Expressing his skepticism about the utility of widespread coronavirus testing, President Donald Trump recently said: “When you test, you find something is wrong. With people.”
We may never have the tests to determine exactly what is wrong with Trump himself. But we know that something is wrong, and we have known this for a long time. We know that he fails to exhibit emotional qualities we reasonably expect of a leader, particularly in times of crisis. Most notably, he fails to have empathy for (or, at a minimum, awareness of) human illness, suffering, and death. We also know something is wrong because we have heard, seen, and read statements by the president that are inconsistent, factually incorrect, tangential, and more than occasionally incoherent. Depending on the topic and setting, these behaviors range from intermittent to continual. Years have been wasted in an intramural debate among mental health experts over whether to diagnose the president remotely, and what such a diagnosis might be. But that, too, is a distraction from what is directly in front of our eyes.
There is, even as the president blurs the line between reality and fantasy while talking about a lethal pandemic, a tendency to puzzle over the president’s actions, to wonder if they are somehow part of a complex political strategy. Is the president’s behavior “genius,” as a recent Washington Post commentary chose to call it, while still labeling it “irrational”? A simpler explanation is that both his distracting tweetstorms and incompetent leadership arise from the same underlying cause, even if we cannot label it, and the correct descriptor is not “brilliant.” But despite years of largely uninformed incoherence, it’s still difficult for many of us to resist the temptation to find order in the mess.
In the absence of psychiatric or cognitive tests Trump may never undergo, we cannot establish that some affirmative condition accounts for his daily shortage of rational output. This leaves us in the uncomfortable position of having to document only what Trump lacks. And while proving a nullity seems impossible, the truth is that one doesn’t need a Ph.D. in clinical psychology to observe and record the ordinary human behaviors the president hasn’t mastered. Any rational observer can do it. The burning question is why we don’t.
Anyone and everyone charged with reporting on this president should make a fundamental commitment that describing or interpreting this president’s statements and actions must highlight, on an ongoing and even repetitive basis, what they don’t see. Reporters, public intellectuals, and pundits should stop filling in Trump’s gaps for him and should allow as full a picture as possible to emerge of his cognitive and personal incompleteness. Not doing so explicitly has resulted in four years of rationalizing, contextualizing, and indeed—in popular parlance—“normalizing” a president few of us would trust to take care of a pet over the weekend.
Why does our public commentary about Donald Trump’s words and deeds so seldom start or finish with the honest observation, familiar from fairy tales, that “he isn’t wearing any clothes”? This unwillingness to mention the nakedness of his character, the absence of what is practically and morally required of presidents, becomes an act of draping layers of cloth over an unadorned and oblivious leader. And why do journalists and pundits keep doing this? The primary reason must be that news and its consumers and producers abhor a vacuum. Reporters and commentators are routinely tempted to supplement what Trump says—or imply that there is more to what he says than is in evidence—when instead the absence of factual support is the essential insight. The mind’s eye routinely fills missing details in what we see in order to generate familiar or desired images, and it seems that covering for this president has magnified this human tendency.
Some problems derive from the workflow of conventional reporting, particularly the sound bite nature of television news. It feels necessary to present Trump’s words in short bursts, which usually renders them more intelligible, while editing out the surrounding incoherence. It took a foreign correspondent from Australia, listening in 2017 to the president struggling to describe his proposed border wall, to realize how much routine editing in daily news coverage tended to normalize the content and cadence of Trump’s speech.
It is also common among media outlets to reproduce parts of Trump’s answers to media questions— particularly when he sounds combative (which is often)—without also representing the question. So audiences don’t see Trump’s frequent inability to grasp what he is being asked (not to be confused with rationally refusing to answer) and his tendency to offer nonresponsive musings for which no semblance of a larger context exists. Both indicia of Trump’s irrationality were harder to conceal during the hourlong solo Q& A’s after the White House coronavirus briefings that received wire-to-wire live coverage. The president relished these exchanges, but the sessions made it amply clear that Trump neither heard nor understood simple press questions—a fact that is not new but had been airbrushed out of years of daily reporting.
The sheer volume of Trump’s Twitter activity presents a related problem: Individual statements are often deemed newsworthy, reported, and then discussed, but public attention is only occasionally drawn to the abnormality of Trump’s overall output, including his frequent tweeting at unusual hours in the late night or early morning. After three years, moreover, even his most outrageous messages attract only fleeting notice (this past week he tweeted approvingly of a mob threatening a journalist at an anti-lockdown protest and accused a former congressman of murder), because many reporters following Trump on social media have decided to regard his tweetstorms as performative rather than unhinged.
It has taken years for some members of the mainstream press to note explicitly in headlines that Trump utters false statements. For most of Trump’s demonstrably untrue pronouncements, reporters typically work out contradictory factual information in the story, not the headline. But the current national crisis has underscored how insufficient this strategy is: There can be grave consequences from relying on readers to identify presidential misinformation through lengthy he says/she says reportage.
COVID-19 has brought Trump’s irrationality and incoherence into clearer focus, but it will take energy and commitment among both media sources and their audiences to continually center that fact. Typically, reporting as “breaking news” an impromptu presidential statement on a topic of unquestioned public importance—such as the projected number of pandemic-related deaths or the expected timetable for vaccine production and distribution—assumes a centurieslong but suddenly contestable predicate: that presidents try to be truthful, and their version of knowable facts is newsworthy. Trump, however, has uttered approximately 20,000 false or misleading statements since taking office, a substantial number of which have been traced to random Fox News hosts or fringe conservative websites.
Early COVID-19 coverage repeatedly ignored these prior probabilities. When Trump offered a specific number or a certain date, or announced a supposedly miraculous scientific breakthrough, media reports showcasing those statements implied, perhaps unintentionally, that his saying meant knowing. More recent coverage, however, takes account of Trump’s declared intent, which is that regardless of the risks, he would like to make America once again a nation of salespeople and shoppers, and finally regards his rosy declarations that fly in the face of widespread illness and death with skepticism. When the president claimed to be taking an unproven anti-malaria drug to prevent COVID infection, even some Fox News pundits acknowledged that this was uninformed, dangerous behavior.
To be sure, the cure for media credulousness is better media. Journalists who once believed that presidential announcements reflected special knowledge have learned via detailed reporting that Trump refuses to receive or understand nuanced information about the pandemic. The original White House plan contemplated daily meetings of the president’s coronavirus task force to be followed by public briefings. Trump, however, stopped attending the task force meetings. Then he stopped inviting experts to speak at the briefings. The nation repeatedly saw Trump walk to the podium, read a short, seemingly unfamiliar script in a flat monotone, and then “wing it” for an hour or more of questions from the press. Since those faux briefings ceased, Trump has repeatedly demonstrated contempt even for medical expertise from within his own administration. And so, many news outlets no longer present Trump’s medical statements verbatim in close to real time. Perhaps COVID-19, as part of its human devastation, has finally laid bare more of the president’s cognitive black holes.
COVID-19 has done less to break another journalistic habit that conceals Trump’s vacuity: conflating impulse with strategy. Why does media coverage rush to supply rational motives that may not exist? Because the demands of continuous media attention require storytelling, and the power of narrative lies in laying out motivation and conflict. A leader’s expected focus in this pandemic—to build common purpose, save lives, and restore confidence in economic activity—does not motivate Trump. So, reporters and commentators assume that something equally significant must be motivating him instead, like campaign strategy. Accordingly, Trump’s endless, chaotic disputes and frequent outbursts are routinely described as intentional distractions from his own incompetence or malfeasance, as dog whistles to rally his base, or as veiled signals to members of his own administration.
The better explanation is that he is just talking, on impulse. Certainly, Trump has a pervasive sense of self-interest, whether reflected in power, adulation, or immunity from criticism. But the frequency and character of his attacks suggest they are the consequence of poor impulse control more than any deep strategy. They evidence Trump’s own distraction; they need not have the purpose, and should not have the effect, of distracting others. COVID coverage has been increasingly cynical in the motives it supplies for Trump’s impulses—such as Chris Cuomo’s interpretation of Trump’s use of hydroxychloroquine to make Republicans seem braver than Democrats. But it has not reduced the media’s basic attribution error: There is no grand strategy here.
Finally, COVID coverage intensifies the mystery of the elephant in the room. If the president of the United States is not a rational actor, how can we expect rational action? The pandemic may have reduced journalistic tendencies to paper over daily examples of Trump’s missing pieces, but news coverage continues to excuse itself from connecting the dots of Trump’s episodic irrationality into a larger demonstration of incapacity. Scattered lay commentary suggests that a crisis of the magnitude facing America has caused a mental or emotional collapse on the president’s part, but few if any lines are traced to the persistent irrationality of Trump’s entire presidency.
This continues to be the case even though pandemic coverage has featured a near-continuous parade of physicians, epidemiologists, and other scientific experts willing to opine on countless other matters of health and medicine. Many of these experienced, informed clinicians have talked about Trump’s penchant for offering, with supreme self-confidence, potentially lethal guidance to the public regarding COVID-19 countermeasures—his touting of hydroxychloroquine, his prediction that the virus would disappear “like a miracle,” his musings about internal administration of bleach and light, his dismissiveness regarding testing and contact tracing. They have not hesitated to criticize and even countermand Trump’s specific health recommendations. But they refuse to apply that same expertise to explain why anyone would repeatedly concoct—and apparently believe—such utterly bizarre medical advice.
It seems that an arguably outdated, likely irrelevant professional taboo on mental health diagnosis has overshadowed, and ironically nearly obscured, the pathology of this presidency. Still, no psychiatric diagnosis is needed to assess the president, just more explicit acknowledgment of the causal possibilities and their associated risks. If a sixth grader can look at Trump’s behavior and conclude that he is emotionally challenged, unmoored from facts, and unable to speak the truth, why are informed, trained adults barred from saying the same thing?
Imagine dozens of medical experts watching Trump, an overweight man in advanced middle age, repeatedly struggling to climb flights of stairs on his various journeys. Imagine that he pants and wheezes, breaks into a cold sweat, clutches at his chest, and often stops to regroup, unable to proceed. Few clinicians would hesitate to suggest that, for both his benefit and the nation’s, a cardiac evaluation might be indicated. With respect to Trump’s persistent irrationality regarding COVID-19, only a handful of medical authorities have dared do so on broadcast television.
Ultimately, Trump’s deficiencies are our problem to deal with. The gaps, the absences, the holes in the commentary on this presidency map perfectly onto the empty spaces within the president himself. There are many explanations for our collective blinders—long-standing expectations of presidents, respect for wealth, receptivity to salesmanship, partisan division, financial opportunism, media echo chambers, foreign interests, aggressive lawyers, nondisclosure agreements. Still, we must find ways to report on his increasingly dangerous irrationality, and we must do so without inadvertently rationalizing it. In order to understand it, we have to stop trying to make sense of it.
For more of Slate’s coverage of COVID-19, listen to What Next.