The president spoke to the nation Wednesday about the spread of the coronavirus. It didn’t go well, just as it never goes well when Donald Trump must be presidential. It’s worth quoting Bloomberg Opinion’s Jonathan Bernstein at length. Today, he wrote:
He was at times barely coherent even for someone who knew what he was trying to say. I can’t imagine what it was like for the bulk of the nation, folks who only sometimes pay attention to politics but might have tuned in because they want to be reassured that the government is on top of the problem. He must have been almost completely incomprehensible to them, rambling on about how he had recently discovered that the flu can kill lots of people and referring in a totally oblique way to the budget requests he had made to Congress and their reaction. He occasionally said something that sort of made sense, but mostly? Not. Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel’s reaction was what I thought: “I found most of what he said incoherent.”
At no time over the course of the news conference did Trump supply evidence that he had any idea what he was talking about.
It’s quite rare when the president appears to know what he’s talking about. That’s clear from the daily gusts of bluster coming out of the White House. This is, as you will recall, the same president who says he knows more about more things than anyone who’s ever known anything. He knows more than the generals. He knows more than the financeers. He knows more than the scientists. Only God Himself knows more.
And maybe not even Him.
That the president does not know much in general about anything, and that he does not know much in particular about the coronavirus (or influenza, for that matter), is of little consequence to most of the people who support him. The right-flank of the Republican Party was a hothouse of anti-intellectualism and hostility toward the authority of evidence and reason long before it took over the center of the party. In speaking utter gibberish yesterday to a citizenry hungry for facts and steady leadership, Trump was putting a capstone of historical trends already in motion.
Most people don’t understand that. What they know, if they are paying attention, is that a few wacko birds, to use John McCain’s famous phrase, are the problem, as if they were more marginal than they actually are. What most people don’t understand is that paranoia among Republicans is a feature, not a bug. When the world is sorted between friends and enemies, there is no legitimate authority that’s independent of those camps. Facts are true when they favor us. They are false when they don’t.
This is why it makes sense to the president and his followers that the stock market slump was not caused by fear of an outbreak of the coronavirus. It was the Democrats’ fault; they are trying to undermine Trump. This is why is makes sense to the president and his followers that “the coronavirus is being weaponized as yet another element to bring down Donald Trump,” as Rush Limbaugh said. Forget that people are getting sick. Forget that people are scared. Your disease is making Trump look bad.
(There is no bottom, by the way. If the Rapture happened today, and took all evangelical Christians to Heaven, where they can’t vote for Trump, Limbaugh would say God’s love and salvation was being weaponized to bring down the president.)
There’s something else most people don’t understand. None of what I’m talking about is partisanship. If it were, we could reasonably expect some elected Republicans, especially the president’s hardliners, to snap out of it. We could expect them to say to themselves, OK, enough is enough. People could die. We need to set aside politics and empower experts and medical authorities to do what needs doing for everyone’s sake.
That’s asking too much of the paranoids now constituting the heart of the Republican Party. To expect them to defer to the authority of evidence and reason is to expect them to defer to the authority of something other than their egos and self-interest.
They can’t do that because nothing exists independent of their egos and self-interests. The president does not believe he’s above the law. He is the law. The president does not believe he represents the state. He is the state. The president does not believe he must act for everyone’s sake, because what’s good for him is good for everyone.
The history of fascism is a history of regimes bumbling into disaster. That’s probably what we are going to see in the weeks and months ahead. Will people snap out of it?
Don’t hold your breath.