“I don’t want to jump up and down and start screaming ‘Death! Death!’ because that’s not what it’s all about. We have to lead a country,” Trump said. He added, “There has to be a calmness.”
Trump evidently did not feel the same presidential obligation to imbue serenity a few hours earlier, however, when he sounded the alarm on Twitter about a number of other topics.
“If I don’t win, America’s Suburbs will be OVERRUN with Low Income Projects, Anarchists, Agitators, Looters and, of course, ‘Friendly Protesters,’ ” Trump tweeted Thursday morning.
In another morning tweet, he wrote, “Sending out 80 MILLION BALLOTS to people who aren’t even asking for a Ballot is unfair and a total fraud in the making. Look at what’s going on right now!”
Throughout his five years on the national political stage, Trump has used fear to acquire and keep power. Scare tactics are the hammer and screwdriver of his tool kit.
Trump famously launched his presidential campaign in 2015 with dark warnings that immigrants from Mexico were “rapists” and “bringing drugs” and “bringing crime.”
As president, he has warned darkly — and with considerable hyperbole — of dangers he sees everywhere. At first, it was citizens of majority-Muslim countries bringing terror to the shores of the United States. Then it was MS-13 gang members overtaking tranquil communities. Then it was “caravans” of “illegal aliens” traveling through Central America toward the U.S.-Mexico border. Then it was “un-American” Democrats trying to steal everyone’s guns, obliterate the economy and destroy the country by instituting socialism.
This summer, as polls have shown Trump trailing Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, the president has warned of a “RIGGED 2020 ELECTION … IT WILL BE THE SCANDAL OF OUR TIMES!” as he put it in an all-caps tweet on June 22.
And he has sounded urgent calls for “LAW AND ORDER,” as he has tweeted time and again.
He also has warned that the “radical left” seeks to endanger families and wipe out livelihoods in suburbs everywhere, as he claimed in his address last month when he formally accepted the Republican presidential nomination.
“No one will be safe in Biden’s America,” Trump declared.
Instilling calm, this is not.
“His political campaign’s branding strategy is panic. They should put ‘PANIC’ on a red hat,” said Tim Miller, a longtime GOP strategist who advises Republican Voters Against Trump.
Miller said Trump’s assertion that he played down the threat of the novel coronavirus because he did not want to panic the public was “an absurd defense.”
“The person warning about the end of suburbia and migrant caravans looting and raping your daughters, the idea that he’s somebody who wants to turn down the temperature and breathe calm is absurd,” Miller said.
Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a historian at New York University and author of a forthcoming book, “Strongmen,” described Trump as “a chaos agent” and said his strategy of using fear to encourage dependence on him as a leader fits a global pattern.
“All leaders of authoritarian tendencies use methods of psychological warfare on their people by creating environments full of uncertainty,” Ben-Ghiat said. “You never know what to expect from the leader, you never know when he’ll be angry or whom he’ll victimize. They use bureaucratic chaos and create uncertainty to keep people divided, too frightened from mobilizing.”
At Thursday’s news conference, Trump argued that he waited many weeks to share what he knew about the virus being airborne and deadlier, far more lethal than the flu, because he did not want to create panic in the public.
“I want to show a level of confidence and I want to show strength as a leader and I want to show that our country is going to be fine, one way or the other,” Trump said.
Asked why he did not level with the American people by calmly presenting information about the virus in real time — as, for instance, German Chancellor Angela Merkel had done — Trump was defensive. He said coronavirus outbreaks across Europe were “much worse than the numbers here,” which is false. He also argued that the United States has “rounded the final turn,” an assessment in conflict with much of the data.
White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany bolstered Trump’s defense by telling reporters Wednesday, “This president does what leaders do — good leaders: It’s stay calm and resolute at a time when you face an unsurmountable challenge.”
But reporting at the time revealed Trump’s motivations for wanting to avoid panic in January and February to be far more nuanced. The president was fixated during that time not on leadership virtues but on the stock market, which he has long seen as a barometer of his reelection chances. He was strongly averse to any government announcement that might scare investors into a sell-off, his advisers explained.
Trump’s critics said the president has been misguided, stoking fear where little exists while trying to instill calm when his silence has had deadly consequences, with the coronavirus death toll now nearing 200,000.
“When we talk about what our real threat is, it’s clearly not the child that’s locked up in a detention center. It’s not the mother displaced in asylum or the people trying to cross the border. Our clearest danger right now is the president of the United States,” said Maria Teresa Kumar, president of Voto Latino, a grass-roots political group.
On Thursday at the White House, Trump lashed out at a pair of reporters who questioned why he hadn’t been truthful with the public about the lethality of the virus. He effectively said that any suggestion that he should have was nonsense.
“We’re leading a great country and we’re doing a great job,” Trump said. “The people that have done such a good job should be given the kind of credit that they deserve.”