It should never be forgotten how much of Donald Trump’s career has been based on his ability to obscure and defy reality. In the nineteen-eighties and early nineties, he built a gaming-and-real-estate empire on a mountain of debt, which eventually forced some of his businesses into bankruptcy. By persuading his bank creditors to let him retain some of his prized assets, rather than liquidate them, he converted disaster into opportunity. And, by booking a huge tax loss, which he carried over in subsequent years, he seems to have eliminated most, if not all, of his federal-tax obligations for at least a decade.
Despite scraping through his financial busts with some of his businesses intact, Trump would have all but disappeared from the national scene were it not for a starring role on reality television—a medium that has very little to do with actual reality. After “The Apprentice” became a hit, Trump erased the failures from his résumé and ran for President on the image of a successful businessman—even as it emerged that one of his surviving ventures, Trump University, was a scam.
In 2016, Trump defied yet another reality. His opponent, Hillary Clinton, defeated him in the popular vote by almost three million ballots. But the antiquated Electoral College ushered Trump into the White House, where he continued the assault on fact-based reality that he had launched during his election campaign, repeatedly labelling the media as “fake news” and the “enemy of the people.” Three and a half years later, he is still at it.
It is a remarkable record of manipulation and effrontery, but the coronavirus doesn’t listen to Trump’s bluster or read his tweets. On June 3rd, according to a running tally maintained by the Times, the seven-day average for confirmed new cases of covid-19 was 21,958. On Monday, August 3rd, the seven-day average was 60,202. That’s an increase of about a hundred and seventy-five per cent in two months. Since early July, as the virus has spread across the country, the number of deaths from covid-19 has more than doubled. Even after a welcome decline during the past few days, the weekly average is still more than a thousand a day.
Confronted with these developments, Trump has become even more brazen in promoting an alternative reality. On Monday, he lashed out at Deborah Birx, the response coördinator of the White House’s coronavirus task force, tweeting, “So Crazy Nancy Pelosi said horrible things about Dr. Deborah Birx, going after her because she was too positive on the very good job we are doing on combatting the China Virus, including Vaccines & Therapeutics. In order to counter Nancy, Deborah took the bait & hit us. Pathetic!”
The President was referring to an interview that Birx gave to CNN’s Dana Bash over the weekend, and if you watch it, you’ll see that she didn’t “hit” Trump or his Administration at all. To the contrary, Birx defended the White House task force, saying that it had shifted course more than a month ago: after it became clear that the pandemic had entered a new phase, the task force adopted a more granular approach, providing individual municipalities and counties with the support and guidance they needed to address the rising number of cases, she said. She also pointed out that, in some places where they have been introduced, mitigation efforts seem to be having a positive impact. In hard-hit Arizona, Florida, and Texas, and in a half-dozen other states, new-case numbers have declined somewhat in the past two weeks, the Times’ interactive guide shows. (Case numbers are still rising in fifteen states and Puerto Rico.)
What was Birx’s offense? She openly acknowledged that the virus is spreading, and she warned people in Trump-supporting areas of the dangers that this presents. “I want to be very clear,” she said. “What we are seeing today is different from March and April. It is extraordinarily widespread. It’s into the rural as [well as] urban areas. And, to everybody who lives in a rural area, you are not immune or protected from this virus.” Birx went on to say that people living in rural areas need to socially distance and wear masks—including at home, if they have potentially vulnerable family members. In other words, Birx used her media platform to try to save lives. Asked about his tweet attacking her, at a press conference on Monday afternoon, Trump said that Birx was “a person I have a lot of respect for.” But he refused to say whether he agreed with her characterization of the pandemic.
Could there be a clearer demonstration that Trump expects his health advisers to defer to his preferred version of reality, even if adopting such a strategy puts more American lives at risk? Having failed to adhere to this communications policy, Anthony Fauci, the best-known member of the White House task force, hasn’t been invited to appear alongside Trump for weeks. Birx is still more visible. But Trump, having restarted his regular coronavirus briefings, is again the Administration’s primary spokesperson on the pandemic. The consequences are, by turns, absurd and alarming.
Last week, when he granted a taped interview to Axios’s Jonathan Swan, he came prepared with charts, which, he claimed, showed that the United States was doing better than other countries “in numerous categories.” Swan, a plainspoken Australian, seemed puzzled. “Oh, you’re doing death as a proportion of cases,” he said after Trump handed him one of the charts. “I’m talking about death as a proportion of population. That’s where the U.S. is really bad. Much worse than South Korea, Germany, et cetera.” Trump seemed flummoxed. “You can’t do that,” he said. “Why can’t I do that?” Swan replied. “You have to go by the cases,” Trump said.
That was a comedy routine. After HBO aired the interview, on Monday night, it was compared online to “Spinal Tap” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” The interview also contained darker moments, though, especially when Swan pressed Trump on why he kept insisting that the virus was under control, thereby giving a sense of false security to his supporters. “They don’t listen to me or the media or Fauci,” Swan said. “They think we’re fake news. They want to get their advice from you. And so, when they hear you say, ‘Everything’s under control. Don’t worry about wearing masks’—I mean, many of them are older people, Mr. President.”
Trump’s face was blank. “Under the circumstances, right now, I think it’s under control,” he said tightly. Swan repeated that every day a thousand people were dying. “They are dying, that’s true,” Trump went on. “And it is what it is. But that doesn’t mean we aren’t doing everything we can. It’s under control as much as you can control it. This is a horrible plague that beset us.”
Nobody could deny Trump his final point. But a battleground-state survey from CBS News, which was released over the weekend, showed that sixty per cent of North Carolinians think that the Trump Administration could be doing more to contain the pandemic, and that fifty-eight per cent think it is merely letting the virus run its course. In Georgia, another red state, the survey findings were practically identical. For decades, Trump has made his way by concealing the true nature of things. Some realities are too big and pressing for even him to obscure.