There are many, many strange things about the Republican political reaction to the Donald Trump presidency, but one of the strangest is the refrain I’ve heard time and time again—“Pay no attention to what Trump says. Pay attention to what he does.” In essence, the argument is that the Trump administration consistently saves Trump from himself by enacting policies that are far superior to Trump’s pronouncements.
Why do I say this is strange—especially since some of Trump’s policies are, in fact, better than his pronouncements? (This is not just true of Trump, by the way.) Well, because it’s been received conventional wisdom since the foundation of this republic that the president’s words matter. They matter a great deal.
Remember the endless arguments over whether Barack Obama should include the word “Islamic” when describing our jihadist foes? Remember how we’ve marked the great moments of prior presidencies by whether they “rose to the occasion” with words the American people needed to hear in times of fear and distress? Communication is a central part of the president’s job description.
And that brings me to the revelations this week that Donald Trump knew the coronavirus was far more deadly than the flu and yet deliberately played down the threat. I’m not going to rehash all the quotes, but the summary is in the tweet below, and the relevant recorded segments of Bob Woodward’s interviews with Trump are at the link:
And if you remotely doubt (even now) that Trump did what he said and did play down the virus, the receipts are everywhere:
The point of this piece is not to say that “lying is bad.” Of course it’s bad. The point instead is to note that these lies mattered. Back on March 10, one day after Trump compared COVID-19 to the flu, I wrote a newsletter that argued coronavirus requires a “high-trust response” in a “low-trust time”:
To minimize the risk of facing the kind of crisis that has killed thousands, crippled Chinese cities, damaged the Chinese economy, and is afflicting Italy, Americans will have to take the coronavirus seriously, and they’ll have to engage in at least some degree (even if small) of personal sacrifice.
That requires trust—including trust in your neighbors, in members of the media who transmit information about the virus, and in public health officials. That trust will require a change in behavior even if no one you know is sick, even if you feel healthy, and even if the virus isn’t yet in your community.
By March 10, a total of 30 Americans had died from coronavirus. Today, almost exactly six months from the day I wrote those words, the death toll is now more than 195,000 Americans. That’s likely an underestimate.
We will debate for years why the world’s wealthiest and most powerful nation, a nation chock-full of many of the best doctors and hospitals in the world, experienced such a disproportionately staggering death toll. But here’s one reason: A man who millions of people trust and who sets the tone for communications from massive right-wing news outlets and for massive right-wing celebrities told a series of lies. Those lies were transmitted and believed. People acted on those lies.
If you know anything about the right-wing media-entertainment complex, you know that many of its leading lights don’t just reject mainstream media or progressive critique. They thrive on it. They relish it. If these folks have a unifying ethos surrounding leftist attacks, it’s the silly sentence, “If you’re taking flak, it means you’re over the target.”
No, it can also mean you’re wrong—sometimes seriously wrong.
In fact, the celebrities of right-wing media are often so powerful within their own institutions that arguably the only person who can influence or check their public speech is the one man their audience loves more than them, President Trump. Yet make no mistake, as the president downplayed the virus for weeks, many of his champions carried that rhetorical torch with glee. A New York Times analysis found a host of communications that now, after almost 200,000 deaths, seem simply stunning:
A review of hundreds of hours of programming and social media traffic from Jan. 1 through mid-March — when the White House started urging people to stay home and limit their exposure to others — shows that doubt, cynicism and misinformation about the virus took root among many of Mr. Trump’s boosters in the right-wing media as the number of confirmed cases in the United States grew.
On Feb. 27, Mr. Hannity opened his show in a rage. “The apocalypse is imminent and you’re going to all die, all of you in the next 48 hours. And it’s all President Trump’s fault,” he said, adding, “Or at least that’s what the media mob and the Democratic extreme radical socialist party would like you to think.” His program would be one of many platforms with large audiences of conservatives — 5.6 million people watched Mr. Hannity interview the president on Fox last week — to misleadingly highlight statistics on deaths from the seasonal flu as a comparison.
On Feb. 28, Mr. Limbaugh read from an article from The Western Journal, a website that was blacklisted by Apple News last year for promoting articles Apple determined were “overwhelmingly rejected by the scientific community.” The coronavirus, Mr. Limbaugh said, “appears far less deadly” than the flu, but the government and the media “keep promoting panic.”
Faced with the inescapable fact that the virus was killing people, many conservatives started sounding fatalistic. Yes it’s deadly, they acknowledged, but so are a lot of other things. “How many people have died this year in the United States from snake bites?” the conservative radio host Dennis Prager asked in an online “fireside chat” posted March 12 to his website, PragerU, where it has been viewed more than 600,000 times.
I’ll be honest with y’all. I really try to resist anger. There’s just too much anger in American politics. In fact, a key theme of my book is that anger and enmity represent their own independent threat to the American republic. But the president’s deception makes me angry.
I’ve spoken to too many people in my neighborhood, church, and community who absorbed the president’s words, heard their favorite figures in the conservative media, and believed them—even to the point where when the president pivoted and began to acknowledge the full dimensions of the crisis, many of those folks believed that the president’s pivot was artificial, a product of Dr. Fauci’s nefarious influence and not a product of undeniable and deadly facts.
To condemn the president’s deception is not to defend the deceptions, mistakes, and bad faith of other actors in this national drama. Bill de Blasio, for example, deserves an entire wing in the coronavirus hall of shame. Conflicting early masking guidance and the obvious politicization of public health in response to Black Lives Matter protests also helped damage public trust and confidence. In any crisis so pervasive, there is often blame to go around.
And yes, I’ve seen folks in the conservative media—including friends of mine—argue that if the president had been sounding the alarm accurately and consistently that he would have faced immediate pushback from the Democrats and the media. I agree that the reality of negative polarization means that there are too many people who oppose anything Trump says simply because Trump said it. But that does not relieve the president of the obligation to tell the truth.
I’ve also seen Trump’s defenders—including Trump himself—latch onto his claim that he was trying to stop a “panic” as a defense. Here was Trump yesterday:
First, I must confess that it’s a little bit unusual to see Trump shun alarmism. He consistently hypes threats. He has argued that Joe Biden election could destroy this nation. Just yesterday he tweeted this entirely calm and temperate claim:
But putting aside the president’s typical alarmism, isn’t there a happy medium between denial and panic? It’s called the truth. Prepare the American people with calm conviction. Communicate to them that you understand the truth, we’re in this together, and we can endure, persevere, and—ultimately—triumph.
American history is replete with examples of presidents preparing Americans for long and painful struggles, and in many ways that kind of preparation was perhaps even more indispensable at the onset of this pandemic than it is when preparing Americans for most military conflicts. After all, “flattening the curve” and limiting the spread of the virus required public acceptance of the threat and massive voluntary compliance with public health guidelines and mandates. There are not enough police in the country to enforce mask mandates (nor would we want police to be so pervasive).
We had to do this together. We had to believe this was real. At a key moment, with hundreds of thousands of lives at stake, the president lied. He made many Americans disbelieve. When critics of the president declared, beginning even in 2015, that “character is destiny,” this is what we meant. When the time would come to tell the hard truths, the president was likely to fail—and fail he did.
One more thing…
One of the interesting coronavirus questions is the impact of individual choice versus government policy as a driver of human behavior. When America shut down, was the shutdown driven more by individual choice or government policy? Or, did the government policy merely ratify a civic shutdown that was already in process? There’s a fascinating new paper from Austan Goolsbee and Chad Syverson arguing that the lockdowns may have been far less decisive than we think:
The collapse of economic activity in 2020 from COVID-19 has been immense. An important question is how much of that resulted from government restrictions on activity versus people voluntarily choosing to stay home to avoid infection. This paper examines the drivers of the collapse using cellular phone records data on customer visits to more than 2.25 million individual businesses across 110 different industries. Comparing consumer behavior within the same commuting zones but across boundaries with different policy regimes suggests that legal shutdown orders account for only a modest share of the decline of economic activity (and that having county-level policy data is significantly more accurate than state-level data). While overall consumer traffic fell by 60 percentage points, legal restrictions explain only 7 of that. Individual choices were far more important and seem tied to fears of infection. Traffic started dropping before the legal orders were in place; was highly tied to the number of COVID deaths in the county; and showed a clear shift by consumers away from larger/busier stores toward smaller/less busy ones in the same industry. States repealing their shutdown orders saw identically modest recoveries–symmetric going down and coming back. The shutdown orders did, however, significantly reallocate consumer activity away from “nonessential” to “essential” businesses and from restaurants and bars toward groceries and other food sellers.
One last thing…
On Wednesday I shared the Dune trailer. While it was magnificent, I realized that some small slice of my readers (perhaps two percent?) don’t fully understand what the trailer meant. They don’t truly understand the glories that await. So, for you, here’s a Dune trailer explainer. Great stuff.