The United States has top-notch public health professionals who are trying to maintain their commitment to openness and truth as they fight the spread of covid-19. At the top of their government, however, is a president who seems to have learned everything he knows about crisis management from authoritarian leaders.

The parallels are inescapable. Trump’s authoritarian instincts were on full display in his latest White House event on the coronavirus. When he speaks, he seeks not to inform but to manipulate. He obfuscates, deflects and blames those who are revealing unpleasant truths.

President Trump has repeatedly said a novel coronavirus vaccine will be created in record time. Experts say it won’t be ready for at least a year. (The Washington Post)

Trump foments conspiracy theories about the virus, dismissing news about it as a “new hoax” targeting him. The perpetrators: the Democrats, whom he accuses of “politicizing” the spread of the illness.

In Iran, President Hassan Rouhani blames the country’s growing epidemic on “enemy plots.”

Last month, Trump lavished praise on Chinese Communist Party leader Xi Jinping, noting among other things: “Great discipline is taking place in China, as President Xi strongly leads what will be a very successful operation.” The Post reported that Trump’s kind words for the Chinese leader have spooked some members of the administration.

The United States is not China, and Trump is not Xi, but the tactics rhyme.

China has targeted those who tried to tell the truth about the disease. Citizen journalists who sought to report from the most severely affected regions suddenly disappeared. The first Wuhan doctors who reported the outbreak were arrested, accused of spreading false rumors. One of them, Li Wenliang, later died of covid-19.

Trump’s administration hasn’t gone so far as to arrest anyone for revealing details of the outbreak. But he has eagerly blamed the messengers, stepping up his attacks on the media. In a tweet on Feb. 27, he declared, “Diagnosis positive: @CNN is infected with Trump Derangement Syndrome. I’m calling out CNN for irresponsibly politicizing what should be a unifying battle against a virus that doesn’t choose sides.”

Meanwhile, acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney blamed the political opposition for the intensive news coverage about the virus: “The reason you’re seeing so much attention to it today is that they think this is going to be the thing that brings down the president. That’s what this is all about.” Trump’s son Donald Trump Jr. has claimed that Democrats are hoping that the virus “kills millions” — a claim Vice President Pence described as “justified.” (No Democrat has said anything of the sort, of course, and House Democrats are actually trying to boost spending to stop the outbreak.)

Another administration tactic has been to discount the virus. It’s really no big deal, Trump and his supporters proclaim. The president has even claimed that the number of cases is going down, not up.

Iranian officials know that tactic. They, too, have opted to play down the outbreak. Rather than encouraging vulnerable Iranians to stay at home, officials have encouraged pilgrims to visit the holy city of Qom, a center of the outbreak. Matters took a dark turn when Deputy Health Minister Iraj Harirchi, who had been working overtime to dismiss the crisis, appeared on television sweating profusely just before he was diagnosed with covid-19. He was later hospitalized.

The Trump administration’s efforts to dismiss the outbreak aren’t quite that extreme, but no less absurd. Economic adviser Larry Kudlow claimed that the virus has already been contained (“pretty close to airtight”) and that there have been “no supply disruptions.” Both assertions were false.

“Whatever happens, we’re totally prepared,” Trump declared. “We have the best people in the world.” The discovery of infected Americans in places where there was no apparent sign of infection runs entirely counter to that blustering confidence. Viruses have no ideological component, and infection control has no nationality. In theory, the public health response should be driven by the best practices identified by the experts.

Yet Trump prizes loyalty above any other qualification — another trait he shares with authoritarian leaders. That insistence helps explain what we have seen, beginning with last week’s news conference at the White House, a cringeworthy display of unctuous praise for the president. Vice President Pence and Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar laid it on thick, and the president put out a dizzyingly muddled message.

It’s a dangerous way to run a government. Just how dangerous was painfully obvious during a congressional appearance by acting Homeland Security secretary Chad Wolf. Even while questioned by Trump-friendly Republicans, it was clear Wolf had no idea what he was talking about.

Public health experts desperately need the authorities to deliver a clear, unambiguous, fact-based message. There is a moral basis to this — we expect the truth from those in power — but also a practical one. Trust in the information provided by authorities is vital to the success of an effort to contain the spread. Watching Trump surrounded by his virus team, one can feel the tension between two competing approaches. The president tries to dismiss the crisis, to discredit unfavorable news, to nudge markets higher, to protect himself. Meanwhile, the experts struggle to keep him on script, to hold him back from gaslighting, from lying, from making up stories.

The virus will ultimately be stopped. Public health professionals will win, but their success will come despite the president’s involvement, not because of it.

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