The Hunter Biden story is a fascinating piece of disinformation and agitprop.
I’ve been following it closely, partly because it’s an interesting political story and partly because I’m an avid infosec enthusiast and I actually know how emails work.
I was, to be honest, surprised when the “Hunter laptop” scam first began that anyone actually believed it. If you know even a little bit about how email works, it’s plain as snow in December that the story was fake. The supposed “Hunter Biden emails” that were released were released as PDFs, with no headers, from email domains that do not exist. I was like “Really? People are falling for this? God damn conservatives sure are gullible.”
But in the time I’ve been in Florida helping to care for my mother, I’ve realized that isn’t fair.
My dad is older (he’s 82), he uses email every single day, but he has not the slightest clue how it works and he cannot define the word “domain,” much less explain what a domain is or spot an invalid email domain.
And honestly, a lot of people, on the left and right, are that way. It’s not that conservatives are stupid, it’s that to most people, email is magic. And they don’t ever see email headers, so it doesn’t look suspicious if someone shows them a fake email with no headers. And, like my dad, they don’t know what a domain is, so if you show them an email with a clearly bogus “from” address they don’t even blink.
In that sense, what looks like a crude, hamfisted attempt at second-rate disinformation is actually pretty savvy. It’s propaganda aimed at a very specific audience: an audience that is not technically savvy, but—and this is the important part—has also been indoctrinated to distrust “elitist experts” who think they know better. So this audience (1) doesn’t have the technical skill to see through even a very crude, simplistic scam and (2) will automatically respond to anyone who points out the scam with “neener neener I don’t believe you!!!”
It’s been a very interesting lesson in 21st-century propaganda. Forging a real email is hard. Email is trackable and traceable. It passes through many computers and it leaves traces in every one. You can not easily forge a realistic, believable email even if you have nearly unlimited resources…
…but you don’t have to.
If the target of your propaganda is people with the limited technical knowledge of my father who have also been told to distrust experts, it’s not necessary.
Now, having said that, parts of the scam are very sophisticated.
This is Martin Aspen.
Martin Aspen wrote a 64-page dossier documenting corruption in Hunter Biden’s business dealings in China, which was released by security firm Typhoon Investigations.
Martin Aspen does not exist.
Typhoon Investigations does not exist.
The photograph of the person you see here is not a picture of a person. It was created by a GAN—a type of deepfake machine learning computer program.
If you’re not familiar with these, I recommend you visit the site This Person Does Not Exist:
Every time you refresh the browser, you will see a photograph of a different person. None of the photographs are real. None of the people exist. The photographs are all created by machine learning deepfake programs.
Anyway, back to Martin Aspen.
Martin Aspen does not exist. His photo is a computer-generated deepfake. His resume lists companies he’s never worked for, universities that have no record of him, and security firms that don’t exist. The entire dossier was faked.
Fifteen, twenty, thirty years ago, this level of fakery would require the concerted effort of a nation-state’s intelligence team to do. Today, a single reasonably skilled person can do it. I can do it. You can do it.
And the thing that’s most fascinating about all of this, besides the fact it shows how fragile and easily manipulated the public perception is? Proving that the document was fake will not change a single mind.
The Hunter Biden saga has revealed two things:
- Small groups of individuals, even a single person sitting in a bedroom, can create agitprop and disinformation campaigns that would only a short time ago have been the envy of entire government intelligence teams.
- People want to believe. They’re simply looking for an excuse. Modern propaganda does not need to be subtle. It doesn’t need to be well-done. It doesn’t need to stand up to any scrutiny. It merely needs to give people an excuse to believe what they already want to believe.
Those are some of the views Republicans endorse by uncritically embracing and supporting President Trump. He is leading his party down a sewer of unabashed racism and willful ignorance, and all who follow him — and I mean all — deserve to feel the mighty wrath of voters in November.
I’m talking to you, Sen.
- Susan Collins of Maine. And you, Sen.
- Cory Gardner of Colorado. And you, Sens.
- Thom Tillis of North Carolina,
- Martha McSally of Arizona,
- Joni Ernst of Iowa,
- Steve Daines of Montana,
- Kelly Loeffler of Georgia and
- John Cornyn of Texas.
And while those of you in deep-red states whose reelection ordinarily would be seen as a mere formality may not see the giant millstones you’ve hung around your necks as a real risk, think again. Sen. Lindsey O. Graham of South Carolina and even Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, you should look at the numbers and realize you are putting your Senate seats — and the slim GOP majority — in dire jeopardy.
You can run and hide from reporters asking you about Trump’s latest statements or tweets. You can pretend not to hear shouted questions as you hurry down Capitol hallways. You can take out your cellphones and feign being engrossed in a terribly important call. Ultimately, you’re going to have to answer to voters — and in the meantime you have decided to let Trump speak for you. Best of luck with that.
It is not really surprising that Trump, with his poll numbers falling and his reelection in serious jeopardy, would decide to use race and public health as wedge issues to inflame his loyal base. That’s all he knows how to do.
Most politicians would see plunging poll numbers as a warning to try a different approach; Trump takes them as a sign to do more of the same — more race-baiting, more authoritarian “law and order” posturing, more see-no-evil denial of a raging pandemic that has cost more than 120,000 American lives.
Racism is a feature of the Trump shtick, not a bug. He sees the nationwide protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd as an opportunity not for healing and reform, but to stir anger and resentment among his overwhelmingly white voting base. Trump wants no part of the reckoning with history the country seems to crave.
This week, city officials in Charleston, S.C. — the place where the Civil War began — took down a statue of John C. Calhoun, a leading 19th-century politician and fierce defender of slavery, from its 115-foot column in Marion Square and hauled it away to a warehouse. Also this week, Trump reportedly demanded that the District’s monument to Confederate Gen. Albert Pike, toppled last week by protesters, be cleaned up and reinstalled exactly as it was.
Trump went to Arizona not just to falsely claim great progress on building his promised border wall, intended to keep out the “hombres,” but also to delight fervent young supporters by referring to covid-19 as “kung flu.” Weeks ago, Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway said that racist term was clearly offensive and unacceptable. But since Trump has made it into a red-meat applause line, Conway now apparently thinks it’s a perfectly legitimate way to identify the virus’s country of origin.
All the other Republicans who fail to speak up while Trump runs the most nakedly racist presidential campaign since George Wallace in 1968 shouldn’t kid themselves. Their silence amounts to agreement. Perhaps there’s enough white bitterness out there to carry the Republican Party to another narrow win. But that’s not what the polls say.
Trump’s antics are self-defeating. He’ll put on a racist show for a shrinking audience, but he won’t wear the masks that could allow the economic reopening he desperately wants. He may be able to avoid reality, but the Republican governors — including Greg Abbott of Texas and Ron DeSantis of Florida — scrambling desperately to contain new outbreaks cannot.
It’s almost as though Trump is determined to destroy the Republican Party. Let’s give him his wish.
The pandemic has put psychological theories of politics to a very interesting test.
Over the past two decades, as conservatives and liberals have drifted ever farther from each other, an influential body of literature has attempted to psychologize the partisan divide — to identify conservative and liberal personality types, right-wing or left-wing minds or brains, and to vindicate the claim of the noted political scientists Gilbert and Sullivan, That every boy and every gal / That’s born into the world alive. / Is either a little Liberal / Or else a little Conservative.
In its crudest form this literature just amounts to liberal self-congratulation, with survey questions and regression analyses deployed to “prove” with “science” that liberals are broad-minded freethinkers and conservatives are cramped authoritarians. But there have been more sophisticated and sympathetic efforts, too, like the influential work of New York University’s Jonathan Haidt on the “moral foundations” of politics: Haidt argues that conservatives actually have more diverse moral intuitions than liberals, encompassing categories like purity and loyalty as well as care and fairness, and that the right-wing mind therefore sometimes understands the left-wing mind better than vice versa.
Both the crude and sophisticated efforts tended to agree, though, that the supposed conservative mind is more attuned to external threat and internal contamination, more inclined to support authority and hierarchy, and fear subversion and dissent. And so the political responses to the pandemic have put these psychological theories to a very interesting test.
In the coronavirus, America confronts a contaminating force (a deadly disease) that originated in our leading geopolitical rival (an external threat) and that plainly requires a strong, even authoritarian government response. If there was ever a crisis tailored to the conservative mind-set, surely it would be this one, with the main peril being that conservatives would wildly overreact to such a trigger.
So what has happened? Well, several different things. From the Wuhan outbreak through somewhere in mid-February, the responses to the coronavirus did seem to correspond — very roughly — to theories of conservative and liberal psychology. Along with infectious-disease specialists, the people who seemed most alarmed by the virus included the inhabitants of Weird Right-Wing Twitter (a collection of mordant, mostly anonymous accounts interested in civilizational decline), various Silicon Valley eccentrics, plus original-MAGA figures like Mike Cernovich and Steve Bannon. (The radio host Michael Savage, often considered the most extreme of the right’s talkers, was also an early alarmist.)
Meanwhile, liberal officialdom and its media appendages were more likely to play down the threat, out of fear of giving aid and comfort to sinophobia or populism. This period was the high-water mark of “it’s just the flu” reassurances in liberal outlets, of pious critiques of Donald Trump’s travel restrictions, of deceptive public-health propaganda about how masks don’t work, of lectures from the head of the World Health Organization about how “the greatest enemy we face is not the virus itself; it’s the stigma that turns us against each other.”
But then, somewhere in February, the dynamic shifted. As the disease spread and the debate went mainstream, liberal opinion mostly abandoned its anti-quarantine posture and swung toward a reasonable panic, while conservative opinion divided, with a large portion of the right following the lead of Trump himself, who spent crucial weeks trying to wish the crisis away. Where figures like Bannon and Cernovich manifested a conservatism attuned to external perils, figures like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity manifested a conservatism of tribal denial, owning the libs by minimizing the coronavirus threat.
Now we are in a third phase, where Trump is (more or less, depending on the day) on board with a robust response and most conservatives have joined most liberals in alarm. Polls show a minimal partisan divide in support for social distancing and lockdowns, and some of that minimal divide is explained by the fact that rural areas are thus far less likely to face outbreaks. (You don’t need a complicated theory of the ideological mind to explain why New Yorkers are more freaked out than Nebraskans.)
But even now, there remains a current of conservative opinion that wants to believe that
- all of this is overblown, that
- the experts are wrong about the likely death toll, that
- Trump should reopen everything as soon as possible, that
- the liberal media just wants to crash the American economy to take his presidency down.
Where does this leave the theories of conservative and liberal minds? It’s too much to say that they don’t describe anything real. A certain kind of conservative personality (a kind that includes more than a few of my own friends) really did seem particularly well attuned to this crisis and ended up out ahead of the conventional wisdom in exactly the way that you would expect a mind-set attuned to risk and danger, shot through with pessimism and inclined to in-group loyalty to be.
At the same time, the behavior of what you might call “normie” Republicans — not Very Online right-wingers or MAGA populists but longtime Fox News and talk-radio consumers — suggests that any such conservative mind-set is easily confounded by other factors, partisanship chief among them. The fact that the virus seemed poised to help Democrats and hurt the Trump administration, the fact that it was being hyped by CNN and played down by Hannity, the fact that Trump himself declined to take it seriously — all of this mattered more to many Republicans than the fear of foreign contamination that the virus theoretically should have activated or the ways in which its progress seemed to confirm certain right-wing priors.
So one might say that the pandemic illustrates the power of partisan mood affiliation over any kind of deeper ideological mind-set. Or relatedly, it illustrates the ways in which under the right circumstances, people can easily swing between different moral intuitions. (This holds for liberals as well as conservatives: A good liberal will be as deferential to authority as any conservative when the authority has the right academic degrees, and as zealous about purity and contamination when it’s their own neighborhood that’s threatened.)
But the right’s varying responses to the pandemic also illustrate two further points. The first point is that what we call “American conservatism” is probably more ideologically and psychologically heterogeneous than the conservative mind-set that social scientists aspire to measure and pin down. In particular, it includes an incredibly powerful streak of what you might call folk libertarianism — which comes in both highbrow and middlebrow forms, encompassing both famous legal scholars predicting minimal fatalities from their armchairs and “you can’t stop the American economy … for anything” tough guys attacking social distancing on Twitter.
This mentality, with its reflexive Ayn Randism and its Panglossian hyper-individualism, is definitely essential to understanding part of the American right. But it’s very much an American thing unto itself, and I’m doubtful that it corresponds to any universal set of psychological tendencies that we could reasonably call conservative.
The second point is that on the fringes of the right, among QAnon devotees and believers in the satanic depravity of liberalism, the only psychology that matters is paranoia, not conservatism. And their minimizing response to the coronavirus illustrates the unwillingness of the conspiratorial mind to ever take yes for an answer — meaning that even true events that seem to vindicate a somewhat paranoid worldview will be dismissed as not true enough, not the deepest truth, not the Grandest of All Grand Conspiracies that will someday (someday) be unraveled.
In his novel “Foucault’s Pendulum,” a sendup of crackpot esotericism that anticipated “The Da Vinci Code” years before its publication, Umberto Eco captured this spirit by describing the way that self-conscious seekers after hermetic wisdom and gnostic mysteries approached the rise of Christianity:
… someone had just arrived and declared himself the Son of God, the Son of God made flesh, to redeem the sins of the world. Was that a run-of-the-mill mystery? And he promised salvation to all: you only had to love your neighbor. Was that a trivial secret? And he bequeathed the idea that whoever uttered the right words at the right time could turn a chunk of bread and a half-glass of wine into the body and blood of the Son of God, and be nourished by it. Was that a paltry riddle?
… And yet they, who now had salvation within their grasp — do-it-yourself salvation — turned deaf ears. Is that all there is to it? How trite. And they kept on scouring the Mediterranean in their boats, looking for a lost knowledge of which those thirty-denarii dogmas were but the superficial veil, the parable for the poor in spirit, the allusive hieroglyph, the wink of the eye at the pneumatics. The mystery of the Trinity? Too simple: there had to be more to it.
This is where the pandemic-minimizing sort of conservative has ended up. They are confronted with a world crisis tailor-made for an anti-globalization, anti-deep-state worldview — a crisis in which China lit the fuse, the World Health Organization ran interference for Beijing, the American public health bureaucracy botched its one essential job, pious anti-racism inhibited an early public-health response, and outsourcing and offshoring left our economy exposed.
And their response? Too simple: Just a feint, a false flag, another deep state plot or power grab, another hoax to take down Trump. It can’t be real unless Hillary Clinton is somehow at the bottom of it.
Students at Liberty University are more likely than most to understand the specialness of this biblical lesson. It is one of the few stories in which Falwell should not be assigned the part of an ass. For that matter, he does not even deserve the role of Balaam, who at least was open to instruction. Instead, Falwell has charged the angel straight on and — in defiance of nearly all public health experts — reopened the Liberty dorms in the middle of a pandemic. Now, according to the New York Times, at least one student has tested positive and several more have shown coronavirus-like symptoms.
Falwell played down the risk to students who might get the disease. “Ninety-nine percent of them are not at the age to be at risk,” he argued last week, “and they don’t have conditions that put them at risk.”
But this public response indicates the staggering level of ignorance that informs Falwell’s leadership. It is possible for students with mild or unnoticeable symptoms to spread the disease. And once cases are discovered, it is generally too late to take preventive action. Yes, the fatality rate of infected college students is likely to be low. Yet places with broad community spread are more likely to see infection of the elderly and vulnerable, who are more likely to fill premature graves. Since when has Liberty University embraced the teaching of Social Darwinism in Ethics 101?
What can’t be disputed is the constant churn of mixed messages that Falwell has contributed to our national debate. His stated intention has been to concentrate Liberty’s student population: “I think we, in a way, are protecting the students by having them on campus together.”
It can’t be disputed that Falwell personally welcomed hundreds of students back to campus after Spring Break. “They were talking about being glad to be back,” he recalled. “I was joking how they pretty much had the whole place to themselves, and I told them to enjoy it.”
It can’t be disputed that Falwell has called the national pandemic response an “overreaction” with political motivations. “Impeachment didn’t work,” he claimed, “and the Mueller report didn’t work and Article 25 didn’t work, and so maybe now this is their next attempt to get Trump.”
It can’t be disputed that Falwell went on Fox News and speculated that the coronavirus might have been the work of the North Korean military.
It can’t be disputed that Falwell called one critic a “dummy,” even though he is the parent of Liberty students. Or that Falwell has dismissed a critical professor named Marybeth Davis Baggett as “the ‘Baggett’ lady.’ ”
There is an old Bob Dylan song titled, “Gotta Serve Somebody.” Who is Falwell serving instead of students, parents, staff, his board and the Lynchburg, Va., community? Let’s see.
- Falwell has contempt for the weak. He is
- dismissive of experts. H
- traffics in conspiracy theories. He
- attacks his critics with infantile putdowns and demeaning names. And he
- refuses to admit when he is dangerously wrong.
Who does that sound like? It is on the tip of my tongue.
In this case Falwell has gone even further than the president, who is occasionally forced, under duress, to say sane things about the virus. Falwell seems to want credit from President Trump for drinking the most distilled, concentrated, rotgut form of the Kool-Aid.
He blunders toward blasphemy by insisting that he is being persecuted for his religious beliefs. “We’re conservative,” he claims, “we’re Christian, and therefore we’re being attacked.” But any path that ignores the truth and endangers the vulnerable can’t be called the way of Christ. No, there is only one explanation: Falwell has laid down the cross to follow Trump.
Let me summarize the Trump administration/right-wing media view on the coronavirus:
- It’s a hoax, or anyway
- no big deal. Besides,
- trying to do anything about it would destroy the economy. And
- it’s China’s fault, which is why we should call it the “Chinese virus.”Oh, and epidemiologists who have been modeling the virus’s future spread have come under sustained attack, accused of
- being part of a “deep state” plot against Donald Trump,
- or maybe free markets.
Does all this give you a sense of déjà vu? It should. After all, it’s very similar to the Trump/right-wing line on climate change. Here’s what Trump tweeted back in 2012: “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing noncompetitive.” It’s all there: it’s a hoax, doing anything about it will destroy the economy, and let’s blame China.
And epidemiologists startled to find their best scientific efforts denounced as politically motivated fraud should have known what was coming. After all, exactly the same thing happened to climate scientists, who have faced constant harassment for decades.
So the right-wing response to Covid-19 has been almost identical to the right-wing response to climate change, albeit on a vastly accelerated time scale. But what lies behind this kind of denialism?
Well, I recently published a book about the prevalence in our politics of “zombie ideas” — ideas that have been proved wrong by overwhelming evidence and should be dead, but somehow keep shambling along, eating people’s brains. The most prevalent zombie in U.S. politics is the insistence that tax cuts for the rich produce economic miracles, indeed pay for themselves, but the most consequential zombie, the one that poses an existential threat, is climate change denial. And Covid-19 has brought out all the usual zombies.
But why, exactly, is the right treating a pandemic the same way it treats tax cuts and climate change?
The force that usually keeps zombie ideas shambling along is naked financial self-interest.
- Paeans to the virtues of tax cuts are more or less directly paid for by billionaires who benefit from these cuts.
- Climate denial is an industry supported almost entirely by fossil-fuel interests. As Upton Sinclair put it, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”
However, it’s less obvious who gains from minimizing the dangers of a pandemic. Among other things, the time scale is vastly compressed compared with climate change: the consequences of global warming will take many decades to play out, giving fossil-fuel interests plenty of time to take the money and run, but we’re already seeing catastrophic consequences of virus denial after just a few weeks.
True, there are may be some billionaires who imagine that denying the crisis will work to their financial advantage. Just before Trump made his terrifying call for reopening the nation by Easter, he had a conference call with a group of money managers, who may have told him that ending social distancing would be good for the market. That’s insane, but you should never underestimate the cupidity of these people. Remember, Blackstone’s Steve Schwarzman, one of the men on the call, once compared proposals to close a tax loophole to Hitler’s invasion of Poland.
Also, billionaires have done very well by Trump’s tax cuts, and may fear that the economic damage from the coronavirus will bring about Trump’s defeat, and hence tax increases for people like them.
But I suspect that the disastrous response to Covid-19 has been shaped less by direct self-interest than by two indirect ways in which pandemic policy gets linked to the general prevalence of zombie ideas in right-wing thought.
First, when you have a political movement almost entirely built around assertions than any expert can tell you are false, you have to cultivate an attitude of disdain toward expertise, one that spills over into everything. Once you dismiss people who look at evidence on the effects of tax cuts and the effects of greenhouse gas emissions, you’re already primed to dismiss people who look at evidence on disease transmission.
This also helps explain the centrality of science-hating religious conservatives to modern conservatism, which has played an important role in Trump’s failure to respond.
Second, conservatives do hold one true belief: namely, that there is a kind of halo effect around successful government policies. If public intervention can be effective in one area, they fear — probably rightly — that voters might look more favorably on government intervention in other areas. In principle, public health measures to limit the spread of coronavirus needn’t have much implication for the future of social programs like Medicaid. In practice, the first tends to increase support for the second.
As a result, the right often opposes government interventions even when they clearly serve the public good and have nothing to do with redistributing income, simply because they don’t want voters to see government doing anything well.
The bottom line is that as with so many things Trump, the awfulness of the man in the White House isn’t the whole story behind terrible policy. Yes, he’s ignorant, incompetent, vindictive and utterly lacking in empathy. But his failures on pandemic policy owe as much to the nature of the movement he serves as they do to his personal inadequacies.
The ways he dealt with crises in his business, real estate and even his personal life prove jarring as he leads the government’s response to a pandemic.
WASHINGTON — During his campaign for the White House in 2016, President Trump’s advisers briefly tried to run through with him how he would address a large-scale disaster if he won. What, for instance, would he have done during Hurricane Katrina?
“I would have fixed that,” Mr. Trump replied with certitude, referring to the government’s bungled rescue and recovery efforts, according to a campaign official who was present for the exchange. “I would have come up with a much better response.” How? He did not say. He just asserted it would have been better and advisers did not press him to elaborate.
Mr. Trump is no stranger to crisis. He has spent a lifetime grappling with bankruptcy, fending off creditors, evading tax collectors, defending lawsuits, deflecting regulators, spinning reporters and dueling with estranged wives, usually coming out ahead, at least as he defines it. But these were crises of his own creation involving human adversaries he knew how to confront. Nothing in his background in business, entertainment or multiple marriages prepared him for the coronavirus pandemic now threatening America’s health and wealth.
Mr. Trump’s performance on the national stage in recent weeks has put on display the traits that Democrats and some Republicans consider so jarring — the profound
- need for personal praise, the
- propensity to blame others, the
- lack of human empathy, the
- penchant for rewriting history, the
- disregard for expertise, the
- distortion of facts, the
- impatience with scrutiny or criticism.
For years, skeptics expressed concern about how he would handle a genuine crisis threatening the nation, and now they know.
“When he’s faced a problem, he has sought to somehow cheat or fix the outcome ahead of time so that he could construct a narrative that showed him to be the winner,” said Michael D’Antonio, a Trump biographer. “And when it was all about feuds with other celebrities or contests over ratings or hotel branding, he could do that and no one cared enough to really check. And the bluster and bragging worked.”
“But in this case,” Mr. D’Antonio added, “he tried that in the beginning and you can’t brag or bluster your way out of people dying. And I think more than the suffering, the human suffering, it’s been the inexorable quality of the data that’s forced him to change.”
Only after viral projections grew more dire and markets began to tank did Mr. Trump shift tone and appear to take the threat more seriously, finally adopting a more aggressive set of policies to compel Americans to stay away from one another while trying to mitigate the economic damage.
Some in the public seem to have responded. Fifty-five percent of Americans approved of his handling of the crisis in a poll by ABC News and Ipsos released on Friday, up from 43 percent the previous week. A Reuters poll, also conducted with Ipsos, put approval of his handling of the pandemic at 48 percent, up from 38 percent a couple weeks earlier, while surveys by The Economist and YouGov showed a smaller rise, from 41 percent to 45 percent.
But even as he has seemed to take the crisis more seriously, Mr. Trump has continued to make statements that conflicted with the government’s own public health experts and focused energy on blaming China, quarreling with reporters, claiming he knew that the coronavirus would be a pandemic even when he was minimizing its threat only a few weeks ago and congratulating himself for how he has managed a crisis he only recently acknowledged.
“We’ve done a fantastic job from just about every standpoint,” he said Tuesday. “We’ve done a great job,” he said Wednesday. “We’ve done a phenomenal job on this,” he said Thursday.
The next day he grew irritated when Peter Alexander of NBC News asked if he was giving Americans a “false sense of hope” by promising immediate delivery of a drug that experts said is not proven. Mr. Trump said he disagreed with them. “Just a feeling,” he said. “You know, I’m a smart guy. I feel good about it.”
Mr. Alexander moved onto his next question, a “softball” by his own reckoning, asking what Mr. Trump would say to Americans who were at home watching and scared. Most presidents would use the opportunity to offer reassuring words. But Mr. Trump was still steamed and snapped, “I say that you’re a terrible reporter. That’s what I say.”
Later in the same briefing, Yamiche Alcindor of PBS’s “NewsHour” asked when everyone who needed a coronavirus test would be able to get one, as he asserted two weeks ago that every person already could. “Nobody is even talking about it except for you, which doesn’t surprise me,” he said dismissively. How about people with symptoms who could not get a test, he was asked. “I’m not hearing it,” he replied.
The White House rejects any criticism of the president as illegitimate. “This great country has been faced with an unprecedented crisis, and while the Democrats and the media shamelessly try and destroy this president with a coordinated, relentless, biased political assault, President Trump has risen to fight this crisis head-on by taking aggressive historic action to protect the health, wealth and well-being of the American people,” Hogan Gidley, a White House spokesman, said in a statement.
Mr. Trump acted at the end of January to restrict travel from China, where the outbreak was first detected, and repeatedly points back to that decision, arguing that he saved lives as a result. But he resisted stronger action for weeks. Even as governors, mayors and businesses decided on their own to curb large gatherings and eventually close down schools, restaurants and workplaces, the president at first offered no guidance about whether to take such action.
He has repeatedly misrepresented the state of the response — promising a vaccine “soon” that will actually take at least a year to develop, insisting that tests were available while patients struggled to find any, boasting about the availability of millions of masks while health care workers took to stitching together homemade versions. And dismissing the threat for weeks may have led to complacency among some Americans who could have acted much sooner to take precautions.
Mr. Trump’s defensiveness over the pandemic has become a central dynamic inside the White House as officials wrestle with difficult policy choices. Aides have long understood that Mr. Trump needs to hear support for his decisions, preferably described in superlatives. He often second-guesses himself, prompting advisers to ask allies to tell him he made the right call or go on Fox News to make that point in case he might be watching.
Over the last week, as Mr. Trump has faced ever more draconian and expensive options, Jared Kushner, his son-in-law and senior adviser, sought to coax him into action by using bits of praise in news coverage or from other officials as a motivator, according to people familiar with the discussions.
Officials have learned that the president craves a constant diet of flattery, which they serve up during daily televised briefings. Vice President Mike Pence makes a point of repeating it day after day, sometimes repeatedly in the course of a single briefing. “Mr. President, from early on, you took decisive action,” he said during one.
Other advisers have followed suit. “Thank you, Mr. President, for gathering your public health experts here today and for your strong leadership in keeping America safe,” Alex M. Azar II, the secretary of health and human services, told him at one point. “I want to thank you for your leadership during this coronavirus outbreak,” Dr. Stephen M. Hahn, the commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, told him at another.
Even Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the veteran infectious diseases expert known for his just-the-facts style, has sometimes joined in praise of the president, at one point referring to Mr. Trump’s “proactive, leaning-forward, aggressive, trying to stay ahead of the curve” approach. While Dr. Fauci does not hesitate to correct the president’s facts, as he did on Friday over the unproven drug, he does so politely, careful to maintain his viability within a political team. Still, many noticed that he put his hand to his face in seeming disbelief when Mr. Trump referred to his diplomats as the “Deep State Department.”
Representative Peter T. King, Republican of New York, said Mr. Trump had been unfairly criticized for his handling of the virus. “The media virtually ignore the president’s massive effort mobilizing the federal government, our industrial base and the scientific and medical community to combat this pandemic, rivaling F.D.R.’s arsenal of democracy,” he said.
Mr. King said that Mr. Trump was working with Democrats but the news media “prefer to dwell on initial failure of C.D.C. test kits and low inventory of masks and ventilators going back two administrations.” Still, he said of Mr. Trump, “He too often takes the bait.”
None of which comes as a surprise to those who dealt with Mr. Trump or studied his life before he became president. In real estate, he found he could overcome crises by bluffing his way past regulators, bullying the bankers and bamboozling the tabloids.
When banks came after him for overdue loans, he pushed back, arguing that it was in their interest that his brand not be harmed by calling him out. When contractors demanded to be paid, he found complaints about their work and refused, leading in part to more than 3,500 lawsuits. When his first two marriages fell apart, he took a scorched-earth approach against his wives, leaking to New York’s gossip columnists even if it meant his children watched ugly divorces play out in public.
“The typical modus operandi from him is to bluff, is to fake, is to deny,” said Jack O’Donnell, the former president of Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino in Atlantic City.
When Mr. Trump prepared to open the Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City in 1990 and ran into trouble with the authorities, he summoned Mr. O’Donnell. “He told them I was an expert in operations and I could fix this,” Mr. O’Donnell recalled. “And they believed him. I was dumbfounded. He was completely bluffing them.”
To Mr. Trump, most of his crises were about paper and money, not people. The self-described “king of debt” treated loan repayments almost as if they were optional and made it a mantra never to back down. “I figured it was the bank’s problem, not mine,” he wrote in one of his books. “What the hell did I care? I actually told one bank, ‘I told you, you shouldn’t have loaned me that money.’”
Perhaps the only time before his presidency that the human toll of a crisis really struck Mr. Trump in a personal way came when three of his executives died in a helicopter crash heading to Atlantic City. He seemed genuinely shaken, visiting the widows to share in their grief.
“I actually think he handled that situation about as well as you could expect from him,” Mr. O’Donnell said. “It was such a shock to him. It was the first time I heard fear in his voice. It was the first time I saw empathy, that I saw emotion from him, because he realized the human loss there.”
Even then, Mr. Trump could not help inserting himself into the story, suggesting falsely that he almost boarded the helicopter himself. And within months, with his Taj project flailing, Mr. Trump began publicly attributing problems to the dead executives. In a crisis, “he always was more focused on who he could blame versus fixing the problem,” said Mr. O’Donnell, who quit in disgust.
Nor did Mr. Trump exhibit much empathy for the workers who lost their jobs when his casinos went bust. Instead, when asked about his failed Atlantic City ventures, he emphasizes his own ability to escape unharmed. “The money I took out of there was incredible,” he once told The New York Times.
The closest analogue to the current situation may be the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, another national trauma. Mr. Trump tried to thrust himself into the news coverage, telling an interviewer by phone that day that with the destruction of the World Trade Center he now had the tallest building in New York City, a claim that was not even true. He also has said he spent extensive time around the site trying to help the cleanup, a claim that has never been verified.
With the airports closed at the time, Mr. Trump was asked to provide his private plane to fly Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and Gov. George E. Pataki to Washington for President George W. Bush’s address to Congress. Mr. Trump agreed — but in return asked for help getting permission to travel from Washington to another destination when others were grounded.
By his own account, Mr. Trump never imagined that he would be facing a pandemic, an invisible killer immune to bluster. “In every previous occasion, he was facing a human being or groups of human beings,” said Gwenda Blair, the author of a biography of the Trump family. “And obviously the coronavirus, it’s not a person, can’t be bullied.”
So Mr. Trump, with his recent descriptions of a war to be won over a “foreign enemy,” is seeking a dynamic that he is familiar with, personifying the virus as an opponent to be beaten, framing it as the kind of crisis he knows how to tackle. “He’s trying to make it into a win-lose situation,” she said. “That’s how he sees the world — winners, him, losers everybody else. He’s trying to make the coronavirus into a loser and himself the winner.”
The disconnect is already shaping, even distorting, the nation’s response.
Even a disease as far-reaching as the coronavirus hasn’t entirely crossed the chasm between red and blue America.In several key respects, the outbreak’s early stages are unfolding very differently in Republican- and Democratic-leaning parts of the country. That disconnect is already shaping, even distorting, the nation’s response to this unprecedented challenge—and it could determine the pandemic’s ultimate political consequences as well.
A flurry of new national polls released this week reveals that while anxiety about the disease is rising on both sides of the partisan divide, Democrats consistently express much more concern about it than Republicans do, and they are much more likely to say they have changed their personal behavior as a result. A similar gap separates people who live in large metropolitan centers, which have become the foundation of the Democratic electoral coalition, from those who live in the small towns and rural areas that are the modern bedrock of the GOP.
Government responses have followed these same tracks. With a few prominent exceptions, especially Ohio, states with Republican governors have been slower, or less likely, than those run by Democrats to impose restrictions on their residents. Until earlier this week, Donald Trump downplayed the disease’s danger and overstated the extent to which the United States had “control” over it, as the conservative publication The Bulwark recently documented. Conservative media figures including Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity likewise insisted for weeks that the media and Democrats were exaggerating the danger as a means of weakening Trump. Several Republican elected officials encouraged their constituents to visit bars and restaurants precisely when federal public-health officials were urging the opposite.The disparity between the parties was underscored late yesterday afternoon when Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and California Governor Gavin Newsom, both Democrats, issued rapid-fire orders closing down all non-essential businesses, first in the city and then in the entire state, a jurisdiction of 39.5 million people.
This divergence reflects not only ideological but also geographic realities. So far, the greatest clusters of the disease, and the most aggressive responses to it, have indeed been centered in a few large, Democratic-leaning metropolitan areas, including Seattle, New York, San Francisco, and Boston. At yesterday’s White House press briefing, Deborah Birx, the administration’s response coordinator, said half of the nation’s cases so far are located in just 10 counties. The outbreak’s eventual political effects may vary significantly depending on how extensively it spreads beyond these initial beachheads.
If the virus never becomes pervasive beyond big cities, that could reinforce the sense among many Republican voters and office-holders that the threat has been overstated. It could also fuel the kind of xenophobia that Trump and other GOP leaders, such as Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas, have encouraged by labeling the disease the “Chinese virus” or the “Wuhan virus.”
“There’s a long history of conservatives demonizing the cities as sources of disease to threaten the ‘pure heartland,’” says Geoffrey Kabaservice, the director of political studies at the libertarian Niskanen Center and the author of Rule and Ruin, a history of the modern Republican Party. “That’s an old theme. So that could be how it goes down.”
Conversely, the charge that Trump failed to move quickly enough may cut more deeply if the burden of the disease is heavily felt in the smaller communities where his support is deepest. Most medical experts believe that, eventually, the outbreak will reach all corners of the country, including the mostly Republican-leaning small towns and rural areas that are now less visibly affected.
“There’s no reason to think that smaller communities will be protected from it,” Eric Toner, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, told me. “It may take longer for it to get there, but as long as there are people coming and going … the virus will eventually find its way to rural communities as well.”
Still, some experts believe that, throughout the outbreak, the greatest effects will remain localized in large urban centers. “The bottom line is, every epidemic is local, and the social networks and the physical infrastructure in any specific geographic area will determine the spread of the epidemic,” Jeffrey D. Klausner, a professor of medicine and public health at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, told me. “Particularly, respiratory viruses are dependent on close social networks and are going to spread much more efficiently in crowded, densely populated urban areas.”
The tendency of Democratic-leaning places to feel the impact first reflects the larger economic separation between the two parties. Democrats now dominate the places in the U.S. most integrated into the global economy, which may be more likely to receive international visitors or see their own residents travel abroad.On the case-tracking website maintained by Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Systems Science and Engineering, each of the four states with the largest number of coronavirus cases is a Democratic-leaning place along the coast: New York, Washington, California, and New Jersey. Florida, a coastal, internationally oriented state that leans slightly toward the GOP, ranks fifth. Illinois, Louisiana, Massachusetts, and Texas, each with at least one big urban center that functions as a gateway for tourism and trade, come in next. And though the Johns Hopkins project isn’t publishing precise county and municipal data on the outbreak, the biggest clusters of disease have all erupted in a few large metropolitan areas.
Toner said that while “it’s not universally the case” that pandemic diseases tend to spread first in the places most open to international travel, “as a general rule” that is the progression they follow. “The virus travels with people,” Toner said. “So, where people travel is where the virus goes first, and then it spreads out from those areas in which it has been introduced.”
By contrast, with only a few exceptions, the states with the fewest number of confirmed cases are smaller, Republican-leaning ones between the coasts, with fewer ties to diverse populations and the global economy. That list includes Wyoming, Idaho, Missouri, Montana, South Dakota, Oklahoma, and Kansas. (One important caveat: Testing in the United States remains deficient, so many cases are inevitably flying under the radar. “It’s not the case that other places don’t have cases,” Toner said. “They just don’t recognize them yet.”)
Republican-leaning states to this point are displaying notably less urgency about the outbreak. Of the states that have taken the fewest actions to restrict public gatherings or limit restaurant service on a statewide basis—such as Texas, Missouri, and Alabama—almost all have Republican governors, according to research by Topher Spiro, the vice president for health policy at the liberal Center for American Progress, where he directs a program that examines state health initiatives.
That’s left Democratic-run cities in those red states—such as Houston, Tucson, Nashville, and Atlanta—to try to impose their own rules on public gatherings. Yet all those local limits face an obvious problem: People from elsewhere in the state can still travel to their jurisdictions. “We can’t seal our borders,” acknowledged Lina Hidalgo, the chief administrator in Harris County, Texas, which includes Houston, when she announced county-wide closures on Monday.
The willingness to impose statewide rules hasn’t entirely followed party lines: Before his announcement in California yesterday, for example, Newsom had couched proposals to shut restaurants, schools, and other establishments as recommendations, not requirements, thus permitting a patchwork of local responses. But generally, Spiro’s research found, almost all of the states that took the earliest and most dramatic statewide action, such as New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Illinois, have Democratic governors.Public attitudes about the outbreak are separating along the same lines. The huge differences between Republicans and Democrats extend not only to assessments of Trump’s response to the outbreak but also to its underlying level of danger and the need to change personal behavior. If anything, there’s considerable evidence that those gaps are widening.
A national Gallup poll released Monday, for instance, found that while 73 percent of Democrats and 64 percent of independents said they feared that they or someone in their family might be exposed to the coronavirus, only 42 percent of Republicans agreed. That 31-percentage-point difference dwarfed the gap in February, when slightly more Republicans (30 percent) than Democrats (26 percent) said they were concerned.
Other surveys have found comparably stunning differences. In an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll released Sunday, Republicans were only half as likely as Democrats to say that they planned to stop attending large gatherings, and just one-third as likely to say that they had cut back on eating at restaurants. In an NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll released Tuesday, just over half of Republicans said the threat from the virus had been exaggerated, compared with one in five Democrats and two in five independents.
In a nationwide Kaiser Family Foundation poll released the same day, about half of Democrats and Democrat-leaning independents said the outbreak had disrupted their life at least some, according to detailed results provided to me by the pollsters. But only one-third of Republicans and those who leaned Republican agreed. About half of Democrats said they had changed travel plans and decided not to attend large gatherings. In both cases, less than one-third of Republicans agreed.
Kabaservice says the tendency of GOP voters and officials to downplay the risk partly reflects Trump’s initially dismissive messaging about the crisis. But it may also relate to a deeper ideological suspicion of scientists, the media, and subject-matter experts within the federal government.
“This is something we’ve gone through a while here among Republicans,” Kabaservice says. “The feeling increasingly is that experts and the media are all part of this elite class that is self-dealing and is looking down on less-educated and less-fortunate people, and [that] they can’t be trusted to tell the truth.” He adds, “That dynamic … has been reinforced” by the emergence of the “conservative media ecosystem,” which unstintingly presents “elites” as a threat to viewers.
The parties’ contrasting geographic bases of support may also have an influence. Recent public polling has found an imposing gulf in attitudes between urban and suburban areas on one side and small-town and rural areas on the other.In the Gallup survey, two-thirds of urban residents and three-fifths of those in suburbs said they were concerned about someone around them contracting the coronavirus, while only about half of those living in rural areas agreed, according to detailed results provided to me by Gallup. (That town-and-country gap had widened since February.) In the Kaiser poll, more than two-thirds of rural residents said the outbreak had disrupted their life little or not at all, while nearly half of urban residents said they had already experienced disruption. Additionally, rural residents were almost twice as likely as those in urban areas to express confidence in Trump’s handling of the crisis.
Eva Kassens-Noor, a professor in the global-urban-studies program at Michigan State University, studied urban/rural patterns in the 1918 flu pandemic in India. Her research found that mortality was much greater in urban places above a certain density level than in rural places below it. She believes that U.S. communities will experience the coronavirus in contrasting, but complex, ways: While the disease will probably spread more rapidly in urban areas, she says, more of the population there is young and healthy. And while outbreaks may not be as pervasive in rural America, they could still prove very damaging because the population is older and has less access to quality health care.
Mortality rates, she says, will ultimately hinge on how rigorously communities minimize interaction by practicing social distancing. “It is all about individuals closing all of their social networking,” she says.
More penetration of the virus into reliably Republican rural regions probably won’t erase the partisan gap in perception of the danger. The Republican pollster Bill McInturff, whose firm Public Opinion Strategies co-manages the NBC/WSJ poll, says that even Republicans in and around big cities remain much more dubious of the threat than their Democratic neighbors.
But if the outbreak becomes more widely dispersed over time, it may be tougher for even the most conservative governors to resist action—or for Trump to escape consequences for his initially dismissive response.
“Seattle, San Francisco, New York, Boston are just a few weeks ahead of other parts of the country,” Toner said. “There will be outbreaks in places that we will be very surprised by. I am quite confident about that.”