It was the end of happy talk – no, not that cloying song from South Pacific – just the end of this particular president saying everything will be fine because he’s awesome. The pandemic caught up with him. He will keep saying he’s awesome – he’s that kind of guy – but the daily coronavirus task force briefing turned dark. Night was falling. Philip Rucker, the White House Bureau Chief for the Washington Post, and William Wan, their national correspondent covering health and science, were there as the lights went out:
President Trump and the physicians advising the federal pandemic response on Tuesday delivered a bleak outlook for the novel coronavirus’s spread across the country, predicting a best-case scenario of 100,000 to 240,000 fatalities in the United States and summoning all Americans to make additional sacrifices to slow the spread.
Trump adopted a newly somber and sedate tone – and contradicted many of his own previous assessments of the virus – as he instructed Americans to continue social distancing, school closures and other mitigation efforts for an additional thirty days and to think of the choices they make as matters of life and death.
Everyone who watches the daily briefings expects Trump to get angry and sneer at everyone and everything, and to get defensive about the oddest things – comments on his hair someone made long ago – and then to tell the nation how aggrieved he is that everyone doesn’t acknowledge his awesomeness. That’s not fair!
But not this time:
Trump and his coronavirus task force members said that community mitigation practices in place for the past fifteen days have worked and that extending them is essential. The mathematical modeling the White House presented suggests doing so could save hundreds of thousands of lives. Without community mitigation, the models predict, 1.5 million to 2.2 million Americans could die of COVID-19, the disease the virus causes, though no time frames or other details were provided for the figures.
Trump did begin to boast that because of him 2.2 million Americans would not die. He’d already saved all those lives. It would only be one or two hundred thousand dead because he had been awesome, but then someone must have tugged on his sleeve. He came back down to earth:
“Our country is in the midst of a great national trial unlike any it has ever faced before,” Trump said at an early evening news conference. He went on to call on every citizen to “make sacrifices” and every business to fulfill its “patriotic duty” to brace for even tougher days ahead.
“This is going to be a very painful – very, very painful two weeks,” Trump said. Sometime after April, he added, the country could transition back to normal with businesses reopening and people returning to work.
“It’s going to be like a burst of light, I really think, and I hope,” Trump said. “Our strength will be tested, our endurance will be tried, but America will answer with love and courage and ironclad resolve.”
That was all the happy talk he could muster, given the presentation that followed:
Deborah Birx, a physician who is coordinating the White House coronavirus task force, delivered a slide show marking a stark difference in the spread of the virus in New York and New Jersey, where the number of cases has spiked, and in the other 48 states and the District.
Birx said the federal government’s goal over the next month is to control the outbreak in New York and New Jersey while staving off outbreaks in other states and metropolitan areas.
“If you had more New York and New Jerseys – you know – Chicago, Detroit, L.A., Dallas, Houston, all of our major cities modeled like New York – that’s what gets us into trouble,” she said.
And that was an understatement:
Birx noted the Detroit, Chicago and New Orleans areas, as well as the state of Massachusetts, as places with a troubling rise in cases. She said spikes there and in other cities can be prevented only with mitigation in every community coast to coast.
Conservatives and the Trump base may be proud of heroic and brave states like Florida that refuse to do any statewide anything at all about this dark wave of death bearing down on us all, but keeping everything open and people mixing and having a fine time in large groups won’t stop the wave. Actually, nothing will, but people can do what they can:
“There’s no magic bullet,” Birx said. “There’s no magic vaccine or therapy. It’s just behaviors – each of our behaviors translating into something that changes the course of this viral pandemic over the next 30 days.”
That’s about it, so Trump gave in:
Trump said some of his business friends have advised him to “don’t do anything, just ride it out and think of it as the flu. But it’s not the flu. It’s vicious.”
He didn’t say who was saying that this was just the flu and telling him to do nothing at all. That might have been voices in his head, but he was casting himself as the hero here. The nation rose up and told him to do nothing. He heroically rejected that nonsense, for the good of the nation. He alone understood the danger. You can thank him now.
No one did, which set him off:
Trump largely kept to a serious tone through much of Tuesday’s news conference, yet he veered off course at several moments. He riffed about the “total hoax” of his impeachment, dinged House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on homelessness in her San Francisco district, promised to never approve the Green New Deal and took jabs at New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D).
“For whatever reason, New York got off to a very late start, and we see what happens,” Trump said – an apparent rebuke of Cuomo’s leadership that overlooked the fact that the president himself had dismissed the threat of the virus.
In addition, Trump complained about Cuomo’s frequent and impassioned pleas for federal help in New York. “For some people, no matter how much you give, it’s never enough,” Trump said.
Cuomo has been showing him up and he knows it, so that attack was both absurdly untrue and inevitable, and then an old friend turned on him:
Monday’s performance – when Trump turned over his Rose Garden rostrum to an array of corporate executives, one by one, to praise him and to pitch their products – touched a nerve for one of his more prominent supporters. New York sports talk radio icon Mike Francesa, a longtime and vocal defender of Trump, delivered an on-air tirade Tuesday about the president’s leadership.
“Don’t give me the MyPillow guy doing a song-and-dance up here on a Monday afternoon when people are dying in Queens,” Francesa said. “Get the stuff made, get the stuff where it needs to go, and get the boots on the ground! Treat this like the crisis it is!”
Francesa seized upon Trump’s comments Monday, that if the total number of coronavirus fatalities in the United States is between 100,000 and 200,000, that would count as a good job.
“How can you have a scoreboard that says 2,000 people have died and tell us, ‘It’s okay if another 198,000 die, that’s a good job,'” Francesa said. “How is that a good job in our country? It’s a good job if nobody else dies! Not if another 198,000 people die! So now 200,000 people are disposable?”
That must have hurt, but others had his back:
Some of Trump’s allies made excuses Tuesday for why the president and his team were so slow to recognize the threat. The first U.S. coronavirus case was reported on Jan. 21, and reports of a deadly outbreak in China preceded that.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Tuesday that Trump’s impeachment distracted the administration’s attention from the emerging crisis, seeming to lay blame on the congressional Democrats who led the effort.
“It came up while we were, you know, tied down in the impeachment trial,” McConnell said in an interview with conservative talk-radio host Hugh Hewitt. “And I think it diverted the attention of the government because everything, every day was all about impeachment.”
Rucker and Wan were not buying that:
The timeline of Trump’s impeachment – he was acquitted by the Senate on Feb. 5 – does not align with the president’s nonchalance about the coronavirus, which continued for well more than a month after his acquittal.
McConnell’s suggestion that the president or his administration was distracted by impeachment also does not comport with Trump’s schedule. During that period, he held a number of “Keep America Great” campaign rallies and fundraisers across the country, as well as playing golf and socializing at his Mar-a-Lago Club in Florida.
Trump repeatedly dismissed the threat the virus posed. After news of the first U.S. case broke in January, Trump said, “We have it totally under control. It’s going to be just fine.” Around the same time, Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) called on the federal government to declare the outbreak a public health emergency.
Trump continued to play down the danger of the coronavirus, saying in late February, “It’s going to disappear. One day, it’s like a miracle, it will disappear.”
That was absurd happy talk, but Trump turned that around:
Asked Tuesday about McConnell’s view that impeachment had distracted the president, Trump said he did not agree.
“I don’t think I would’ve done any better had I not been impeached,” Trump said. “I think that’s a great tribute to something. Maybe it’s a tribute to me.”
In short, they impeached him and he was still awesome. Nothing bothers him. He just goes on doing the perfect thing at the perfect time, and so on. By now, everyone knows exactly what he’s going to say over and over and over. Hundreds of thousands of Americans are about to die. He mentioned that. That bothers him. And by the way, did he ever mention how awesome he is?
And by the way, Tom Nichols is fed up with this:
“How can you stand it?”
It’s a question I’ve been asked many times as I sit through every almost single one of President Trump’s press conferences on the COVID-19 crisis, just as I have sat through or listened to almost all of his public speeches and rallies.
A recent circus in the Rose Garden was especially trying. It featured Trump again losing his temper at PBS reporter Yamiche Alcindor, bragging about what a great job he’s doing, and claiming that he knows more about South Korea than anyone (he doesn’t).
He brought up a parade of CEOs, including a cameo appearance from the “My Pillow” company owner and indefatigable Trump cheerleader Mike Lindell, who turned an admirable gesture by his company into a campaign plug, replete with a creepy mini-sermon about how God chose Trump and how we must put God back in our schools.
We didn’t learn much; but then, we rarely do from these shameful spectacles.
It’s exhausting and enervating, watching the leader of your country rant, bluster and lie, putting what former GOP White House staffer Peter Wehner has called his “disordered personality” on full display regularly. Why would I do it? Why would anyone?
Why? Because that’s how one learns more important things, because that’s the job:
First, as a professional matter, I’m a political scientist, and Trump is the president. When the president speaks, I tune in and listen, as I have with every chief executive. Even if I don’t learn much about policy – because Trump really doesn’t have “policies” so much as he has random thoughts and reactions – I still need to know what my fellow citizens are watching and what they’re being told.
The other is that Trump’s rambling press conferences, South Lawn fandangos and bellowing rallies are now a real-time laboratory in democratic decline, and I think it’s important to be a consistent witness to it all. Although I often live-tweet his public events as a kind of venting (it’s better than yelling at the television, really, and my wife has gotten to the point where she can’t watch Trump, so I’m usually on my own anyway), I actually am trying to figure out the impact on my own society.
Comparisons to other nations and other times (like the inane and overused Nazi analogies used by too many of Trump’s most bitter opponents) don’t help very much. It’s difficult even to place Trump’s unhinged performances within the American experience, because these past three years feel, at least to me, like a unique break in the American character.
In short, this is new:
Sure, we had zingers in public exchanges, from “You’re no JFK” to “There you go again,” but we had basic rules about not threatening to lock each other up or throwing around words like “treason.” We never celebrated Trump’s brand of crude ignorance, his vulgar taunts, and the fusillade of lies that come too fast even for teams of fact-checkers.
And so I watch, because at some point this will end and we will have to repair the damage to our political system and our constitutional order. And to understand how to do that, we will need to remember how it happened and what it looked like while that damage was being dealt to our institutions.
And this is what it looked like:
There are only so many of Trump’s public statements you can listen to before you doubt your own grip on reality. That is the point, really, of a Trump speech: To cast everything into doubt. As Russian dissident Garry Kasparov notes, this is one place where Trump is like other authoritarians: He’s less interested in getting you to believe his story then he is in getting you to believe in nothing at all, so that he can improvise and lie at will without fear of contradiction.
I hear Trump contradict his own words, even as they’re being read to him verbatim, and I wonder how Americans watching a president brazenly lie end up angry at the journalist who asked the question rather than Trump himself.
I watch sycophants like Lindell tell us that God chose Trump and I wonder how many millions of people think God picks presidents (something alien to my personal faith as a Christian) but then reassure themselves that He somehow didn’t pick Obama.
None of it makes sense, but Nichols says that is precisely why he watches:
I watch because we all should, in order to ensure that we can tell our fellow citizens about it even if they refuse to listen. When this is over, there will be many Americans who will claim they didn’t know what the president said, when he said it, or what responsibility he might bear for any of this. I will not be one of them. I will remember. And I will speak up about it, for a long time to come.
That’s what he does. Nichols made a parallel argument in his 2017 book The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters:
People are now exposed to more information than ever before, provided both by technology and by increasing access to every level of education. These societal gains, however, have also helped fuel a surge in narcissistic and misguided intellectual egalitarianism that has crippled informed debates on any number of issues. Today, everyone knows everything: with only a quick trip through WebMD or Wikipedia, average citizens believe themselves to be on an equal intellectual footing with doctors and diplomats. All voices, even the most ridiculous, demand to be taken with equal seriousness, and any claim to the contrary is dismissed as undemocratic elitism.
Nichols is a professor at the Naval War College and a Senior Associate of the Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs, and a Fellow of the International History Institute at Boston University, and he used to teach international relations and Russian affairs at Dartmouth and Georgetown, and he has worked as a defense and security affairs staffer in the Senate, so his frustration is understandable. Cab drivers tell him they know as much about any of this stuff as he does, and that their opinions are as good as his.
He’s worried about the country. His book was about America now unable to figure things out, because anyone can claim to be an expert, and does, angrily. And that sort of thing made Donald Trump inevitable. And of course Donald Trump is narcissistic and misguided intellectual egalitarianism personified.
But that’s everywhere. Alexandra Petri offers this:
Let me start by saying: I am not an epidemiologist. I do not know anything about diseases. Am I a doctor? Is an online certificate from the Universal Life Church a medical degree? Does owning a tiger make you a doctor, automatically? Does having long, lustrous hair and a white coat make you a doctor? If the president smiled at you, once, from the driver’s seat of a truck, does that make you a doctor?
Actually, it is not accurate to say that I know nothing about diseases. That does not go far enough. It is not just that I know nothing about diseases: I also do not know anything about the spread of diseases. If I were to venture any opinion about what is going on, it would be a combination of guesswork and this feeling I have always had that I am much smarter than I actually am, that if I really squinted hard enough at a sentence written in French, I would just suddenly understand it, by instinct.
These egalitarian experts are all over social media, feeding the guy in the White House, who is one of them too. This is Tom Nichols’ nightmare:
I have what could be loosely described as “expertise” in an entirely different field, a field that, let me stress, is not related in any way to the subject at hand. What I bring to the subject I am talking about now is not years of expertise – in fact, the exact opposite! But I have two eyes, and a brain, and I can see what is in front of me, and I am also going to mention my expertise in the other field, which will muddle everything. Who are you to say that someone who has spent his life studying Napoleonic artillery knows nothing about the coronavirus?
I am one of those people who, when he hears all the scientists who have dedicated their lives to figuring out a specific problem saying one thing, in unison, think “That can’t possibly be right. In fact, I bet the opposite is true!” When I hear, “That is something no actual scientist would ever consider,” I know that I am on the right track.
And that explains America today:
Again: I know literally nothing. What I am going to say will sow bewilderment, and, probably, be harmful. To be clear: I have no useful information to share, but that does not mean that what I say will not go out onto the Internet and be read and taken to heart by grandmas on Facebook and, if I am lucky, the president of the United States himself.
Don’t worry. He’s already there… but not this day. One hundred to over two hundred thousand American citizens seem certain to die soon, or soon enough, and he’s the president, and he is now unable to do anything even vaguely useful about that. And he knows he will pay for that, so there can be no more happy talk. God knows what comes next.