The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Mike Pence’s deceptions unmask Trump’s dangerous reelection strategy

(Saul Loeb/AFP)

President Trump and his advisers have plainly decided they have no hope of truly defeating the novel coronavirus and getting the nation on track to meaningful, sustained economic recovery in time for his reelection.

So they’re spending far more of their time on the next best thing: creating the illusion that we have already roared most of the way back to victory on both fronts.

A window into the inner workings of this effort has just been thrown wide open by Vice President Pence, who reportedly told governors on a conference call to emphasize the role of increased testing in creating reported spikes in coronavirus cases.

At first glance, this might look like just more of the usual depraved and dishonest minimization of the threat of the coronavirus. But it illustrates a much broader species of duplicity, one that carries active dangers to the country at a perilous moment.

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On that conference call, Pence encouraged governors to “explain to your citizens the magnitude of increase in testing,” not merely because more testing might be a good thing, but also because this is the primary cause of the “marginal rise in number” of coronavirus cases.

This is deceptive. As a new Post analysis finds, in six states, the seven-day average of new cases has gone up in the past two weeks even as average testing has dropped. In another 14 states, the seven-day average of new cases is rising faster than the average of new tests.

Meanwhile, that analysis finds, in 10 states, the rise in positive testing has been edging up in the past two weeks, a key metric for gauging Pence’s claim and the need for worry about spread.

A deeper deception

But this deception serves a larger and more pernicious one: The idea that any and all new outbreaks can be dismissed as mere localized outbursts and not as a sign of broader peril. Tellingly, Pence called outbreaks “intermittent” and took care to tell governors that Trump has been using the term “embers.”

This language is almost certainly not accidental. It’s designed to imply something that can easily be doused — that is, easily contained without broader damage. The idea that any outbreaks reflect increased testing helps reinforce that impression.

But the real picture is much more complicated and worrisome. As health expert Scott Gottlieb points out, these trends — rising cases in many states plus increased positive testing — are “concerning” and “suggestive of expanding outbreaks”:

In other words, these “embers” may already be setting bigger fires as we speak.

But in so many ways, Trump’s response is designed to create the illusion that the problem has been entirely licked. The task force is largely winding down. Trump has a rally planned in Oklahoma, justified by Pence’s false claim that the curve has been flattened there. And Trump and Pence continue to refuse to wear masks in public — something Trump reportedly worries would send the wrong message.

Dangerous illusions

This active, ongoing minimization effort makes it less likely that we’ll be able to successfully douse any such “embers” when they flare up.

As Gottlieb and Yuval Levin point out in a must-read, we’re entering a dicey period in which maximum flexibility will be required. This means finding the right middle ground between restarting large-scale shutdowns — which the public might not tolerate — and doing little to nothing.

That middle ground involves state and local officials being able to rapidly respond to outbreaks with what Gottlieb and Levin describe as “focused guidance” designed to “curtail specific activities that are sources of spread,” which might be more palatable than restarted shutdowns. And it involves people continuing to social distance and wear masks.

Those are likely to be undermined by Trump’s effort to create the impression that the coronavirus has been defeated. It could mean less mask-wearing and social distancing — and again, Trump and Pence continue to refuse to set an example here — and less willingness to accept even more focused guidance.

But to Trump, creating the illusion of near-total victory appears paramount.

Duplicity on the economy

You can see a similar duplicity at work — and similar dangers associated with it — on the economic front, too.

After the unexpectedly good May jobs report, Trump’s reelection effort immediately unleashed a $10 million ad campaign proclaiming that “the great American comeback has begun.”

This is absurd — we’re still 20 million jobs in the hole, and the long-term prognosis is extremely dire. But notably, Trump and Republicans have seized on those jobs numbers for the explicit purpose of opposing additional economic rescue efforts. Half of this is ideological, undoubtedly, but the other half is surely a desire to feed the illusion that we’re roaring back.

Similarly, Trump keeps jumping on news about the markets as follows:

Here again the pattern is clear. As Paul Krugman points out, Trump and his team have long taken the “rising market as validation” for everything they do, which risks enabling the “irresponsibility” of an administration that doesn’t “want to deal with reality in the first place.”

And so, the desire to feed the illusion that we’re already vaulting back to greatness (whether by absurdly citing upticks in jobs or hailing the market) itself makes it less likely that Trump — and Republicans — will agree to more economic measures that would minimize long-term misery.

Similarly, on the coronavirus, the suggestion that new spikes are merely the result of increased testing and constitute easily doused “embers” makes it less likely that our government and society will do what it takes to minimize needless future spread — and death.

The relentless prizing of illusion over reality — that’s the danger Pence’s deceptions have unmasked.

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