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Trump’s Coronavirus Lies: Deception and Incompetence in Service of Authoritarianism

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

After weeks of deceiving the public, President Donald Trump finally delivered two addresses to the nation last week that acknowledged what half the country already knew – that coronavirus represents a serious public health crisis. The World Health Organization’s declaration of a global pandemic made it increasingly difficult for Trump to play dumb, as did the reality that investors on Wall Street understand that the volatility and instability associated with the virus’s spread represents a danger to economies and markets across the globe.

In his first address, Trump leveled with the nation about the need to “impede the transmission of the virus,” about the high risk for “the elderly population” among those “with underlying health conditions,” and recognized the need to “significantly impede the transmission of the virus.” He declared a national emergency in his second speech, freeing up $50 billion to combat the virus, although he stopped short of more encompassing measures such as bans on public gatherings, forced closings of restaurants and bars, or the suspension of domestic air travel.

Trump’s belated recognition of the coronavirus threat speaks to the reality that this president, through his own continued deception and incompetence, is responsible for intensifying the spread of the disease within the U.S. This is a president who told the public on numerous occasions that the coronavirus was nothing to worry about. He told Americans that the virus would be defeated and “disappear” due to spring weather, since “the heat generally kills this kind of virus.” He argued that the flu was a greater danger than coronavirus, despite the mortality rate of the latter being somewhere between 10 to 34 times higher than the former. He claimed that Americans could go to work, even if they had the virus, without much concern. And he and his reactionary supporters in the media attacked those warning about the virus’s spread for perpetuating a “fake news” hysteria.

We now know that Trump, a notorious “germaphobe,” privately expressed deep concerns about the very real danger of a coronavirus spread. Reporting from late-February described Trump as “furious” over the State Department’s decision mid-month to admit 14 Americans into the country from the Diamond Princess cruise ship, a story reported by the New York Times a full two-weeks before the President’s Wednesday speech to the nation. The timing reveals that Trump expressed private concerns about the risk of bringing Americans with the virus into the country, despite the refusal to share his worries with the American people. Publicly, Trump was lying through his teeth about the risks, as he claimed in his March 5th interview with Fox News that Americans could “get better” by “going to work,” and considering his March 9th attacks on Democrats and the media for pushing “fake news” due to their warning the public about coronavirus.

Some commentators have provided cover for Trump by claiming that his complaint about the entry of the 14 Diamond Princess passengers was more about optics than outright deception. Allegedly, Trump didn’t like the idea of the number of Americans with confirmed coronavirus doubling with the admittance of these individuals, suggesting that his concerns were primarily about the bad PR associated with their entry. But this claim misses the larger point: Trump has repeated history of lying about the dangers of coronavirus. Not only were his public announcements the opposite of the concerns he privately expressed, as related to the Diamond Princess passengers. But more recently, Trump has insisted that he is not personally worried about contracting the virus, while claiming that the risk to the large majority of Americans is “very, very low” – thereby downplaying the dangers associated with its spread. Privately, he is expressing serious concerns about being exposed to, and contracting the virus. To put it simply, Trump has a history of repeatedly lying to the public about the seriousness of coronavirus.

The above revelations are disturbing, not only in terms of demonstrating Trump’s deception, but because of what they tell us of his likely motives. The President seems to care more about his approval ratings, the state of the stock market, and his reelection prospects, than he does about heading off a dangerous and highly contagious virus, and he has acted accordingly to downplay an emerging pandemic and public health crisis in pursuit of his own narrow political and economic interests.

Trump’s duplicity has had a debilitating effect on the country. It is not hard to understand why U.S. health experts by early March were calling for “stricter measures” to curb the spread of the virus. As polling from early-to-mid-month reveals, large numbers of Americans are appallingly ignorant about the risks they are facing with coronavirus. Most simply aren’t taking the emerging pandemic seriously. Forty-two percent of Americans have said they are not concerned that the coronavirus will “disrupt their daily lives,” and another 46 percent have indicated they are not concerned that “they or someone they know will be infected” by the virus. A shocking 53 percent have said they have “confidence in the federal government’s ability to handle the coronavirus,” despite the president’s own efforts to suppress the dangers associated with the virus’s spread, and despite the reality that this administration spectacularly failed to prepare for this virus by cutting almost all of the CDC’s funds for combating global disease outbreaks.

Disturbingly, half of the American public has not taken the coronavirus seriously, as evidenced by the fact that 43 percent give Trump a positive approval rating in his response to the virus’s spread. And according to the latest IPSOS-USA Today poll, most don’t plan on making serious changes to their lifestyles to combat the spread of the virus. Only 25 percent say they will “stop attending social events” in response to coronavirus, while just 18 percent say they will shift their shopping from stores to online purchases, and only 17 percent say they will “cancel a personal trip.”

The above numbers are disturbing, not only in terms of exposing mass public ignorance, but because they suggest that large numbers of Americans simply aren’t taking the precautions necessary to limit the spread of the virus. Why would these Americans take seriously their responsibility to limit their exposure to the virus, or try to prevent its spread, if they aren’t concerned with contracting it, if they believe the government has things well in hand, and if they have little concern that coronavirus is going to disrupt their daily lives? Because of this shocking level of ignorance, the virus was allowed to spread undetected across most of the United States, and it is rapidly proliferating in communities where it has materialized.

Trump’s speech last Wednesday raises other concerns about the state of the nation. The president is still not leveling with the public about the threat of coronavirus to the economy and to global markets. He boasted that “we have the greatest economy anywhere in the world, by far,” and touted American “banks and financial institutions as “fully capitalized and incredibly strong.” He claimed that “this is not a financial crisis,” but “just a temporary moment of time that we will overcome together as a nation.” No one on Wall Street was listening to the President’s delusions, however, as witnessed by the rapid collapse of trading markets in the run-up to Trump’s speech, and in the following day. Fortune reported that the NASDAQ, DOW, and S&P 500 experienced their “worst day” of decline “in a decade” on March 10th, while the markets opened to a second crash following the imposition of Trump’s 30 day European travel ban, as the New York Times warned of an emerging “bear market” following an immediate 7 percent drop in the S&P. The March 10th and March 12th declines were so big that they prompted a halt in trading, in an effort to stave off further losses. Under these conditions, Trump’s words about the fundamental soundness of the U.S. economy ring hollow. Market traders are responding with panic at the spread of the virus, and in reaction to Trump’s own failure to limit its spread.

Finally, there is the concern with the Trump administration using coronavirus as an excuse to further its reactionary pre-existing immigration agenda, and as related to the president’s announcement of a 30-day European travel ban. The ban makes little sense in terms of preventing the spread of a virus that’s already reached the United States, and which is already rapidly spreading across the nation. The World Health Organization has concluded that travel bans are ineffective as a means of stopping the transmission of viruses, as previous efforts to impede their spread through this method have failed.

To make matters even worse, the European travel ban has made the spread of coronavirus even more likely. Many rushed back from European countries in an effort to re-enter before the ban on all travel was instated, while others in countries without a ban (so far) have sought to return before they are locked out. Under these conditions, major airports have become jammed, amidst higher than normal traffic and coronavirus screenings, thereby providing scores of new hosts for spreading the virus. These conditions reveal the folly of a travel ban that has now been actively weaponized as a vessel for intensifying the pandemic.

Stopping the spread of coronavirus was never a serious priority for Trump, as should be painfully clear. The dramatic curtailment of travel and the shutting of U.S. borders, however, does much to further Trump’s own xenophobic nationalism, thereby reinforcing an “us versus them” political culture that can be mobilized to help him strengthen his reelection efforts, while intensifying America’s increasingly authoritarian political system. The travel ban may be good for reinforcing Trump’s reactionary political agenda, but it has done little but spread the virus.

The coronavirus pandemic is a teachable moment. It reveals the dangers endemic in the rise of authoritarianism, as personified by Trump and his reactionary immigration agenda. In this crisis, we see at work the dual threats of the partisan manipulation of science and medicine, coupled with the empowerment of a reactionary President who has brazenly used a global pandemic to consolidate his xenophobic immigration politics. And now we’ve seen how quickly a crisis can be weaponized by those who are shamelessly committed to enhancing their own political power, and at the expense of the public good. These dangers are confounded by the very real public health risk of coronavirus, which by mid-March was infecting 500 people a day, and which the CDC warns could infect as many as 160 million to 214 million people, and could result in as many as 200,000 to 1.7 million deaths. We should keep these human costs in mind when we interact with family, friends, and peers who try to downplay the dangers of this rising public health crisis.

Anthony DiMaggio is Associate Professor of Political Science at Lehigh University. He earned his PhD from the University of Illinois, Chicago, and is the author of 9 books, including most recently: Political Power in America (SUNY Press, 2019) and Rebellion in America (Routledge, 2020). He can be reached at: anthonydimaggio612@gmail.com

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