Chicago (Special to Informed Comment) – President Trump, facing the prospect of possibly the worst electoral environment ever to face an incumbent president, is borrowing a page from the last Republican administration, the one that ended with a sitting president so universally reviled that he decided to skip his own party’s nominating convention. America’s 45th president is trying to create his own reality, one in which we shrug off the Coronavirus nightmare through a combination of plucky determination, emotional compartmentalization and business-as-usual stoicism. And his blinkered plan to rush headlong into an even more grave Covid-19 crisis is not likely to end much more pleasantly for the president and his collaborators than it did for George W. Bush.
By decreeing that America is “open for business” and that what he has taken to calling “The Invisible Enemy” (which is better than the China Virus, to be sure) is nearly vanquished, the president is making arguably the most insane gamble in political history: that he and his gang of scientifically illiterate, dim-bulb governors, rich-doofus grifters and slavish op-ed hacks know more about epidemiology and virology than tens of thousands of doctors, public health officials and nearly every other government on Earth, and that together they can either jumpstart the U.S. economy before November without widespread human carnage, or successfully dodge accountability for the ensuing disaster as they have thus far done with every other act of self-interested, homicidal malfeasance over the past four years.
There’s certainly some history to justify this attitude. In October 2004, just as the American project in Iraq was beginning to bloodily unravel, a senior Bush administration official famously scorned the “reality-based community” to which the New York Times Magazine writer Ron Suskind apparently belonged, and warned him that “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out.” No matter how badly Iraq actually goes, the aide was saying, we can spin our way out of it.
Had Twitter existed at the time, thousands of liberals would instantly have changed their handles to some version of the term ‘reality-based community.’ As it was, the term became a kind of blogosphere shorthand for the fact-based universe that the Bush administration had so frequently sneered at and, seemingly, conquered. People only remember that quote, but the whole piece was revealing, a portrait of a president who might not have been a malignant narcissist like the current White House occupant, but who was disturbingly similar to Trump in his wildly unearned confidence in his uninformed opinions. The source of Trump’s incoherent arrogance is unclear, but probably involves a lifetime of “succeeding” despite plunging every person or venture he’s ever been involved with into profound crisis. Bush, on the other hand, believed himself to be a vessel of God.
Reagan advisor Bruce Bartlett said that Bush “dispenses with people who confront him with inconvenient facts.” Even Joe Biden makes an appearance, pressing the president on the details of the deteriorating situation in Iraq, to which Bush responded by puffing up about his “instincts.” Former EPA chief Christine Todd Whitman recalls being accused of “disloyalty” each time she requested facts to justify a particular decision. The article was the source of Bush’s famous confusion of Sweden and Switzerland and relayed a quote from a Republican senator who described Bush saying “Look, I want your vote. I’m not going to debate it with you” during a meeting about the authorization for the use of military force in Iraq. He would “pray on” major decisions seemingly without any kind of policy review process that might have avoided the administration’s more calamitous blunders.
When Bush won re-election in 2004 with a majority of both the popular and electoral votes, it validated, for a time, the new right’s arrogant disregard for empirical truth and contempt for expertise in public policy. But the facts eventually caught up with them. As the body count in Iraq piled inexorably up, the American people turned decisively against the whole misbegotten adventure. And when the global economy cratered in 2008, there was nowhere for this two-term president to hide and no one else to blame it on. Oh they tried – the same set of mountebank-class apologists did their best to pin the blame on poor black folks and “Freddie and Fannie” but at least for a short time Americans successfully placed the onus for the twin catastrophes exactly where it belonged and behaved accordingly by handing Democrats massive majorities in Congress and electing Barack Obama president.
Since then, the right-wing misinformation apparatus has grown larger, more sophisticated and even more thoroughly unmoored from any sense of decency. It has notched victory after improbable victory, keeping the Trump core intact through a series of mishaps, outrages, policy missteps, public relations fiascos and, of course, two of the biggest scandals in American history, along with the president’s daily eruptions of divisive insanity on Twitter. Many people earnestly believe, with some justification, that nothing matters, that there is not one single thing the president can do to break his suicidal compact with his own cult-like supporters. He turned the Mueller investigation on its head by conducting a daily public inquisition against his inquisitors, convincing millions that the charges were not just groundless but a conspiracy launched inside the American government itself. He twisted his attempt to extort the Ukrainian government for political gain into yet another media witch hunt designed to overturn the results of the 2016 election. The base lapped it up. Republican elected officials who knew better were kept in line with the threat of primaries and Twitter abuse.
They are trying to run the same playbook one more time, because why not right? Why fix what’s not broken? Following whatever lead the president offers them, the propagandists at Fox have spent the past two months alternately questioning the seriousness of the virus, a position which eventually became untenable when people starting expiring in droves, and now loudly demanding that states begin the process of “reopening” their economies. When the well-coiffed mouthpieces at Fox speak, they emit a spectacular burst of ideological viral particles, which are then inhaled and spread around by the president himself and the various organs of the alt-right’s media empire until they have infected even conservatives who don’t watch or read any of it. Trump’s approval rating has so far survived his very public two-month refusal to approach the crisis soberly or to do much of anything about it. We’re closing in on 50,000 dead Americans and his approval rating seems glued at 45 percent. Who’s to say he can’t keep it up for another six months and pull of another Electoral College ‘victory’?
There are actually some reasons to believe that the GOP’s reckless handling of the Covid-19 pandemic will end less like Trump’s impeachment saga and more like the Bush-era effort at reality-building in Iraq. President Trump’s most successful propaganda efforts have involved issues that ultimately did not touch or effect ordinary Americans much at all. While the Russian election interference operation may have contributed to Hillary Clinton’s loss, it was probably not the decisive factor. As the economy continued to boom, Russiagate moved further and further into the periphery of apolitical voters mostly concerned with kitchen table issues like unemployment or true believers who get cross-faded by culture-warring and wealth-worshipping at the same time. Ukrainegate met a similar fate. Despite the president’s wildly illegal efforts to extort the Ukrainian government into opening a bogus investigation into Joe Biden’s son, his numbers held. The Senate firewall remained intact. If anything, the president emerged from the ordeal in an even stronger position politically.
The crucial point is this: Rank-and-file conservatives were free to believe that both things were part of the same elaborate hoax cooked up by the Deep State and various Angry Democrats, and they paid no price for it in the real world. Most illusions are costless. No one in Red America was worse off for giving into whatever motivated reasoning led them to dismiss these irrefutable allegations as partisan hackery. It’s the same with climate change. Unless they happen to own property on the Outer Banks or something, most people can cling to climate denialism without really bearing any sacrifice beyond seeing the eyes of their grandkids rolling so hard into the back of their heads that they practically topple over every time grandpa goes on a soliloquy about the evils of political correctness.
Unlike the Russia collusion and the Ukraine bribery fiasco, President Trump’s bumbling, bizarre, selfish and venal approach to battling the novel Coronavirus has already led to actual suffering for those that voted for him. Hundreds of millions of Americans are shuttered in their homes living in abject terror of COVID-19. Voters over the age of 60 are increasingly repulsed by the GOP’s position that the elderly, along with heavily exposed frontline workers like doctors, nurses and grocery store clerks, should sacrifice themselves en masse on the altar of the Dow Jones Industrial Average. The president might struggle to get 3% of the vote from health care professionals this November, and while people might not be up for 18 months of sheltering in place, most have also not yet reached the end of their ropes. An electoral message of “Please Die For Me, Bob and Tina” is already demonstrating the limits of its appeal.
In order for President Trump to successfully weather this storm, his cartoonish goons have to actually be right. That means that when Georgians are commanded to go back to their gyms and tattoo parlors and nail salons and restaurants over the next week at the behest of their illegitimate governor, they need to not spike another Coronavirus outbreak across the state. If, on the other hand, the maniacal drive to ‘reopen’ the economy in the midst of the worst pandemic in a hundred years leads to predictable and undeniable disaster in the form of a bunch of fresh Covid-19 hotspots overseen by groveling little Republican Pétains and then to another round of nightmarish lockdowns and economic mayhem, it is difficult to see how even these skilled gaslighters will navigate the fallout. The president has deliberately and quite publicly set up this confrontation between public health officials and the drive to prematurely return to normal. There’s no running away from it this time, even if Trump wants to have it both ways by criticizing Georgia’s plan.
We are now heading into what might be the most harrowing six months of American history since the Civil War, led by a callous, spiteful man for whom hundreds of thousands of deaths are an acceptable cost for another four years in power, a person utterly devoid of empathy, public spirit, curiosity and skill, perhaps in a literal sense the worst human being in the country. Not even Vladimir Putin could have dreamed that Trump and his sidekicks would have been granted so incredible an opportunity to destroy the country. The Trump administration has no feasible plan to get the country back on its feet, no capacity to engage in the herculean acts of leadership and coordination that the moment plainly demands, no ability to appeal to all Americans to come together to endure through painful sacrifices and suffering, no interest in or respect for the public-minded experts still gritting it out inside the federal bureaucracy for the greater good and no qualms about their behavior whatsoever.
They have only what they believe to be a bottomless bag of rotten rhetorical maneuvers and flimsy magic tricks, and they will keep reaching into it until we prove to them that it’s empty. Maybe I’m naïve, but there’s already some evidence that Trump has run out magic griftie dust, that his elderly base is turning on him and that American voters will ultimately hold these horrible people accountable for what they’ve done to us.
Bonus Video added by Informed Comment: