His primary public health gesture was the announcement of a travel ban from Europe. The explanation for this measure was terrifyingly ignorant. “We have seen fewer cases of the virus than are now present in Europe,” he boasted. This may not even be true. (It is possible that the U.S. only knows about fewer cases because of its atrocious testing regime.) Even if true, it would be irrelevant. The dynamic of the virus is that it spreads through populations. Starting at a lower level only means your caseload peaks a few days later.
Yet Trump seems to have absorbed the notion that Europe’s higher level of known cases means Europe is dirty and we are clean, and we can win by keeping Europeans away. The fact that the virus has already taken hold across the country, and that blocking foreign travel does essentially nothing to slow the spread of the disease, is beyond his grasp. He is closing the barn door after the horses have escaped. Yet even that simple metaphor captures a complexity that escapes him.
Even the nonsensical measure of the travel ban contains its own nonsensical exemption for the United Kingdom. Why Trump left out a country that has far more confirmed cases than many of the countries whose residents are banned, he did not say. Political affinity with its Prime Minister? A personal business stake for his European golf resorts, which are coincidentally located in exempted countries? No account was even offered.
Perhaps most astonishingly, the White House had to retract two policy announcements that Trump erroneously made either because he failed to read his text properly, or his speechwriters failed to describe his position. Trump announced his European travel ban would apply to “trade and cargo,” before the White House announced this was an error. Trump also told his audience, “I met with the leaders of health insurance industry who have agreed to waive all co-payments for coronavirus treatments, extend insurance coverage to these treatments and to prevent surprise medical billing.” The Insurance Industry quickly announced it had only agreed to cover testing, not treatment, for the coronavirus.
The cliche about Trump’s presidency is that it is malevolence tempered by incompetence. His haplessness would undermine his corruption and authoritarianism. But now, finally, the country faces a crisis in which Trump’s incompetence will not save us from him. His wholesale unfitness was on bright display from the Oval Office. It may be the most unsettling moment yet of this bleak era.
One of the hallmarks of authoritarianism is that it is congenitally blind, and therefore stupid:
What is “authoritarian blindness”? It’s a term for the well-documented tendency of an authoritarian state to be unaware of what is happening in the world around it and unable to respond appropriately. The paradox of authoritarian regimes is that the more efficient and all-pervasive the surveillance state, the less it knows about what is going on. The regime becomes blinded because people are afraid to tell the truth.
A fascinating article by Zeynep Tufekci described how this phenomenon was a factor in the Chinese government’s initial response to the COVID-19 outbreak. Because an authoritarian system is designed to suppress information, rather than absorb it, the doctors on the front lines who initially warned about the disease were ignored and sometimes punished: “If people are too afraid to talk, and if punishing people for ‘rumors’ becomes the norm, a doctor punished for spreading news of a disease in one province becomes just another day, rather than an indication of impending crisis.” . . .
You can begin to see how this might apply to the Trump administration. No, we do not live under an authoritarian system, and there is no well-developed surveillance state or regime of censorship in America. But Donald Trump has developed and promoted two key concepts that produce much the same effect as authoritarian blindness: “fake news” and the “deep state.”
The point of the “fake news” concept is to describe information from any media not obsequiously friendly to the president as some kind of conspiracy intended to hurt him. Veteran reporter Lesley Stahl says Trump told her he uses the term “to discredit you all and demean you all so that when you write negative stories about me no one will believe you.”
The point of the “deep state” concept is to describe information coming to the president from within the federal bureaucracy as a partisan conspiracy to overthrow him by means of a “coup.” (That’s the president’s word, not mine.) Thus, some of Trump’s prominent supporters dismissed a warning from a CDC official by spinning a conspiracy theory connecting her to the investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election.
The practical effect of these two concepts is that they create a voluntarily accepted, self-induced authoritarian blindness, in which the administration and its circle of sycophants will accept no information from outside their bubble.
Trump’s fantastically perverse and catastrophic non-response to this pandemic has always been overdetermined:
The president of the United States has long believed three things: The first is that reality isn’t real, there’s only “narrative.” The second is that he controls that narrative in accordance with his feelings (and Fox News). The third is that only his feelings are real or worth considering. . . .
Now Trump is trying to force-of-will a pandemic into not being a pandemic at all. “It’s going to disappear. One day it’s like a miracle, it will disappear,” Trump said at the White House on Feb. 28. On March 4, he said he had a “hunch” the mortality rate was “a fraction of 1 percent.” When it became a scandal that the United States simply didn’t have enough tests to screen people—and that an early version of the test was faulty—Trump said that the tests “are all perfect. Like the letter was perfect. The transcription was perfect.” It’s a telling comparison: His slow coronavirus response and his extortion of Ukraine are linked together in his mind as two things he needs to narrate as the opposite of what they are.
He’s also trying it on the economy. “Stock Market starting to look very good to me!” he tweeted Feb. 24 after the Dow dropped over 1,000 points. “Good for the consumer, gasoline prices coming down!” he tweeted Monday, as stocks plunged so quickly they triggered a pause in trading. “Nothing is shut down, life & the economy go on,” he said as conferences were canceled all over the country, universities moved to online classes, and the numbers of infected people crept up. But investors didn’t seem to believe him. The man has spent so long successfully outshouting facts that it’s clear he knows no other way. . .
Every day that this continues, Trump will wake up facing an ever-widening choice between the facts on the ground and the story he prefers to tell. We know which one he’ll choose. In the meantime, Americans are responding to this crisis as best they can—by operating on the assumption that what the president says isn’t true.
This is the deal with the devil that the Republican party elites made, to get their tax cuts and judges. This is the consequence of decades of poisonous propaganda from Fox News, Limbaugh, and the rest. A very large portion of the country is in the grip of a toxic combination of nativism, authoritarianism, and magical thinking.
The Republican party must be destroyed.
Excellent point from commenter rewenzo:
The comparison to China’s totalitarian state response to the virus is interesting. China first started off denying there was a problem until it was too late. But when China finally decided to take it seriously it was capable of marshalling an extreme amount of resources to combat the problem – mandatory quarantines, new hospitals, a national health care system which employs every doctor and runs every hospital, etc.
We kind of have the worst of both worlds in that, like an authoritarian state, our government is held hostage to authoritarian blindness because it must at all times assuage the ego of the President, who is an extremely terrible sociopath. On the other hand, unlike China, our government is fundamentally weak, and we are incapable of even belatedly mustering the kind of drastic response we will need.