Trump is lost in “magical thinking,” proclaims one health expert. Trump is “basically in denial,” insists one Democratic governor. Trump is “incapable of grasping that people are dying,” frets one advocate for educators.
But is the problem really that Trump is incapable of learning, or that he’s deceiving himself, or that he’s closed his eyes to reality?
The preponderance of the evidence points to something far worse.
Trump has been widely and repeatedly informed by his own and other experts for many months that his failure to take coronavirus more seriously could have utterly catastrophic consequences, that it could result in widespread suffering and needless deaths.
It isn’t enough to point out that Trump repeatedly ignored that advice. What’s more important is that Trump has repeatedly seen the predicted consequences of those failures come to pass, and is seeing that right now.
Yet Trump still continues not just to downplay the severity of the virus’s continuing toll, but also to actively discourage current efforts to mitigate the spread — by failing to set an example through mask-wearing, for instance — and to urge the very sort of rapid reopening that has already contributed to catastrophic outcomes.
The carnage is mounting once again. Total cases just hit 3 million. They have risen in 37 states over the last two weeks — hitting single-day records in six — and the national rolling average of 50,000 new daily cases is far outpacing June’s.
There’s no doubt that the decision to reopen rapidly in many states — which Trump urged — has played some kind of important role in the current surges. As a former Baltimore health commissioner noted: “The key is we did not have to be here right now.”
Yet Trump has shown zero signs of even trying to grapple with the cause and effect behind these new circumstances. Instead, he continues to lie about them, falsely claiming we have the lowest mortality rate in the world, falsely claiming that “99 percent” of cases are “totally harmless,” and absurdly claiming the virus will “disappear.”
Can this really be described as being in denial?
We know why Trump is doing this
Trump was privately warned in January by his Health and Human Services secretary that a pandemic was coming. He dismissed this as “alarmist,” then largely refused to act for weeks, only to see coronavirus rampage out of control here as a result.
And experts loudly warned in April that a rapid reopening could prove disastrous. Trump urged it anyway, and we’re now learning the experts were right.
We know why Trump did these things. He feared that publicly taking coronavirus too seriously would spook the markets, which he sees as crucial to his reelection. His allies frankly admitted reopenings would fuel the impression of rapid rebound, helping his reelection (or so they thought).
In those cases, Trump made an active choice to prioritize his own perceived political needs over what experts — including his own — recommended as in the best interests of the country. He has now seen them proved right twice.
We’re seeing something similar once again. Trump’s own Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is now recommending that localities minimize crowds at voting places by pursuing “alternative voting methods” amid coronavirus’s new spread.
It is a certainty that Trump will continue falsely claiming that vote-by-mail is subject to massive fraud, to make it politically harder for local officials to scale it up. We know why Trump does this. He has told us himself: He fears vote-by-mail makes it more likely that Republicans will lose the election — meaning that he will lose.
When Trump repeats these lies about vote-by-mail in the wake of the CDC guidance, will we claim Trump is merely “in denial” about the dangers of discouraging such alternative voting options?
Not clueless and hapless. Malevolent.
Once we dispense with the idea that Trump remains “in denial,” we’re left with a few interpretations. The most charitable is that Trump continues to have principled disagreements with experts over these matters, but there are zero indications he has any substantively grounded views on them of any kind.
A far less charitable interpretation is that he’s merely indifferent to the catastrophic consequences that are resulting from these failures — and will continue to do so — and that he’s prioritizing nakedly self-interested political calculations over any such concerns.
Trump has been steadily wrong in these political calculations, to be sure. At each stage, he has believed not acting was in his immediate interests, only to discover the consequences of inaction proved politically worse.
There may have been a species of denial at play in those faulty political calculations — a misguided faith in his magical ability to re-create his political reality through the force of will and tweet. But we can’t pretend any longer that Trump isn’t perfectly aware of what the real-world consequences of his actions — or inactions — will be.
The press critic Jay Rosen has repeatedly suggested that the effort to obscure Trump’s role in this ongoing fiasco is producing one of the biggest propaganda and disinformation campaigns in modern history. Central to getting this right is dispensing with the idea that Trump is a hapless, clueless actor rather than a deliberate and malevolent one.