump in late January. “No, not at all,” he said, “we have it totally under control.” He repeated the message for weeks, as the caseload grew at home and abroad. “We’re going down, not up,” he said in late February, predicting once again that “it’s going to disappear … like a miracle.” It would disappear by April, he said.

Was he simply misinformed? No. The information was there. In January and February, intelligence officials tried to convince him that the risk was real. But he had no patience for them. He told Fox viewers, “It’s all under control.” Fox anchors repeated what he said, and Trump got his news from Fox, in a deadly feedback loop.

Even before the first cases of COVID-19 appeared in China, Trump should have been preparing for a pandemic, a threat that has long been near the top of strategists’ agendas. Just last year, Trump’s own Department of Health and Human Services ran a simulation of a pandemic originating in China. The simulation projected that more than 100 million Americans could be infected, and found the U.S. underprepared. But Trump had dismantled the National Security Council’s office devoted to global-health threats, and had little tolerance for anyone warning of a looming disaster.

When Nancy Messonnier, a top scientist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, raised the alarm over the novel coronavirus, saying we should be preparing for “significant disruption of our lives,” and exhorted “hospitals, schools and everyday people to begin preparing,” Trump was reportedly furious. Two days later, her boss, CDC chief Robert Redfield, all but apologized in Congress for Messonnier’s words.

The signal to other government employees was clear: Stick to Trump’s message.

After stocks crashed, Trump’s denial ended, replaced with a barrage of misinformation. He falsely claimed there were tests for anyone who wants them; he promoted unproven cures from the podium; and, most important, he proclaimed himself a master of pandemic response.

Anything that went wrong was someone else’s fault. “I don’t take responsibility at all,” he memorably declared. “No one expected” a pandemic, he said over and over, lying about what he had been told.

He resisted pleas from New York Governor Andrew Cuomo to use the unmatched power of the federal government to produce desperately needed ventilators. After inexcusable delays, and prompted by pressure from businesses, he belatedly invoked the Defense Production Act—but has continued to suggest that the need for ventilators is being exaggerated. He said he wanted to open up the country in time for “packed churches” on Easter, a course that would have worsened the catastrophe.

Thankfully, on Sunday, he changed course—unveiling his latest gambit to emerge triumphant from one of the most colossal failures of leadership in the history of the United States. Trump cited a study that said up to 2.2 million Americans could die from COVID-19 unless appropriate measures were taken. Trump already knew about the widely publicized study when he touted lifting restrictions by Easter. But suddenly, Trump saw it as his lifeline.

“You’re talking about a potential of up to 2.2 million. And some people said it could even be higher than that. So you’re talking about 2.2 million deaths—2.2 million people from this,” he said, repeating the number over and over, anchoring his audience’s expectations.

“And so if we can hold that down, as we’re saying, to 100,000—that’s a horrible number—maybe even less, but to 100,000, so we have between 100 [thousand] and 200,000, we all, together, have done a very good job.”

Trump has found a new marketing plan just in time for the November elections. If 200,000 Americans die on his watch, he will boast of having saved 2 million—and many Americans will see him as a hero.