“My net worth fluctuates, and it goes up and down with the markets and with attitudes and with feelings, even my own feelings,” Donald Trump said in a 2007 deposition for a lawsuit he filed against journalist Tim O’Brien for reporting that Trump was not a billionaire. “Let me just understand that a little,” said O’Brien’s lawyer. “Your net worth goes up and down based upon your own feelings?” “Yes,” Trump said, “even my own feelings, as to where the world is, where the world is going, and that can change rapidly from day to day.”
I’m surfacing that exchange now because it’s a useful window into our present moment. 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. Tempting though it may be to dismiss these as the ravings of a solipsist, it’s to Trump’s credit that he has gotten a surprisingly large number of people to subscribe to these three tenets. Much of the apparatus of the executive branch is now led by people who bow to his whims and go to shocking lengths to make the things he says at least seem true. His attorney general has waved away investigations into the corruption he denies. The National Weather Service formally instructed the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration not to correct the president’s Sharpie modification of Hurricane Dorian’s path, even if it meant giving Americans in danger the wrong information. The director of national intelligence is refusing to brief Congress on electoral interference, reportedly over concerns he might say things Trump would find upsetting.
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.
For a time, it seemed to be working. “This is their new hoax,” Trump told a crowd at a rally on Feb. 28, turning criticism of his coronavirus response into a battle cry. He has dismissively compared COVID-19 to the flu (which has a much lower mortality rate). And, as ever, he’s found enablers. Rep. Matt Gaetz wore a gas mask to the floor of the House to mock lawmakers who’d wanted to appropriate funds for the pandemic. (He’s now in self-quarantine after being exposed to a coronavirus carrier at CPAC.) Laura Ingraham and Sean Hannity downplayed the threat of the virus to their elderly (and vulnerable) Fox News viewers and blamed Democrats for “weaponizing” it. Trish Regan gave a halting, sinister speech to Fox Business viewers Monday night about the “coronavirus impeachment hoax,” implying that concern over a pandemic that has all but brought China and Italy to a halt and started an international price war over oil is the dark work of Democrats trying to make the president look bad. If the virus is threatening Trump’s image, then either the virus must be dismissed as no big deal or Democrats must be blamed.
And yet the virus keeps spreading, and the stock market keeps roiling.
That has Trump trying to do two things at once: He’s trying to reassure Americans that everything is fine when it’s visibly not while overpraising himself for work he didn’t do to prepare. If the effect is bizarre and confusing, the result is that Americans are flying blind into a pandemic. The unforgivable shortage of tests—and the hoops doctors have to jump through before they can get patients tested—has created a situation where no one knows how many people are actually infected. Medical professionals have complained in frustration that CDC guidance is almost useless. Because the administration is built on sycophancy, the officials who should be spending their time and energy on the public’s health are instead wasting valuable effort on strenuously maintaining Trump’s fiction. The surgeon general—who is in his mid-40s—said on Sunday, absurdly, that Trump “sleeps less than I do and he’s healthier than what I am.” The director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Robert Redfield, began his remarks to the American people by praising Trump for his “decisive leadership.” “I think that’s the most important thing I want to say,” he said. Trump nodded.
This Trump-pleasing weakness in government isn’t just superficial lip service—it’s having real effects. We now know that health officials at the CDC wanted to recommend that elderly and physically fragile Americans avoid flying on commercial airlines. The White House ordered that the air travel recommendation be removed, endangering the very people the virus is likely to affect most severely. CDC officials couldn’t explain why they refused to use the World Health Organization’s coronavirus test and instead tried to develop one that failed. Trump himself has been quite forthright about wanting to cultivate ignorance on the number of infected Americans: Not knowing the real number is as good as the number not existing.
There is a silver lining here—not because it’s good news but because it’s useful to have clarity in alarming and confusing times, when different sources are saying different things. It’s this: The least trustworthy president in recent memory should be understood as a film negative during this crisis. The truth is an almost perfect inversion of what he says. He told the country it was OK to go to work with coronavirus. His economic adviser Larry Kudlow claimed on Friday that the virus was “contained.” White House senior adviser Kellyanne Conway told Fox News viewers the virus was “contained,” and all thanks to Trump’s quick action, too!
It’s possible the coronavirus has become too big to spin. Even the GOP has been forced—by literal infections—to recognize its severity. At CPAC, several lawmakers were exposed to a carrier who shook their hands. In the meantime, Redfield, HHS Secretary Alex Azar, and coronavirus czar Mike Pence have all contradicted Trump in one way or another over the past week. Azar corrected Trump when he said there would be a vaccine within months. “You won’t have a vaccine,” Azar said. “You’ll have a vaccine to go into testing.” The director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Anthony Fauci, threw cold water on Trump’s theory that the virus might just disappear when the weather gets warmer: “We have no guarantee at all that this is going to happen with this virus.” These are some signs that Trump’s efforts to mash the coronavirus into the story he wants to tell is failing, but that’s hardly reassuring. It is bad for Americans when the vice president and the HHS secretary, both charged with communicating the government’s plans to the public, can’t even agree with each other. “We don’t have enough tests today to meet what we anticipate will be the demand going forward,” Pence told reporters last Thursday. “There is no testing kit shortage, nor has there ever been,” Azar told reporters the next day—a lie so blatant one can’t help but wonder whether he’d been pressured by a certain disgruntled figure in the White House and succumbed.
Trump’s handling of other disasters—like Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico—has “worked” to the extent that his response has not been treated as the national scandal it is. We still don’t know the death toll in Puerto Rico; that’s how slow and bad the government response was. Thousands of Americans died, parts of the island were without electricity for 11 months, and yet it’s rarely mentioned as a major failure of Trump’s presidency. “I think we did a fantastic job in Puerto Rico,” Trump said. To the extent that this line worked, it’s because the people suffering were brown Americans with no electoral power, whose plight virtually everyone has subsequently ignored.
The coronavirus, however, is very much on the mainland, and it has populations with power in its sights. It’s already affecting the well-off—cruise ship passengers, international travelers, conference attendees, stock market investors. It’s even capable of affecting old white men who spend a lot of time in a dense places like D.C. Those are realities Trump has a much harder time denying. And its impact is expanding over time, rather than taking place in one fell swoop—and across two planes, one medical, one economic. Trump can propose an insufficient payroll tax break and say that reports of fear and uncertainty are fake news, but the alarms being raised by cities and schools and businesses show that few are buying what he’s selling. Americans are facing drastic disruptions to their lives. 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.