Whereupon the real estate agent looked straight at me, smiled and gestured around the room. “Isn’t this great?” she enthused. “You don’t usually get such high ceilings in basement apartments!”
It was the first time I had ever seen a salesman attempt to execute a real-life version of the Jedi mind trick. And I suppose it worked, after a fashion; I nodded and smiled rather than point out that she was, umm, lying. I suppose I wasn’t the first to go along, and perhaps this led her to imagine she was Obi-Wan Kenobi, persuading people to disbelieve their own eyes simply by waggling her fingers and saying, “These aren’t the droids you are looking for.”
This, of course, has been brought to mind by our real estate promoter in chief. Other politicians are inveterate shaders of the truth, but President Trump frequently dispenses with it entirely and invents something more to his liking — even when there is undeniable evidence to the contrary, such as aerial photographs showing that the crowd at his inauguration did not, in fact, stretch “all the way back to the Washington Monument.”
By now, however, his whoppers are getting too big to be believed, even by people who really want to.
“You will never hear this on the Fake News concerning the China Virus,” he tweeted on Tuesday, “but by comparison to most other countries, who are suffering greatly, we are doing very well — and we have done things that few other countries could have done!”
This is false. Indubitably, indisputably false.
Sure, we did better during the first wave than most major European nations, largely because our initial outbreak moved more slowly, giving us more warning to lock down. But those other countries now have their first waves under control; we don’t. Our death rate per 1 million citizens has surpassed that of Switzerland and will soon overtake that of France. Data show we are not only one of the worst performers in the entire world, but the only rich economy in which the death rate is both high and climbing.
Of course, those statistics depend on having a health-care system able to do widespread testing and a government willing to publish the results. Probably, we’re still outperforming some developing countries run by incompetent strongmen — Iran, say, or Brazil. But that’s not really a comparison we should brag about. Americans don’t aspire to do a hair better than a handful of the world’s worst governments, even if Trump is content to rest there.
Which is why his polls now look so grim. Finally, we have discovered the limits to Trump’s spin strategy.
The truth is that many political questions reward flagrant falsehoods, especially in the policy arena. The results of a new policy take so long to materialize that the prevaricating politicians can hope people will forget or at least be pleased enough with the outcome that they’ll be willing to overlook a few fibs. Moreover, it’s quite possible that the results will be ambiguous, allowing both sides to claim victory for their prior narrative.
Too, the public is inclined to forgive many of the lies, as long as the stakes are low enough. The media and the professional class may have seen a clear and important difference between “If you like your plan, you can keep it” and “Everybody that wants a [covid-19] test can get a test.” The public didn’t seem to care nearly as much as we did. At the time Trump made that statement, his polls were actually on the high side of normal for him, and stayed there weeks longer.
Three months later, of course, the president’s polling numbers are not so good, because a half-controlled pandemic is still burning through the country. Covid-19 is moving too fast, and its results are too grim, for anyone to ignore.
Responding to a pandemic is just one of those things you can’t fake, or spin, or bluster into submission. If every other country in our economic class is controlling the virus while Americans continue to die, no amount of presidential prevarication will distract voters from that essential fact. And there are no magic words, no outlandish accusations against immigrants or Democrats or the mainstream media that can persuade them to care about something else instead. With reelection looming, Trump is finally learning the lesson that most salesmen learn in their 20s: In the short term, expedient lies may get you the deal, but in the long run, the only way to keep the customer is to actually deliver.