No Empathy, Only Anger

Those seeking to support Trump’s party line need an excuse for their months of denial and deception—and they’ve found it.

Donald Trump
Alex Wong / Getty

On the evening of June 21, 1941, American Communists went to bed subject to one party line. At the sun set, Britain was fighting an imperialist war against Germany, about which the United States must remain neutral.

American Communists awoke on June 22, 1941, to discover the party line abruptly changed. Hitler had invaded the Soviet Union. Now the war was a struggle between democracy and fascism, one the United States must immediately join.

The personalities on Fox News executed a similarly abrupt and total pivot on March 13, 2020. The Washington Post produced a stark before/after anthology of the same hosts saying precisely opposite things a few days apart.

Yet the many weeks of denial have had their effect. An Economist poll released March 18 found that only 38 percent of Fox News viewers took the virus seriously, half as many as among MSNBC and CNN viewers. For Trump’s sake, Fox risked the lives of its own audience.

Like the old Moscow-line Communists, the upholders of the Trump party line now need an excuse for their long history of denial and deception. They insisted it was not Trump’s fault that he, and they, squandered precious weeks and that his administration is suddenly dithering and failing. No, no, Trump's failure was China’s fault! Did video evidence contradict the Trump party line? They accused anyone who recalled the truth of repeating Chinese propaganda.

The Trump party line swaps new lies for old. Whereas once the ideological enforcers called concern over the virus a hoax, now they say that it’s a hoax to remember they said it was a hoax.

The Atlantic has been pulled into the crosshairs of the new lies that replaced the old lies in a retweet by the president himself. In response to an article that documented how China’s official lying had aggravated the crisis in that country, and lamented that Trump’s official lying had done the same here, the president’s Twitter feed repeated a slur that The Atlantic “spews communist China’s propaganda.” This from a man who as a private citizen condoned the Tiananmen Square massacre, and who as president praised the mass-murdering Kim Jong Un as “one in 10,000.”

Trump wants Americans to call the novel coronavirus “the Chinese virus.” Trump’s new slogan aims at two goals.

The first goal is to shift blame away from Trump’s failures and onto China’s. This goal is very unlikely to succeed. We all saw Trump’s catastrophic misjudgments inflict their toll in real time. It was not the Chinese Communist Party that decided to host a cash-for-access party at Mar-a-Lago for Donald Trump Jr.’s girlfriend on the weekend of March 6–8, when a responsible president would have already begun modeling safe behavior. It was not the Chinese Communist Party that closed trans-Atlantic aviation and made no provision to receive throngs of returning Americans—exposing air travelers to hours of penned-in close contact with visibly sick people. It was not the Chinese Communist Party that urged Americans to buy stocks at the end of February, devastating the savings of anyone foolish enough to trust financial advice from Larry Kudlow, Eric Trump, or this president.

No, Trump won’t succeed in shifting blame.

It’s the second goal that could succeed. By revving up hate among their supporters against China, Trump and Fox can redirect those supporters’ rage from the dangerous target it might otherwise find: the trusted political and media figures who lied and lied and lied to them, exposing those supporters to disease and death for their own crass ends. Hate China, not me!

A president who sincerely mistrusted China would not have to resort to name-calling after the fact. He would have acted decisively, in good time. Instead, Trump relied on China to do his job for him. Trump tweeted on January 24: "China has been working very hard to contain the Coronavirus. The United States greatly appreciates their efforts and transparency. It will all work out well. In particular, on behalf of the American People, I want to thank President Xi!” It was Trump and Fox, not the independent media, who repeated Chinese propaganda and put Americans at risk.

A personal note: I was a target of one of Trump’s key media allies on Fox on Tuesday night, Tucker Carlson. Carlson has played an interestingly complex role on the Fox network. On the one hand, he was the first Fox host to speak some measure of truth about the virus, on Monday, March 9, two days after the infection-spreading birthday party at Mar-a-Lago. On the other hand, Carlson is the most explicit of Fox’s race-baiters, the Fox personality furthest from traditional conservatism and nearest to the new alt-right. Carlson is the main voice on Fox for Russian state propaganda, not only about Ukraine but even about such boutique issues as Montenegro. Carlson escapes the dilemma by attributing Trump-administration decisions to everybody except Trump himself, even blaming the Vanity Fair reporter who interviewed him instead of the president of the United States. “If you believe that the current paralysis is all Trump’s fault, you’re absolving an awful lot of guilty parties, maybe including yourself.”

Anyway, the personal bit:

China’s ambassadors are already spreading the lie that the Wuhan virus originated here in America, maybe created in a lab by the Pentagon. Don’t be shocked if at least one American media outlet promotes that idea. Many of them are already parroting the rest of the Chinese Communist Party line. A week ago, aging propagandist David Frum of The Atlantic suggested calling the coronavirus, quote, “The Trump plague” instead of the Wuhan virus.

What’s notable here is not the reference to me, but that Carlson builds his case against America’s independent media by citing something that has not happened: no reputable media organization has repeated China’s claim that the virus originated in the United States. When I tweeted March 9, “Wuhan virus or Trump plague?,” I was referencing not Carlson’s fantasy about what the media might say, but the hard fact that Trump had exposed Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel and other dignitaries to the coronavirus by proceeding with his weekend at Mar-a-Lago. Sadly, Carlson himself was one of those also exposed by Trump’s irresponsibility.

While Trump, Fox, and Carlson try to redirect the anger of the people they betrayed, it’s worth noticing something strikingly absent from the speeches and writings of this administration and its Trump-line network: a word of sympathy or compassion for the thousands of Americans getting sick and dying on this president’s watch, as a result of this president’s neglect of his duties. They’re not capable of such language. They gain power by targeting outsiders. A virus is the ultimate outsider, but it’s not a very satisfying target for rage. Only human beings will do, human beings marked in some way as different: by nationality, by ethnicity, by race.

After the 9/11 attacks, President George W. Bush made an early visit to a Washington mosque. He spoke feelingly against bigotry, and helped curb the rash of hate crimes that erupted in the fall of 2001.

Trump and his party-line media do not do that. They cannot do that. That would take empathy—and empathy might dangerously remind Americans of the tragic cost of Trump’s mismanagement and absent leadership. Rage is all they feel, so rage is all they can express. Hatred fills their hearts, so hatred fills their mouths. The government and the government-line television network are, for the time being, in the charge of broken souls. Those broken souls are breaking a nation.