On Saturday, April 26, 1986, the No. 4 reactor at Chernobyl power station exploded just outside the town of Pripyat in the Soviet Union. During the crucial early hours of the disaster, a cascading series of mistakes exacerbated the emergency. Subordinates who feared their superiors kept quiet. Superiors who feared contradicting the prevailing mythology of the state — and its leader — bent and broke reality. They made a series of smaller lies to protect the big lie: that the Soviet Union had everything under control.

During crises, ideology kills. Protecting myths, rather than people, is deadly.

The rapidly worsening coronavirus outbreak is President Trump’s Chernobyl. By putting dangerous myths above objective facts, Trump has turned the crucial early phases of government response into a disaster. Some public health experts in government have undoubtedly kept quiet, having seen repeatedly what happens to those who publicly contradict this president. And Trump himself, along with those who surround him, has tried to construct a reality that simply does not exist.

Those lies will kill.

Two weeks ago, today, Trump tweeted that “The coronavirus is very much under control in the United States … Stock market is starting to look very good to me!” At that point, there were a small number of cases, but public health experts clearly stated that the number was likely to spike. Nonetheless, Trump accused his critics of perpetrating a “hoax” and said their concerns was overblown. He said that the number of cases — 15 at the time — would soon be “close to zero.”

Today, there are more than 500 cases. There will soon be thousands.

Yet every new infection was viewed through the prism of political self-interest. Every warning was dismissed as media hype. Crucial hours and days ticked by without the urgent action that was needed.

Early on, public health experts and front-line doctors began ringing alarm bells. Testing kits weren’t available even for high-risk cases that were showing matching symptoms to covid-19. Trump responded by meeting with Fox News media performers Diamond and Silk at the White House. “Vote red, R-E-D,” Diamond said. “Remove Every Democrat.” Trump nodded and smiled.

The stock market is crashing. Every indicator from bond markets predicts a serious recession. The death rate is climbing. And if the outbreak in Italy is any indication of what we should expect, everything is about to get much worse.

Trump played golf yesterday.

Worse, he also admitted that his thinking is at least partly influenced by trying to keep the numbers of cases low. It was an acknowledgment that the big lie — that everything is fine and Trump has it under control — was what was worth protecting.

Reactors don’t explode. Anyone who wants a test can get a test. The Soviet Union made no mistakes. The U.S. government response to the coronavirus has been “perfect.”

So far, Trump has been able to glide through crises of his own making because his base of support has often believed him over reality. When fact-checkers expose Trump’s lies, many of his supporters distrust the fact-checkers, not the liar.

But coronavirus is different. Spin won’t make dead bodies disappear. Recessions can’t be warded off with a blistering tweet in all-capital letters. You can’t blame Hillary Clinton for hospital overcrowding. The Trump playbook works when everything else is working. It falls apart when the world is falling apart.

In August 1986, after the disaster, Soviet scientists finally acknowledged that the reactor type in service at Chernobyl had a design flaw that could cause a nuclear disaster. They had been aware of it for nine years. But nothing was done.

“Who would have thought?” Trump asked during his recent visit to the Centers for Disease Control and prevention. In fact, public health experts were warning for years that this would happen. “The threat of pandemic flu is the No. 1 health security concern,” one official in the White House’s global health security unit warned early in the Trump administration. “Are we ready to respond? I fear the answer is no.” The following day, Trump shut that office in a reorganization.

With Chernobyl, as with Trump’s response to the coronavirus, efforts to protect the big lie were always doomed. It was impossible to simply lie and cover up the nuclear disaster. But that didn’t stop the Soviet Union from trying. It is impossible to pretend that people dying in increasing numbers is a “hoax” or that an inadequate supply of testing kits is part of a “perfect” government response. But that hasn’t stopped Trump from trying.

For years, it has been obvious that having as president a self-aggrandizing liar who constructs his own reality is dangerous. We’re about to find out just how deadly it can be.

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