Despite his claims that the novel coronavirus was a hoax and fake news; despite his insistence that covid-19 was just like the flu and would go away; despite his refusal to accept any responsibility for the subsequent spread of coronavirus throughout the United States; despite his kneecapping of the federal government’s ability to respond and his refusal to throw the full weight of the government behind efforts to keep people safe; despite the failure to procure tests even as he knew what was coming; despite the growing number of deaths; despite the hospitals that are already overwhelmed; despite the desperate pleas from medical staff for basic supplies; despite his predictable turn to overt racism; and despite his increasing willingness to sacrifice hundreds of thousands of Americans to appease the stock market, the only god he recognizes other than himself, it’s becoming clear that Donald Trump is probably getting away with this.
Escaping accountability, after all, has been Trump’s greatest trick during his time in office, one which now has consequences at a scale almost incomprehensible to the human mind. Every problem is a public relations problem to Trump, a man who views his actions solely through the lens of approval ratings and his re-election chances. And through his daily briefings and his tweets, he has been attempting to rewrite recent history in real-time through his bully pulpit, hoping that a sustained PR campaign in which he continues to spew a wealth of lies and misinformation will make people forget his massive incompetence and see him, as improbably as it seems, as a man capable of rising to the moment.
Trump only knows one way to respond to a threat—to deflect blame. And he’s following his classic playbook, blaming the spread of coronavirus on everyone from the Chinese government to Barack Obama to undocumented immigrants. Now prevented from holding his campaign rallies, he’s using the coronavirus pandemic as a sort of shadow campaign, doubling down on the red meat that his base loves in his daily coronavirus task force briefings; he is likely delighted that they are broadcast to an audience of millions. The message has not deviated all that much: The news media is corrupt and pushing “fake news,” foreigners are bad and the borders need to be closed, and he’s taking decisive action.
And it seems an increasing number of Americans (unsurprisingly, mostly along partisan lines) are falling for it. The PR campaign is working, largely propped up by a rightwing propaganda machine whose seemingly sole reason for existence is to glorify their dictator in chief, two parasites who feed off of each other in an endless bloodsucking loop. But it’s not just the rightwing spin machine that’s working for him—all of the major news and cable networks have been airing his daily briefings live, giving him the platform he wants and one that allows him to cosplay governance. Last Friday, an ABC News/Ipsos poll showed that more than half of all Americans—55 percent—approved of the way that Donald Trump is responding to the spread of coronavirus, up from only 43 percent who agreed with his response just one week prior. A Monmouth poll released on Monday showed a similar uptick, with 50 percent of people surveyed replying that Trump has done a “good job” responding to the epidemic and 45 percent disagreeing; according to a Gallup poll released on Tuesday, 60 percent of Americans approve of how Trump has handled the crisis.
These shifts in opinion coincided with Trump finally, in his public statements, pivoting from describing the coronavirus as a “hoax” and “fake news” to a crisis that he was—finally, entirely too belatedly, and likely against his will—taking seriously. Even CNN’s Dana Bash fell prey, praising Trump after his briefing last Tuesday: “He is being the kind of leader that people need, at least in tone, today, and yesterday, in tone that people need and want and yearn for in times of crisis and uncertainty.”
Bash was widely criticized for her admiration, which only makes sense if one is starting, as we are, from quite possibly the lowest bar in the world. But judging by the polls, it’s clear she’s not the only one who thinks Trump is displaying some sort of leadership, as if simply sounding presidential (which can be debated, to put it mildly) is the essence of being president, the number of cold bodies in morgues be damned.
Perhaps this will change as the covid-19 outbreak unfolds and the bodies start piling up; public health experts and epidemiologists warn the hospitalizations and the deaths will accelerate for weeks even in the best-case scenario. We are, right now, in that strange moment when we see what is coming and yet, too many, drunk off of the spin, simply don’t believe that the wave will crest over them. Perhaps this will change as Trump continues to overtly embrace the Republican death cult and its eugenic logic of brutal efficiency, which idolizes the economy above all and sees the elderly, the disabled, the homeless, the sick as disposable, their lives, as Larry Kudlow put it recently, merely a “difficult tradeoff.”
On Tuesday, the president retreated to the safe space of Fox News, where he held a town hall with his coronavirus task force, minus Anthony Fauci who was notably absent. Trump repeatedly stated the need for people to go back to work and soon and that he wants to have the country “opened up” by Easter— statements that are at odds with what public health officials have told us is necessary to slow the spread but that make perfect, horrific sense if one is willing, even eager, to sacrifice untold lives at the altar of an uncertain economic recovery that likely wouldn’t even manifest.
But even as his actions, or inaction, consign people to die, even as he behaves exactly how many of us feared and warned a Trump presidency would handle a crisis, it may not matter. I desperately hope I’m wrong.