July 28, 2020 | Reading Time: 3 minutes
Trump’s contempt for GOP voters
He's forcing them to choose which to believe: the virus or his lies.
The Washington press corps is highly attuned to matters of decorum, language and nuance, and for the most part, I think that’s a good thing. Washington is a place where powerful people say one thing but mean another, and our democracy benefits generally when reporters compete with each other to get as close to the truth as possible.
Such a cast of mind is unhelpful, however, when it comes to the current president. Donald Trump has repeatedly bait-and-switched White House correspondents, one day seeming to take the coronavirus pandemic seriously, the next undermining that apparent seriousness with tales of woe, accusations of unfairness and breathtaking paranoia. By my count, we have seen at least three cycles this year in which the president exploded stories of his newfound “tone” within a few days or even hours. (Such flip-flopping, as Alexander Chee reminded me, predates Trump’s presidency.)
If nothing else, the president knows his audience well. And like all good showmen, he gives it what it wants.
Last week, the president seemed to concede without taking responsibility the severity of the pandemic. His office released pictures of him wearing a face mask. Yet he retweeted this morning a video in which a “doctor” accuses Dr. Anthony Fauci, the administration’s top infectious disease expert, of covering up a known “cure” for Covid-19—hydroxychloroquine—in a conspiracy to bring down the president.
It’s no mystery why Trump retweeted a video of a quack. He’s metabolically incapable of admitting error. The pandemic’s not his fault—look! A “doctor” said so! But why did he put on a show of being serious last week? To con the press corps, that much is true. The Post’s Ashley Parker and Philip Rucker, however, discovered another reason.
Senior advisers began presenting Trump with maps and data showing spikes in coronavirus cases among “our people” in Republican states, a senior administration official said. They also shared projections predicting that virus surges could soon hit politically important states in the Midwest — including Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin, the official said. This new approach seemed to resonate, as he hewed closely to pre-scripted remarks in a trio of coronavirus briefings last week.
The idea here is that the president would be doing much better in polls leading up to Election Day if he had “at least pantomimed a sense of command over the crisis or conveyed compassion for the millions of Americans hurt by it.” He couldn’t do even that. He can’t admit error. Knowing this, advisers said he should try faking it, because the coronavirus is killing more than Democrats. It’s killing “our people,” too. This, according to Parker’s and Rucker’s reporting, is what inspired last week’s “new tone.”
Assuming that’s true, and that’s a big assumption, I know, but assuming it is, what conclusion might we draw from a president reversing course, saying one thing one day, then something else entirely the next, undermining attempts to take “command over the crisis or conveyed compassion for the millions of Americans hurt by it”? One, that he can’t say “my bad.” But two, that he believes “our people” will believe him, no matter what he says, which is another way of expressing contempt for Republicans.
If nothing else, the president knows his audience. Like all good showmen, he gives it what it wants. What his audience wants is the advancement of a worldview in which the United States is not a single nation, but an assemblage of states, or regions, half of which refuse to be dominated by the other half, and therefore must be punished. If believing lies and falsehoods is means of advancing that worldview, and creating a legal and political structure in which a white minority rules over the rest, so be it.
But this confederate worldview has a major weakness. It is immanently incapable of facing a national crisis. First, because a crisis cannot be “national” until it comes for “our people.” (“We” are the “real Americans.” A virus killing “them” is fine.) Second, because when it does come, crises take collective effort. That means trusting half the states who refuse to be dominated. That means recognizing the enemy as a political equal. Trump’s audience must decide which is more important: politics or health. And that requires choosing which to believe: the president’s lies or the reality of the virus.
Trump has no moral core. He presumes no one else does, either. He’s banking on his audience taking his side over the side of Covid-19, even as it kills them. He doesn’t have to admit error when he can fool some people all the time. And to be fair to the president, which I don’t like doing, I can’t say I blame him for thinking so. If he can keep duping the Washington press corps, he can keep duping “our people,” too.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.