He’s been 500 percent better on coronavirus over the past two days than he was over the past two months, so much so that part of me wants to let this pass without comment. What’s the harm in having him memory-hole six weeks’ worth of happy talk so long as he’s on the case now?
But there is a harm.
For one thing, politicians shouldn’t be allowed to revise history, especially in a case like this one where the evidence of him downplaying the disease’s spread is so copious. Off the top of my head I can think of three different lists I’ve seen online in the past 48 hours that chronicle at great length how sanguine he was about the virus in January and February. His tone was different yesterday, as the whole world noticed. To suggest otherwise is Orwellian, and Orwell is a bad look for a leader even at an otherwise good moment. Especially when he knows his critics have the receipts.
Trump: “I felt it was a pandemic long before it was declared a pandemic.” pic.twitter.com/v3B3UQhbdM
— Jan Postma (@_janpostma_) March 17, 2020
The Bulwark actually put the receipts into video form:
Anatomy of a Viral Lie: Watch the President’s public statements downplaying and pointing blame for COVID-19 https://t.co/WSha8shN4D pic.twitter.com/yWNa9JPVjf
— The Bulwark (@BulwarkOnline) March 17, 2020
There’s another harm. He’s not to blame for the failing at the heart of America’s effort to retard the disease’s spread; that, of course, was the CDC’s breakdown in producing a workable test early to identify cases. But he’s certainly to blame for encouraging complacency, which may be paying poisonous dividends now in terms of people shrugging off warnings to isolate themselves until the spread of the illness slows. Few modern presidents have had as much influence over their own base as Trump has over his, I’d guess. When he talks, they listen. And he did a lot of talking before his view of this crisis suddenly shifted.
That poll was taken a few days before yesterday’s press conference. Interestingly, Republicans are less likely to say coronavirus is a real threat now than they were in February, when the disease had barely made an impact in the U.S. and Europe and Trump was still offering regular happy talk about it. In February, 72 percent called it a threat; now it’s down to 40. Similarly, in February just 23 percent said the response to coronavirus was overblown. As of last week, 54 percent said so. That’s counterintuitive. Dread should have been rising across all parties as the news from Italy grew more dire and the number of known cases in the U.S. slowly rose. Instead Republicans grew more sanguine about COVID-19. Why?
My guess is that, as the threat grew closer, the cognitive dissonance between what the media was saying and what Trump was saying grew sharper and made them feel as if they had to choose between the two. Back in February, when the threat to the U.S. was still hypothetical, the contradiction was less sharp. Coronavirus was a matter of general hypothetical concern and Trump was watching it but wasn’t worried. Then, as the media started yelling “crisis!” and Larry Kudlow started chirping about having the virus “largely contained,” a side had to be taken. Result: “Some 59% of Democrats report they have made a point to dodge large gatherings, while 60% of Republicans and 54% of independents have not.” Likewise, 60 percent of Dems say they’re eating in more often. Sixty-three percent of Republicans say they aren’t.
Even now, with Trump having belatedly shifted to a de facto war footing against the disease, some Republicans have yet to pivot:
Several top Republicans, including Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt, have faced backlash for breaking with public health experts and shrugging off the call for social distancing, offering discordant messages to Americans who are looking to the government for clarity and guidance…
David A. Clarke Jr., the former Milwaukee County sheriff and Trump booster, suggested on Sunday that the global panic about the coronavirus was being pushed by Soros — a common subject of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories — and urged people to take to the streets.
“Not ONE media outlet has asked about George Soros’s involvement in this FLU panic,” Clarke said. “He is SOMEWHERE involved in this.”…
“We’re shutting down our country because of the cold virus, which is what coronaviruses are,” Rush Limbaugh told his national radio audience last week. “You think the Chinese are not laughing themselves silly over how easy this has been?” He later added, “The Chi-Coms run this scam on some sort of virus, and the Americans do this?”
Other Republicans are finding it easier. The sudden change in tone generally on Fox News has tracked with Trump’s, as I noted yesterday.
It’s not all about Trump, though. Vanity Fair has an interview with Tucker Carlson that’s worth your time. They quizzed him about his decision to visit Mar-a-Lago last weekend and lobby Trump about taking the virus more seriously. “I know someone very well who was in the ICU—a personal friend of mine who I had just had dinner with a month and a half ago was in the ICU with double pneumonia and struggling for life,” said Carlson. “And so I just want to make it clear this is totally real; people you know are going to get it.” But he defended the instinctive skepticism of Trump fans: “[A] lot of Trump voters believe that all news about Trump is designed to hurt Trump. And they’re absolutely right about that. It’s been monomaniacal, the coverage of Trump.”
It’s true, it’s easier to be skeptical about media alarms after two years of Russiagate hype produced no conspiracy indictments against anyone in Trump’s inner circle. Media credibility is an issue here. But when there are many documented reports of Italian hospitals under siege as patients come in faster than they can be processed, the sense that the threat to the U.S. is overblown shouldn’t be *growing.* That’s a cognitive dissonance issue. It’ll be fascinating to see how that resolves now that the president himself believes that the media is right this time, that it’s a real crisis.