The virus and the fabulist in chief in the White House
We urgently need to change course on our federal response, but Trump remains the King of Denial
The Chris Wallace interview of Donald Trump on Fox News offered so many low points that you would think it was conducted in Death Valley rather than on a steamy White House patio.
For starters, Trump, like the leader of a military junta, refused to say whether he would accept the results of a democratic election if he lost. The president also burbled about his mental acuity based on a test in which one of the questions was identifying a drawing of an elephant.
But perhaps the most alarming moment came when Trump —displaying his characteristic scientific rigor — once again peddled dangerous misinformation about the coronavirus.
Minimizing the sharp percentage jump in positive tests, Trump said, “Many of those cases are young people that would heal in a day. They have the sniffles and we put it down as a test. … I guess it’s like 99.7 percent [of] people, are going to get better and [in] many cases, they’re going to get better very quickly.”
Maybe Trump should invite Atlanta Braves All-Star first baseman Freddie Freeman to visit the White House when his team plays the Nationals in September. Or better yet, ask Freeman to join a presidential golf foursome before then.
“I spiked to 104.5 fever,” Freeman told reporters about his bout with COVID-19 in early July. His words portrayed the disease as a bit more serious than Dr. Trump’s case of the sniffles. As Freeman recounted, “I said a little prayer that night, cause I’ve never been that hot before. My body was really, really hot so I said, ‘Please don’t take me.’ I wasn’t ready.”
Remember, we are not talking about doddering 89-year-olds in nursing homes, who, as Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick once suggested, should be willing to sacrifice themselves for the greater good of the economy. The 30-year-old Freeman is a 6-foot-5-inch professional athlete — and the virus was powerful enough to make him fear for his life.
Just the flu?
With the U.S. death total from COVID-19 crossing 140,000 (roughly double the population of Joe Biden’s hometown of Wilmington, Delaware), it is understandable why the virus is portrayed as mostly endangering the lives of the elderly.
But the inadvertent result of this focus on the mortality rate is that many in their 20s and 30s tend to shrug off the risks of getting COVID-19 as akin to picking up the flu. Adding to the problem is that the messaging about the benefits of wearing a mask stresses altruism — in effect, don’t let your grandmother get sick.
Emblematic is a new series of national TV commercials developed by New York state in partnership with the Ad Council with the slogan, “Mask Up America.” In the voice-over on the first 30-second spot, 83-year-old Morgan Freeman says, “Your mask doesn’t protect you. It protects me. And I wear my mask to protect you.”
Let me emphasize that I strongly approve of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s efforts to, in effect, enlist Don Draper in the fight against the pandemic. No public health cause is more vital than encouraging mask wearing and social distancing.
But maybe it is also time to adopt the macabre lessons of the anti-smoking wars of the late 20th century — and bluntly portray what it is like to actually get COVID-19 in the prime of life. Tell stories like that of 42-year-old Italian diver Emiliano Pescarolo, who is still struggling with breathing problems three months after he was released from the hospital.
As laudable as public service commercials distributed through the Ad Council may be, they lack the reach and the budget available to the federal government.
There are many more urgent priorities for the final COVID-19 relief bill before the election, ranging from extending enhanced jobless benefits to massively increasing resources for testing and treatment. But funding the largest public service ad campaign in American history would amount to a rounding error in the forthcoming $1 trillion-plus legislation.
Standing in the way
The problem: No matter how high the death toll and the case count, no matter how much the virus is ravaging the economy, no matter how many Republican governors and legislators are running for political cover, Trump remains the unrepentant King of Denial.
In his Fox News interview, Trump actually insisted that he had been uncanny in his brilliance in predicting the magical end to COVID-19, presumably just before the election. “It’s going to disappear, and I’ll be right,“ he declared. “Because I’ve been right probably more than anybody else.”
It is impossible to cater to this level of arrogance and ignorance.
A recent comprehensive New York Times account of where the Trump administration went wrong in trying to contain the virus painted a dispiriting picture of Dr. Deborah Birx, a hitherto respected infectious disease specialist.
Birx, according to the Times, “was a constant source of upbeat news for the president and his aides, walking the halls with charts emphasizing that outbreaks were gradually easing. … On April 11, she told the coronavirus task force in the Situation Room that the nation was in good shape.”
It is the saddest Washington story of them all — the lengths that talented and well-intentioned public officials will go to maintain their influence. Rather than risk being banned from the corridors of power like the truth-telling Dr. Anthony Fauci, Birx apparently decided to tell the president and his top advisers what they wanted to hear.
In theory, there is still time to change course in Washington. The nation simply can’t wait in hopes of a Biden presidency in January.
But there are, alas, no signs that Trump wants to change. As the president resumes his daily coronavirus briefings on Tuesday, no ad campaign could possibly compete with the distortions about the virus from a president who revels in being the fabulist in chief.
Walter Shapiro has covered the last 10 presidential campaigns. He is also a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU and a lecturer in political science at Yale. Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.