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Trump Is Treating Coronavirus Like a PR Problem, Not a Health Crisis

Unfortunately for the president, COVID-19 is proving stubbornly resistant to alternative facts.

Unfortunately for the president, COVID-19 is proving stubbornly resistant to alternative facts.

Part of the Series

On March 4, Florida Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz made headlines for a stunt on the House floor in which he wore a gas mask to make light of coronavirus fears. Three days later, one of his constituents died of the infection. On March 9, Gaetz announced he was going into isolation after being exposed to the virus at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC).

Gaetz is just one of several high-profile Republican politicians and pundits to have been potentially exposed at CPAC. The man who once implied that drinking alcohol on Spring Break would kill the virus has changed his tune so completely he now insists he took it seriously from the beginning.

Political realities shifting with the wind and tides is nothing new, but within the sphere of Donald Trump, reality has proven itself particularly mutable.

Trump styles himself as a business tycoon, but he has the heart of an old-fashioned carnival barker — or the barker’s direct ancestor, the snake oil salesman. His guiding star has always been what he thinks he can sell.

He liked the sound of a short time frame for vaccine development better.

Is it true? No, but he knew he could sell it, which is why he made similar claims at his rally on March 2 after having been told it was impossible during a televised conference the same day.

He liked the numbers on known cases in the U.S. without counting the people on the stricken Grand Princess cruise ship. Do those number reflect the actual scope of the crisis? No, and that’s what he liked about them.­

As a strategy for preventing or even managing the spread of the virus, attempts to limit testing and deflate the numbers only work if you assume that infectious diseases operate under the logic that governs bogeymen at bedtime: the monster can only get you if you can see it.

It appears that the monster Trump fears isn’t the disease itself but bad numbers: rising numbers of known cases, falling stock prices, plummeting popularity in an election year. He is not fighting the novel coronavirus so much as the public’s perception of it.

This is the dangerous question that has been overlooked in all the talk about how many times scientific advisers can correct Trump on the timeline for vaccine production or whether he even understands what a vaccine is: What if it’s not that Trump does or does not know these things, but that he does not care? To him, it seems, what is useful is true and what is true is useful.

The president is a man who famously crashed a charity event he hadn’t contributed a penny to in order to collect the photo op and soak up the plaudits, and who both exploits and furthers his image as a real estate mogul by licensing his name to other developers who bear the costs and responsibilities for projects he ultimately gains the prestige from. He’s a man who said in sworn deposition that he believes his net worth is based on how he feels about himself.

To our reality TV president, there’s little point in doing the hard work, taking the risks and paying the price when you can save the trouble and just say you did. As long as he thinks he can get the credit for containing a viral outbreak while doing what he’d be doing anyway — attacking his enemies and stirring xenophobia — that’s what he’ll do.

It’s his first and last instinct for dealing with anything, and in his defense, it’s served him well enough so far.

In the early years of making a name for himself, he lied his way onto the first three Forbes 400 lists, an annual ranking of the wealthiest Americans, to create the public impression of a wealthy, successful businessman whom people would want to deal with. This image endured through the ups and downs of Trump’s personal and professional life until reaching its pinnacle with NBC’s “The Apprentice,” where Donald Trump effectively played himself on TV as a master mogul looking for the next up-and-comer with something to prove.

Tellingly, the challenges on the show were marketing-based. Rather than inventing something or building a business, contestants on “The Apprentice” would have to create an advertising campaign or sell a client’s product. The coveted executive-level jobs won by the winners? They became glorified celebrity pitchmen for the Trump Organization.

The way Trump conducts business (which, as promised, is the way he runs the country) is all about marketing. We see the pattern over and over again: good things are true and bad things are false. Polls that favor him? Real. Bad polls? Fake! Positive superlatives get applied to what he’s doing: huge, tremendous, new, innovative. Negative traits are assigned to his opponents.

In keeping with this method, the crisis he’s been trying to manage from day one of the coronavirus outbreak is not a public health crisis but a public relations one. This is inconvenient for him and dangerous for everyone else, as COVID-19 is stubbornly resistant to alternative facts. It’s not a scandal Trump can distract the populace from. It’s not an argument he can muddy the waters about through disinformation, projection and whataboutism. It’s a deadly problem that only grows worse the longer it is ignored. The more effectively he sells his audience on the idea coronavirus is no big deal, the more danger he puts them and everyone else in, as we have already seen at CPAC.

Former acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney suggested during his CPAC performance that Trump’s detractors turned to the virus as the thing that could bring him down after impeachment failed. He was horribly, horrifically wrong on one level — the most vocal of Trump critics still hope he will show real leadership on this issue and avert the worst things to come — but he may have been onto something all the same: this really is the one threat that is not at all amenable to Trump’s usual strategies.

On March 9, the president attempted to reassure the country by tweeting out some statistics about flu deaths versus deaths from COVID-19, using the then-current official statistics of 546 confirmed cases and 22 deaths. This backfired so badly that the phrase “that’s a 4%” trended on as people calculated the fatality rate based on his figures. Others have pointed out the underlying trends his focus on low numbers ignored, trends which point to a dire future.

With the market in freefall and Trump allies going into quarantine, Fox News host and Trump confidant Tucker Carlson used his monologue on the night of March 9 to deliver a somber warning about a “painful period we are powerless to stop.” Carlson took shots at unnamed people who he said had spent weeks minimizing the threat, calling it partisan politics and comparing it to the flu.

He might have been talking about Trump, but he might also have been talking to him, urging him to ditch these failed marketing lines before it’s too late.

It remains to be seen how much course-correction Trump is capable of. On the night of March 11 he gave the second televised Oval Office address of his presidency. His remarks, which had to be walked back or clarified by the insurance industry and his own staff on key points involving insurance co-pays and trade restrictions, labeled the novel coronavirus a “foreign virus” that could be fought by keeping foreign nationals from afflicted countries out with another of his signature travel bans. His instinct to pour oil over troubled fires may play well with the xenophobic elements of his base, but it fails to address the reality that the wolf is not at our door but inside it.

Tucker Carlson said telling the truth in a crisis is the surest sign of strength. That’s not the kind of strength that can easily be faked, and tragically, nothing in Trump’s history suggests he has it.