Nothing bonds a group more tightly than a common enemy that is perceived as a mortal threat.
To understand the corruption, chaos, and general insanity that is continuing to engulf the Trump campaign and much of the Republican Party right now, it helps to understand the predicate embraced by many Trump supporters: If Joseph R. Biden Jr. wins the presidency, America dies.
During last week’s Republican National Convention, speaker after speaker insisted that life under a Biden presidency would be dystopian. Charlie Kirk, the young Trump acolyte who opened the proceedings, declared, “I am here tonight to tell you—to warn you—that this election is a decision between preserving America as we know it and eliminating everything that we love.” President Trump, who closed the proceedings, said, “Your vote will decide
- whether we protect law-abiding Americans or whether we give free rein to violent anarchists and agitators and criminals who threaten our citizens. And this election will decide
- whether we will defend the American way of life or allow a radical movement to completely dismantle and destroy it.” And in between Americans were told that
- Democrats want to “disarm you, empty the prisons, lock you in your home, and invite MS-13 to live next door” and that
- they “want to destroy this country and everything that we have fought for and hold dear.”
“They’re not satisfied with spreading the chaos and violence into our communities. They want to abolish the suburbs altogether,” a St. Louis couple who had brandished weapons against demonstrators outside their home, told viewers. “Make no mistake, no matter where you live, your family will not be safe in the radical Democrats’ America.”One does not have to be a champion of the Democratic Party to know this chthonic portrait is absurd. But it is also essential, because it allows Trump and his followers to tolerate and justify pretty much anything in order to win. And “anything” turns out to be quite a lot.
In just the past two weeks, the president has praised supporters of the right-wing conspiracy theory
- QAnon, which contends, as The Guardian recently summarized it, that “a cabal of Satan-worshipping Democrats, Hollywood celebrities and billionaires runs the world while engaging in pedophilia, human trafficking and the harvesting of a supposedly life-extending chemical from the blood of abused children.” Trump touted a conspiracy theory that
- the national death toll from COVID-19 is about 9,000, a fraction of the official figure of nearly 185,000; promoted a program on the One America News Network accusing demonstrators of secretly plotting Trump’s downfall; encouraged his own supporters to commit voter fraud; and claimed Biden is controlled by “people that are in the dark shadows” who are wearing “dark uniforms.”
- Trump believes his own government is conspiring to delay a COVID-19 vaccine until after the election. He retweeted a message from the actor James Woods saying
- New York Governor Andrew Cuomo “should be in jail” and another from an account
- accusing the Portland, Oregon, mayor of “committing war crimes.”
- The president is “inciting violence,” in the words of Maryland’s Republican Governor, Larry Hogan.
- Trump defended 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse, a supporter who is charged with first-degree homicide; and stated that
- if he loses the election in November it would be because it was “rigged.” At the same time,
- the second-ranking House Republican, among other of the president’s supporters, has shared several manipulated videos in an effort to damage Biden.
This is just the latest installment in a four-year record of shame, indecency, incompetence, and malfeasance. And yet, for tens of millions of Trump’s supporters, none of it matters. None of it even breaks through. At this point, it appears, Donald Trump really could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and not lose his voters.
This phenomenon has no shortage of explanations, but perhaps the most convincing is the terror the president’s backers feel. Time and again, I’ve had conversations with Trump supporters who believe the president is all that stands between them and cultural revolution. Trump and his advisers know it, which is why the through line of the RNC was portraying Joe Biden as a Jacobin.
Republicans chose that theme despite the fact that during his almost 50 years in politics, Biden hasn’t left any discernible ideological imprint on either the nation or his own party. Indeed, Biden is notable for his success over the course of his political career in forging alliances with many Republicans. I worked at the Office of National Drug Control Policy in the early 1990s when William Bennett was its director and George H. W. Bush was president. Biden was then chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee; he and his staff were supportive of our work, and not in the least ideological. There will be no remaking of the calendar if Joe Biden becomes president.Still, in the minds of Trump’s supporters lingers the belief that a Biden presidency would usher in a reign of terror. Many of them simply have to believe that. Justifying their fealty to a man who is so obviously a moral wreck requires them to turn Joe Biden and the Democratic Party into an existential threat. The narrative is set; the actual identity of the nominee is almost incidental.
A powerful tribal identity bonds the president to his supporters. As Amy Chua, the author of Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations, has argued, the tribal instinct is not just to belong, but also to exclude and to attack. “When groups feel threatened,” Chua writes, “they retreat into tribalism. They close ranks and become more insular, more defensive, more punitive, more us-versus-them.”
That works both ways. Fear strengthens tribalistic instincts, and tribalistic instincts amplify fear. Nothing bonds a group more tightly than a common enemy that is perceived as a mortal threat. In the presence of such an enemy, members of tribal groups look outward rather than inward, at others and never at themselves or their own kind.
The danger of this mindset—in which the means, however unethical, justify the ends of survival—is obvious. And so in this case, Trump supporters will tolerate everything he does, from
- making hush-money payments to porn stars and
- engaging in sexually predatory behavior, to
- inviting America’s adversaries to intervene in our elections, to
- pressuring American allies to dig up dirt on the president’s opponent, to
- cozying up to some of the worst dictators in the world, to
- peddling crazed conspiracy theories, to
- mishandling a pandemic at the cost of untold lives, to
- countless other ethical and governing transgressions.
Trump is given carte blanche by his supporters because they perceive him as their protector, transforming his ruthlessness from a vice into a virtue.
In my experience, if Trump supporters are asked to turn their gaze away from their perceived opponents, and instead to focus and reflect on him and on his failures, they respond in a couple of consistent ways. Many shift the topic immediately back to Democrats, because offering a vigorous moral defense of Donald Trump isn’t an easy task. It’s like asking people to stare directly into the sun; they might do it for an instant, but then they look away. But if you do succeed in keeping the topic on Trump, they often twist themselves into knots in order to defend him, and in some cases they simply deny reality.
“Motivation conditions cognition,” Jonathan Rauch, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a contributing writer at The Atlantic, wisely told me. Very few Trump supporters I know are able to offer an honest appraisal of the man. To do so creates too much cognitive dissonance.That they are defending a person who is fundamentally malicious, even if he makes judicial appointments of which they approve, is too painful for them to admit. They are similarly unable to admit they are defending an ethic that is at odds with what they have long championed. They have accepted, excused, and applauded Trump’s behavior and tactics, allowing his ends to justify his means. In important respects, this is antithetical to a virtue ethic. So once again, it’s easier for them to look away or engage in self-deception; to convince themselves that Donald Trump is not who he so clearly is.
These reactions aren’t confined to Trump supporters; people across the political spectrum struggle with confirmation bias and motivated reasoning, in giving too much benefit of the doubt to those with whom we agree and judging too harshly and unfairly those with whom we disagree. That is part of the human condition. The degree to which Democrats, including feminists, overlooked or accepted Bill Clinton’s sexually predatory behavior—including his campaign’s effort to smear his accusers and its use of a private investigator to destroy Gennifer Flowers’s reputation “beyond all recognition”—is an illustration of this. So Flowers was branded a “bimbo” and a “pathological liar,” even though Clinton later, under oath, admitted to having an affair with her.
“If you drag a $100 bill through a trailer park, you never know what you’ll find,” James Carville said in response to Paula Jones’s claim that Clinton sexually harassed her. In defending President Clinton against the charges of sexual harassment made by Kathleen Willey, who accused Clinton of groping her without her consent, Gloria Steinem wrote, “The truth is that even if the allegations are true, the President is not guilty of sexual harassment. He is accused of having made a gross, dumb and reckless pass at a supporter during a low point in her life. She pushed him away, she said, and it never happened again. In other words, President Clinton took ‘no’ for an answer.” And Nina Burleigh, who covered the White House for Time magazine, said, “I’d be happy to give him a blowjob just to thank him for keeping abortion legal. I think American women should be lining up with their presidential kneepads on to show their gratitude for keeping the theocracy off our backs.” So Democrats should be careful about looking down at others for accommodating themselves to unsavory and even repulsive characters for the sake of partisanship.
But what’s different in this case is that Trump, because of the corruption that seems to pervade every area of his life and his damaged psychological and emotional state, has shown us just how much people will accept in their leaders as a result of “negative partisanship,” the force that binds parties together less in common purpose than in opposition to a shared opponent. As the conservative writer David French has put it, with Donald Trump and his supporters we are seeing “negative partisanship in its near-pure form, and it’s the best way to explain Trump’s current appeal to the Republican party.” His ideology is almost entirely beside the point, according to French: “His identity matters more, and his identity is clear—the Republican champion against the hated Democratic foe.”
I know plenty of Trump supporters, and I know many of them to be people of integrity in important areas of their lives. Indeed, some are friends I cherish. But if there is a line Donald Trump could cross that would forfeit the loyalty of his core supporters—including, and in some respects especially, white evangelical Christians—I can’t imagine what it would be. And that is a rather depressing thing to admit.
Polarization and political tribalism are not new to America; fear and hatred for our fellow citizens have been increasing for decades. We’ve had plenty of presidents who have failed us, in ways large and small. But this moment is different because Donald Trump is different, and because Donald Trump is president. His relentless assault on truth and the institutions of democracy—his provocations and abuse of power, his psychological instability and his emotional volatility, his delusions and his incompetence—are unlike anything we’ve seen before. He needs to be stopped. And his supporters can’t say, as they did in 2016, that they just didn’t know. Now we know. It’s not too late—it’s never too late—to do the right thing.
This week, President Donald Trump began asserting that the United States would once again be “open for business” by Easter, on April 12. He provided no scientific or medical justification for that timeline, which Dr. Anthony Fauci of the White House coronavirus task force has emphasized is “flexible.” The Atlantic’s Adam Serwer joins Mehdi Hasan to discuss the president’s continuing refusal to take the Covid-19 pandemic seriously.
Reporter: You hope to have the country re-open by Easter, you said earlier you would like to see churches packed, who suggested Easter?
Donald J. Trump: I just thought it was a beautiful time. I’d love to see it come even sooner, but I just think it’d be a beautiful timeline.
Mehdi Hasan: Welcome to Deconstructed, I’m Mehdi Hasan, coming to you from my home near Washington D.C. And very much still social distancing perhaps to President Trump’s great disappointment.
Adam Serwer: When they say they’re willing to die for the economy what they really mean is they’re willing to let you die for the economy. That’s what they mean.
MH: That’s my guest today, the brilliant chronicler of the Trump era, Atlantic writer Adam Serwer.
And yes, to be clear, Trump and his Fox News media echo chamber want to ‘reopen the economy’ by Easter and perhaps kill hundreds of thousands of people in the process. But why? Why would anyone in a position of such power defy the medical experts and risk so many innocent American lives? What goes on inside that deranged orange head of his?
On Sunday night, Fox News host Steve Hilton, who I’m embarrassed to say is a fellow British immigrant, he said this on his show:
Steve Hilton: Our ruling class and their TV mouthpieces whipping up fear over this virus, they can afford an indefinite shutdown. Working Americans can’t. They’ll be crushed by it. You know that famous phrase, “the cure is worse than the disease?” That is exactly the territory we are hurtling towards. You think it’s just the coronavirus that kills people? This total economic shutdown will kill people.
MH: Hours later, Donald Trump was repeating that line “WE CANNOT LET THE CURE BE WORSE THAN THE PROBLEM ITSELF” in all capitals on Twitter. And like the man-child that he is, having just discovered a new rhetorical toy to play with, Trump’s been repeating it ad nauseum ever since.
DJT: I said, you know, I don’t want the cure to be worse than the problem itself. The problem being obviously the problem… We cannot let the cure be worse than the problem itself. We’re not going to let the cure be worse than the problem… It’s like this cure is worse than the problem… That’s why I talk about the cure being worse than the problem. We can’t have the cure be worse than the problem.
MH: So too have his advisers. In fact, it was a perfect Fox News feedback loop – as Trump adviser Larry Kudlow, who’s been wrong about almost everything related to the US economy over the past two decades – he went on Fox and said:
Larry Kudlow: The president is right. The cure can’t be worse than the disease.
MH: By Wednesday, the president had made it clear – he wants social distancing and self quarantining and working from home, he wants it all over as soon as possible. Because he wants the US economy back up and running. Those vulnerable old people, those immuno-compromised folks, they can look after themselves. They’ll be fine. In fact, every time you think this president can’t say anything crazier on the subject of the coronavirus, he outdoes himself – here’s what he said to Fox News on Tuesday:
DJT: Easter’s a very special day for me and I see it sort of in that timeline that I’m thinking about. And I say wouldn’t it be great to have all of the churches, you know the churches aren’t allowed essentially to have much of a congregation there and most of them, I watched on Sunday, online. And it was terrific, by the way, but online is never going to be like being there. So I think Easter Sunday and you’ll have packed churches all over our country. I think it would be a beautiful time and it’s just about the timeline that I think is right.
MH: Let’s be clear how mad this is – the idea of not just reopening the economy so soon but having packed churches anytime soon. We are in the midst of a pandemic. Almost every other country is trying to lockdown their population, keep them from going out, keep them away from gathering in big groups. This is not a left-wing or anti Trump conspiracy. Trump’s closest allies, British prime minister Boris Johnson and Indian prime minister Narendra Modi, both of them this week announced a lockdown of their respective countries. Modi is trying to prevent a billion Indians from leaving their homes over the next three weeks in order to prevent the spread of Covid-19.
And yet this same week, Trump is saying he wants the few and belated restrictions that some US states put in place lifted. He wants the U.S. economy to go back to ‘normal,’ whatever that is, and he also wants packed churches, despite the fact that a study by scientists and doctors at Imperial College in the UK found that if this virus was left to spread, with no restrictions in place, it would lead to around 2.2 million deaths in America by the end of the summer.
2.2 million deaths, think about that. Trump, the president hailed by white evangelicals as a saviour of Christianity, could be the president who not only kills liberals, if that’s what they want, but also decimates the churchgoing population in this country. So why do it? Why go against the advice of his own top scientists, doctors, epidemiologists, people like Dr. Anthony Fauci, who want to keep social distancing in place?
I have three reasons.
Number 1: corporate greed. There’s the Wall Street/big business crew who don’t want anything to get in the way of their obscene, never-ending profits and bonuses and share buybacks, certainly not a pesky little pandemic. This week you had Gary Cohn, former COO at Goldman Sachs, former Trump economic adviser saying “it’s time to start discussing the need for a date when the economy can turn back on”. His fellow former Goldman Sachs boss, Lloyd Blankfein, a Democrat, tweeted: “Within a very few weeks let those with a lower risk to the disease return to work.” Yeah, it’ll be fine.
Fox News hosts weighed in too:
Ed Henry: Now, every life matters and you don’t want to minimize any of them but when the mortality rate is that low, what is the balance? What would be your advice to the president if say he’s trying to make this decision this coming weekend ahead of the expiration of the 15 days to slow the spread?
MH: “Every life matters…but -” There really shouldn’t be a but after the words “every life matters.” Remember: this is supposed to be the pro-life party! But: The market is God. What the market wants, the market gets, even if you have to make human sacrifices at the altar of that market God.
So number 1, there’s the market-driven, profit-obsessed angle.
Number 2: there’s the personal greed, there’s Trump’s own personal bottom line. This is a president who wants to make money out of the White House, not lose money from it. As investigative reporter David Fahrenthold of the Washington Post tweeted this week, six out of seven of Trump’s biggest-name, biggest-revenue-generating resorts and golf clubs are closed right now. He obviously wants them back open again, and by the way, he also refuses to say whether he’ll accept or decline federal government bailout money for his own businesses:
Reporter: Do you expect your family company to seek government assistance if it’s eligible?
DJT: I don’t know. I mean, I just don’t know what the government assistance would be for what I have, I have hotels. Everybody knew I had hotels when I got elected. They knew I was a successful person when I got elected so it’s one of those things.
MH: But, number 3, perhaps above all else, Trump wants to get re-elected and he can’t get re-elected if the economy is in the middle of a Great Depression; if unemployment, as some predict, hits 30% and growth falls by 50%. He knows he can’t. His entire re-election strategy was to point to both a booming jobs market and a booming stock market as evidence of his presidential success. So let’s be clear: this is a president who is willing to sacrifice potentially hundreds of thousands if not millions of American lives in order to get himself a second term for a presidency which by the way he never really wanted in the first place.
What’s so frustrating though is that according to the polls, 6 out of 10 Americans approve of his handling of the crisis. Approve. I want to cry. I want to scream. What is wrong with them? Now, of course, part of that is just a rallying-around-the-flag-in-a-time-of-national-crisis phenomenon, a rallying-around-of-institutions – the presidency chief among them. As economist Stephanie Kelton pointed out in this show last week. And it’ll dissipate. That aspect of it will. Lest we forget, after 9/11, George W Bush had approval ratings of above 90% but he still left office as the one of the most unpopular presidents in modern American history. Now, of course Bush is popular again because he’s NOT Trump – and because Michelle Obama and Ellen have a soft spot for him. And because he paints. But I digress.
Trump has the whole ‘patriotism in a time of crisis’ thing going for him, but he also has benefited from the fact that the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, Joe Biden, was missing in action for much of last week and and when he turned up this week, I am sorry to say, he was typically wooden, underwhelming and uninspiring, especially for the moment we’re in:
Joe Biden: President Trump and Mitch McConnell are trying to put a corporate bailout ahead of millions of families. You know, it’s families. It’s simply wrong.
MH: And Trump has benefited because the Congressional Democratic leadership has not been radical enough – yes they’ve pushed back against Senate Republican attempts to give the Trump administration a half a trillion dollar corporate slush fund. Yes, they’ve pushed back against any kind of bailout for big corporations that allows share buybacks or bonuses for bosses. Yes, they’ve demanded some extra protections and income for workers, especially in the form of a boosted unemployment insurance payment, which is good… but overall their response is still very tame, given the scale and scope of this unprecedented economic crisis, given the severity and extent of the human suffering. I mean, if you want to see how far the Democrats still really need to go, just think about what other Western countries are doing to try and prevent this turning into another Great Depression.
- France has a put a moratorium on all rent and utility payments.
- Italy and Spain have done the same with mortgages.
- Denmark has promised to cover 75% of salaries for businesses that don’t lay off their employees. And in the
- Netherlands, they’re paying up to 90% of wages for companies hit hardest by the pandemic.
Why can’t the United States do any of this? Why are we now being told that the choice, the false choice, is only between saving the economy and fighting the virus? Why in the U.S., the richest country in the history of the world, which every couple of years seems to find a trillion or so dollars down the back of a couch in order to pay for the new invasion of some poor brown country or another, why can’t the U.S. do any of this? Why aren’t Democrats calling for a much bigger role for the government, in terms of bailing out people, not just corporations? Why aren’t they calling for much bigger checks for ordinary people, delivered not just as a one-off payment, but every month, going forward, until this crisis is over as Bernie Sanders and AOC and others have called for?
You know, a week or two ago, when the coronavirus pandemic started to really to take its toll here in the U.S., I thought for a moment, maybe this is the Donald Rumsfeld “unknown unknown” that finally knocks Trump off his pedestal, the crisis that causes him to lose the forthcoming presidential election. Now, I’m not so sure.
He still, after all, has his cult behind him, and what we’ve discovered in recent days, is that it’s not just a loyal cult, it’s a death cult. It is! Listen to devout Trumpist, the lieutenant governor of Texas, Dan Patrick, speaking on – where else – Fox News this week:
Dan Patrick: Tucker, no one reached out to me and said as a senior citizen are you willing to take a chance on your survival in exchange for keeping the America that all America loves for your children and grandchildren. And if that’s the exchange, I’m all in. And that doesn’t make me noble or brave or anything like that. I just think there are lots of grandparents out there in this country like me, I have six grandchildren, that what we all care about and what we love more than anything are those children.
MH: Grandpa’s gotta die for the grandkids to enjoy eating out again. Sorry. Ali Soufan, the former FBI agent who led the bureau’s investigation into Al Qaeda in the run-up to 9/11, watched that clip of Patrick and tweeted, and I quote: “I’ve dealt with suicidal cults before. I encountered people who are willing to die for their faith, ideology, race, etc. But, I never encountered anyone who is willing to die for someone else’s 401k. This is a whole new level of craziness,” he tweeted.
Indeed it is. And so to talk more about this new level of craziness to try and make sense of, and deconstruct, this weird political terrain, and to try and understand the sheer insanity of the Trump posture on the coronavirus pandemic in particular, I’m joined by perhaps the chronicler of the Trump era, the Atlantic’s Adam Serwer, who is the author of such brilliant and memorable essays as “The Nationalist’s Delusion”, “White Nationalism’s Deep American Roots” and, of course, the must-read that is “The Cruelty Is the Point.”
He joins me now from his home in San Antonio, Texas. Adam, thanks for joining me on Deconstructed.
Adam Serwer: Thank you for having me.
MH: You wrote in the Atlantic, Adam that after the coronavirus outbreak emerged in China, the rest of the world began to regard it as a threat to public health while Trump has seen it as a public relations problem, explain what you mean by that.
AS: Well, you can see from the moment that Trump was first asked about the coronavirus publicly on CNBC in late January, he said, you know, “China’s handling it, it’s fine”. And he repeated that line of “it’s fine” even when Americans started becoming infected. He said, you know, the cases are gonna be down to zero in a couple of days, you know, we were over 500 deaths in the United States. He simply thought that this was another issue, that if he repeated whatever his, you know, whatever message that he had settled on, if he just repeated his talking points over and over, he would be able to overwhelm whatever else anybody was saying about it which is a strategy that has honestly worked for him many times before. It may even work here, who knows? Even though the bodies are starting to pile up. But what’s certainly true is that it has not solved the problem, which is that the United States is being hit by a deadly pandemic, and hospitals are being overwhelmed and people are dying.
MH: But as you say, it may even work here. That’s the big kind of political question in all of this separate to the scientific and public health question because it has worked before. And Bill Gates talked this week about, you know, a pile of bodies in the corner. Are you saying that even with that pile of bodies, God forbid in the corner as the death toll is mounting day after day, that he can still get away with it? You think that his blustering through like he did in this “Fox News townhall” this week that might work politically?
AS: I mean, I think that there is a large segment of the electorate that rationalizes, ignores or denies anything, any negative information associated with Trump that they see as incongruent with Trump as they see him. And so it’s really you know, it’s really a question of, you know, to what extent these people still have the ability to sway a national election. But the truth is also that in the absence of you know, for the most part the Democrats have been really absent from this debate over whether or not Trump has properly handled their coronavirus pandemic. And so Trump has been on TV every night and there is getting edited down into local news clips to where he sounds coherent and responsible. Despite the way he actually handled this which is by ignoring his own advisers and treaties to prepare for a serious possible outbreak here in the United States.
MH: And despite the fact that when you don’t edit him down to bite sized chunks for evening news, he’s mad and rambling.
AS: Right, he sounds rambling, he says things that aren’t true. He says things like, you know, I don’t want to let infected Americans off a cruise ship because I don’t want the number of infected to go up in the United States as though that was the main issue. But you know, to the extent that the Democrats have absented themselves from the political debate over this issue, you can see Americans who are, you know, even Democrats are starting to approve of the way that Trump is handling this, which is honestly given the way that he’s handled it, which was waiting until it became an undeniable problem to do anything about it is actually insane.
MH: So I want to talk to you about the Trump base that you rightly said rationalizes his behavior, but I also want to talk about the Democrats. But let’s just stick with the Thanos-like figure that we have running the government right now, given what you know about Trump and how he behaves, were you surprised to hear the President say what he said on Tuesday that he wanted the economy up and running again, open again in time for Easter, and, “packed churches?” Did that surprise you? Shock you?
AS: No, it doesn’t because I mean, the only thing that has ever motivated Trump is what’s good for Trump. And to the extent that the whole country doesn’t see that it’s because of a propaganda apparatus that surrounds him that has built up a cult of personality that is, you know, to some extent, impervious to outside intervention. You know, so for him to say, you know, he did not take this seriously until the stock market started crashing which threatened his political prospects. And so now, you know, he sees an economic downturn as a result of these social distancing strategies which are meant to contain a pandemic, and he’s saying, well, we need to get the economy running again no matter what it costs. The problem with that, obviously, is that when people start dying again, the economy is going to slow down anyway. So there isn’t a choice here. I mean, obviously, eventually, we have to like, eventually, when the epidemic is contained, we need to ease people back into you know, something resembling a normal life, but you can’t do that if a deadly disease is still ravaging everything. People aren’t going to go to restaurants, they’re not going to send their kids to school. They’re not gonna go out and buy cars and iPhones or whatever.
MH: Yes, you’re right. It’s stating the obvious that if hundreds of thousands of people die, which is what epidemiologists say will happen, if these restrictions are lifted the know the economy can’t continue as normal if millions of members of the workforce are dropping dead and overwhelming hospitals. Just going back to your propaganda machine point you wrote in The Atlantic about this sort of toxic symbiosis that exists between the President and his right wing media echo chamber, especially Fox News, which both amplify his false statements about the virus, but also provide him with crazy fodder to repeat you know, this line this week about the cure is can’t be worse than the disease which you just lifted from Fox. You also mentioned an Arkansas pastor who was quoted in the Washington Post saying, “In your more politically conservative regions, closing is not interpreted as caring for you. It’s interpreted as liberalism, or buying into the hype.” Have we ever seen a public political party media response to a pandemic like this before, just so loaded and so, so filled with kind of partisan meaning and baggage?
AS: Well, I’m not a historian of infectious diseases, so I can’t answer that. But I can say that, you know, the behavior of Fox News has been really extraordinary here. Because what they did was when the President was downplaying the epidemic, Fox News was downplaying the epidemic. And when the President decided that he needed to sort of take charge and show everybody he was doing his job, Fox News, talked about how heroic the President was being. And now that, you know, the President is worried about his re-election, Fox News is encouraging him to think about opening up the economy again, which is, I mean, it’s not even clear to me what that entails except exposing people to potential infection.
MH: But which of them Adam is the dog and which of them is the tail?
AS: I don’t think – It’s not actually clear. I mean, I don’t think that’s actually fair because in one sense, Trump looks at Fox is a kind of like pipeline to his base. And also Fox sees Trump as an important asset for their political project. So, they sort of mutually stand each other up. Fox defends the president no matter what he does, and when they think he’s, and you can see this sometimes on Fox, when people on Fox think of President is getting himself in danger as you know, Fox News host Tucker Carlson did earlier this month, he tried to convince the president that actually the epidemic was a serious thing, and he should start taking it seriously. But until then, you know, Fox News was endangering its own audience by telling them that the coronavirus was nothing to worry about.
And what’s fascinating about that, is that Fox imagines itself as a corrective to the mainstream media, which supposedly lies to you all the time for political reasons. But what we have here is Fox which, you know, internally, they were saying we need to take precautions to worry about this epidemic, but they were broadcasting the message that there was nothing to worry about. And that’s because their role is to protect the president and make sure that conservative base sees them as infallible. It’s not to actually inform the conservative base about information that is vital to their well being. In fact, when they had the opportunity to do that what they did was endanger them by lying to them about how serious this was.
MH: So you’ve followed this presidency closely. You’ve written extensively about Trump. Do you believe his handling of this crisis is a product of ignorance, of his sheer dumbness, of his conspiratorial anti-scientific mindset? Or is he just a sociopath who knows what he’s doing could kill millions of people, but he just doesn’t care because he firmly believes his reelection is more important to the world than social distancing or saving American lives?
AS: I think the most simplest thing to understand about Trump is he thinks that everything is about him. So he will always look out for number one. The federal government there is to do what he wants. Even the governors of states who are begging him for aid have to be nice to Mr. Trump if they want to get it. So you know, the sort of authoritarian cult of personality that has been built up around him sees the same thing. Trump is basically the nation to them. So, Trump cannot betray the nation. He can’t betray the public trust because he is all of those things. He is those things manifested. So there’s nothing that he can do that is actually selfish, whatever acts that might be selfish in another context by another chief executive, by another human being are not selfish because Trump is the country and therefore he is serving the country. So when Trump is pursuing his own self interest, no matter the human cost, even when it’s a pursuit that exposes Americans to a deadly disease because he doesn’t feel like dealing with it until the stock market crashes, he is still serving the country loyally because after all, to serve Trump loyally is to serve the country loyally. And this is a sort of very dangerous political mentality, and one that unfortunately, the country is going to be dealing with the consequences of for a very long time.
MH: And it’s not just a dangerous political reality and tendency, but also the public health aspects here are bizarre because in China which is a dictatorship, they actually used the authoritarian powers some would argue, to shut down things in a way a democracy can’t and therefore contain the infection, contain the pandemic. Here in the U.S., the authoritarianism that we have in the White House is actually hampering the response to this crisis because instead of people going out and locking down the country, the authoritarianism is manifesting itself in public health officials, scientists standing up in public and lavishing praise on Trump, because they know that’s the only way he’ll even vaguely entertain what they have to say. So you have respected members of the scientific establishment, public officials beginning each and every statement in front of a camera by praising Trump.
AS: So I want to push back on this a little bit because the Chinese government did actually suppress the understanding of the disease. They said that it wasn’t transmissible between humans, they silenced a doctor who was saying this was a very serious problem.
MH: They have a lot to answer for.
AS: And when that doctor died, there was a huge, you know, one of the biggest public outcries we’ve seen in China because of you know, he had been trying to inform the public about the deadliness of this disease. So the thing about authoritarian figures is that they will always pursue the path that they think is necessary for their political survival. And in terms of public benefit, you know, the public will only benefit as long as the interests of the authoritarian figure align with the public interest. So as long as those two things are not aligned, in other words, as long as Trump thought that he could bluster his way through the disease in the early months of this year by saying, “Oh, it’s not a big deal, it’s gonna go away,” he was doing that. And now that, you know, it’s obviously a serious problem, he’s pursuing his own self interest and you know, signing a stimulus package that’s going to, you know, try to cushion the impact of this on the economy. But he’s actually still only pursuing his own self interest in the same way that China was.
MH: Do you think and I hate to ask this question, because I’ll probably feel like a naive fool as I say the word but I’m gonna say it anyways, do you think this is the moment that the Republican party or at least some congressional Republicans dare to split with him? There’s been reporting from Politico that fear is stalking the corridors of Capitol Hill as people are getting infected. Even GOP Congresswoman Liz Cheney, daughter of the ghoulish Dick, normally loyal Trumpist was tweeting this week that now is not the time to end social distancing or reopen the economy. Now is the time to fight the pandemic. If you have Republicans, who, unlike the base, actually realize that their lives are at stake. Do you think this might be a moment they think, “You know what? We need to push back against Donald Trump. He’s risking our lives and our family’s lives”?
AS: No, I do not. And I’ll tell you why because if you look at those statements, do you notice that they exempt the president from, the criticism is implied, it’s implicit, the only thing that will break Donald Trump’s grip on the Republican Party and the cult of personality that surrounds him is political defeat.
MH: And we don’t know what’s going to happen. I want to come back to political defeat and whether it’s happening or not. Just in terms of the grip on the party, then just sticking with your point. There is this irony that when people like Dan Patrick, of your state of Texas and Glenn Beck even say stuff like “Well, we’re old and we’re willing to die for our economy to survive,” which has become a weird right-wing talking point this week –
AS: When they say they’re willing to die for the economy, what they really mean is they’re willing to let you die for the economy. That’s what they mean.
MH: Of course, because Glenn Beck wasn’t the guy who went to volunteer to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan even as he kind of praised all that nonsense. But when they say stuff like that, and when Trump says he wants to see packed churches in a couple of weeks time, old people and evangelicals in churches are basically the Trump base. They’re risking killing off their own base, aren’t they?
AS: I mean, look, if you’re asking me whether I think that Trump actually cares about the well being of these people, or whether Fox or whether conservative media actually cares about these people’s well being, the answer is no. But I think, you know, the issue here is that they are appealing to a sentiment that I think is actually quite widespread and that people should not dismiss which is that it is very scary to be out of work. It is very scary to wonder whether you’re going to be able to pay the rent on your apartment, get food for your family, you know whether you’re gonna be able to pay your bills, your student loans, this is very scary. This is a very scary moment. So when a used car salesman comes up to you and says we can just reopen the economy and it’s going to be fine. It is tempting to say, okay, hopefully this guy is telling the truth, hopefully he’s right because this is a very scary situation that I’m in. And what that means, to me that makes this all the more despicable because everybody knows what the danger is here to thousands, if not possibly millions of people all over the country based on some of the most pessimistic epidemiological assessments. You know, people really are scared and they really want to hear that this is going to be over soon.
MH: But here’s where I would slightly push back against you and say you’re being a little bit too generous is that the people who really are scared aren’t necessarily all of the people we’ve being hearing this week.
AS: No, I think that’s right.
MH: I think there’s a definite issue for the left. And we discussed this last week on the show with AOC and with Stephanie Kelton, which has come up with an actual solution to stop the bleeding now, a big economic plan that actually helps people. The choice is not between let people die and save the economy. You can save the economy and prevent people from dying, as European countries seem to be doing slowly.
AS: That’s exactly right. And you can’t actually save the economy by letting people die. You can’t actually save the economy that way.
MH: So coming back to the let people die, that seems to just be some kind of weird, you know, macho Trumpist, you know, push back against basically conventional science and, and the libs.
AS: There is a tremendous temptation for people on Twitter who are never going to have to put their actions to their words to act like tough guys. It happens all the time. It’s extraordinarily stupid.
MH: So on that basis, let me ask you this question: We’ve always known that Trump is in charge of a cult, or at least some of us, as you and I have pointed that out before. Do you think it’s now fair to call the Trump cult a death cult?
AS: I mean, I don’t know whether I would put that label on it. But I can say that the rationalizations that I’m seeing on social media with regards to either the death toll in New York, or the human cost of simply, you know, ending social distancing before we have the epidemic under control is absolutely sociopathic. It is cruel, it is wrong, and it’s disgusting.
MH: And it’s not just disgusting. It’s totally hypocritical because these are the same people Glenn Beck, who went crazy in 2009 over so-called death panels that were involved in Obamacare, and now we have the president of the Unites States a Republican, literally implementing the idea of death panels, saying some people need to die for the rest of us to get what we want economically. And the whole cult aspect is fascinating because the writer Ed Solomon tweeted this week, and I quote, “It’s happening. Trump is now literally killing people on Fifth Avenue.” And he was right, his followers don’t care.
AS: I mean, look, there are doctors who are having to make horrible decisions about who’s gonna be put on a ventilator and who’s not. You know, this is scary stuff. And it’s really extraordinary for a bunch of big guys who essentially shitpost on Twitter for a living, to go out and talk about the great sacrifice they’re willing to make. They’re doing nothing, absolutely nothing. And it’s a disgrace that they think of themselves as offering something to the country, some great sacrifice while there are people working, medical workers working 12 and 14-15 hour shifts, trying to keep human beings alive and have to, you know, in an epidemic that they initially said wasn’t a big deal.
MH: I want to read you a quote from journalist Tom Kludt. On Twitter this week, he said, “We’re days away from calls for social distancing being met with a series of cry laughing emojis and conservatives gathering in large groups to trigger the libs.” He’s right, isn’t he? The Republicans, the right have successfully made a pandemic and medical advice on how to handle a pandemic into part of the culture wars.
AS: Well, look, the writer Jonathan Katz, who’s covered a lot of disasters, you know, the way he put it is that we’re not actually in the disaster yet. So despite the fact that we’ve you know, we’ve reached hundreds of deaths already, it’s actually going to get worse this week. And so, you know, I’m not going to make any predictions about what’s going to happen or to what extent this is going to become a culture war issue. But I think that, at the moment, part of the right’s reaction to this is a callous disregard for the lives of people in cities like New York, whom they consider lesser than them. You know, because it’s happening in blue areas. It’s not a big deal. Well, look, it’s a disease. It does not discriminate based on political affiliation. It’s going to come for other areas of the country, too. And it’s not going to be funny when it does. It’s going to be terrible.
MH: Yep. And Louisiana has already had to declare an emergency as it’s spreading there. We have Rand Paul testing positive and behaving irresponsibly wandering around the halls of the Senate while he was waiting for his test results. How worried are you, Adam, about the poll that came out this week showing almost 50% approval rating for Trump and 60% approval for his handling of the crisis which of course defies reality in many ways? Is that just a patriotic rallying around the flag? Because 60% approval means Democrats are saying he’s handling the crisis well.
AS: I’m not a polling expert. But what I would say is that I think it reflects two things. One is that there is a rally effect. And when you look at the polls of George W. Bush after 9/11, this is actually a pretty small rally effect, if that’s what’s happening. The other thing is, like I said earlier, the Democrats have essentially ceded the political conversation to the president. So it’s not a surprise that people who are only hearing one side of the story, you know, think that side is right.
MH: Why do you think that is? Why do you think the Democrats have ceded it?
AS: I don’t know. I mean, this is a story for someone who’s in Washington on Capitol Hill, who’s talking to these people who can explain what’s going on. I mean, I think they would probably say, “Well, look, we’re trying to save the country right now. You know, unlike Trump, we actually have to do our jobs. We can’t just go on TV every day and do nothing.”
MH: Well, they could go on TV every day, if they wanted to. They could hold a simultaneous press conference saying everything he just said is a lie.
AS: They could put someone on TV every day. You know, and who knows, maybe they will after this deal is done and after they’ve managed to secure some form of aid for the people who are going to be suffering because of this. But I think you know what you’re saying, like, I don’t want to trivialize politics. Politics is how societies make collective decisions. It is not, you know, to say that, oh, we’re not going to play politics, what you’re really saying is that you’re going to take yourself out of that process of making decisions. It’s not really an option. You know, so I don’t know what’s going to happen. I don’t know what the future holds. I think, you know, things are going to get worse before they get better. And I think that the president has obviously done an awful job. And that’s going to become apparent when you compare the impact of the pandemic in the United States compared to other countries, whether or not that affects his political fortunes, I have no idea. You know, I’m not going to make any predictions about that.
MH: The problem with the comparison with other countries, of course is by the time we have it, it may well be too late. And I’m glad you made the point about politics because it really drives me up the wall when people say, let’s not politicize this, it’s not a time for politics, especially when liberals and centrist say this. Because if you’re distributing hundreds of billions of taxpayer money, billions of dollars and you have to choose between whether it goes to corporations or to real people, that is a political decision, that cannot be un-politicized. And I just find it bizarre when people who should know better say this. Just before we finish, you mentioned the Democrats. We saw the return of Joe Biden this week, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, the front runner. He gave a speech from his home. He did a bunch of TV interviews, in some of which he made some good strong points about what to do next. And then some of which he failed to complete simple sentences and coughed into his hands. Do you have faith that Joe Biden can beat Donald Trump in November, especially after or in the midst of this crisis?
AS: I don’t have any political prognostications to make about Biden. I mean, look, I’ve been very critical of Joe Biden and very critical of his past record. I do think that you know, the primary showed that he has more of a political strength with sort of average Democrats than I think a lot of people in the press anticipated, whether or not that makes you happy or it makes you sad, it’s obviously true. I think the question really is, is does that strength persist in a general election with Donald Trump? And does it work to neutralize the ideal geographic distribution of his support and the electoral college? And I don’t think we know the answer.
MH: Just before you go, Adam, there was a very powerful tweet you did last week that really got to me. I shared it with friends and family of mine on WhatsApp and text. I just want to read it out to our listeners, as we end our conversation. You wrote, “Adults can’t visit their parents. Parents can’t visit their adult children. And if they could, they couldn’t even embrace each other. I don’t know how many, but some of us hugged our loved ones for the last time, and we don’t know it yet,” is what you wrote. When I read that, it really got to me because I hadn’t really thought about it in those terms. And my parents, I’m in the United States, my parents, elderly parents are abroad. I have no idea when I’m next going to see them, praying that I see them soon. I’m sure many people listening to this show. What do you think people are going through? When you wrote that tweet, what were you thinking? What were you going through? What do you think people are going through right now when it comes to that very fundamental issue of human relationships?
AS: I think I think it’s just crushing. I mean, I miss my parents. My parents are old enough to be in the risk group. So you know, they were actually supposed to come visit before air travel shut down, and I didn’t get to see them. And I think you know, and I was looking on Instagram and a friend who lives in the same city as their parents, their parents came over, but they had to, they couldn’t touch each other. They had to stay far away from each other. While they were able to see each other they weren’t even able to embrace and it just made me think about, you know, the extent to which, you know, we’re all like, we cannot do this. This epidemic has deprived us of one of the simplest, like simplest human comforts that have helped sustain people in the worst times in the history of humanity, which is the embrace of our loved ones. And it is just extremely tragic and sad. And it also makes me extremely angry about how this government has handled, you know, what it saw coming way in advance long enough to prepare for it and it did not.
MH: Me too, Adam, which is why I wanted to get you on the show today. Thank you so much for taking time out. Stay safe, my friend, talk soon.
AS: Thank you for having me.
MH: Thanks, Adam.
AS: Take care.
MH: That was Adam Serwer, staff writer at The Atlantic. Check out his pieces for them, they’re always, always brilliant and insightful. Adam says that Trump and Fox don’t actually care about the people in their base who could die from this disease and from believing that it isn’t a threat and doesn’t require social distancing and other precautionary measures. The thing is – how do you get through to a cult, a death cult? And how do you stop them from endangering all the rest of us too? It’s one of the biggest questions of our time and one we’ll continue to examine and explore here on Deconstructed.
MH: But for now, that’s our show. Stay safe and indoors, if you can.
Deconstructed is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept. Our producer is Zach Young. The show was mixed by Bryan Pugh. Our theme music was composed by Bart Warshaw. Betsy Reed is The Intercept’s editor in chief.
I’m Mehdi Hasan. You can follow me on Twitter @mehdirhasan. If you haven’t already, please do subscribe to the show so you can hear it every week. Go to theintercept.com/deconstructed to subscribe from your podcast platform of choice, iPhone, Android, whatever. If you’re subscribed already, please do leave us a rating or review – it helps new people find the show. And if you want to give us feedback, email us at Podcasts@theintercept.com. Thanks so much!
See you next week.