Friday, September 11, 2020


Michelle Goldberg believes we can stop arguing now about whether President Trump was in denial about the coronavirus.
People who’ve spent time with him often conclude that truth has no meaning for him. [Bob] Woodward quoted Dan Coats, Trump’s former director of national intelligence, saying: “To him, a lie is not a lie. It’s just what he thinks. He doesn’t know the difference between the truth and a lie.” ...

Yet in recordings Woodward has released of Trump talking about the coronavirus ... the president doesn’t sound ignorant or deluded. Rather, he sounds uncommonly lucid. On Feb. 7, Trump described the virus as airborne and “more deadly than even your strenuous flus,” adding, “this is 5 percent versus 1 percent, or less than 1 percent.” ...

And yet he told the country just the opposite. “The percentage for the flu is under 1 percent,” Trump said on March 7. “But this could also be under 1 percent because many of the people that aren’t that sick don’t report.” Despite knowing that the virus was airborne, he mocked mask-wearing and held several large indoor rallies. He told Woodward in March that “plenty of young people” were getting sick, but over the summer would insist that 99 percent of cases were “totally harmless” and that children are “almost immune.”

We know now that this wasn’t just Trump being buffoonish and engaging in magical thinking. It was conscious deception.
Yastreblyansky isn't sure -- magical thinking or a con?
Sure he was misleading the public, but it was in a good cause. To reduce panic. Because he's a cheerleader. And because he "shows confidence".

... he's a confidence man, in the strictest sense of the term.

That is, he's a believer in the magical power, not merely forcefulness, of positive thinking, which can turn reality around, snake oil that cures cancer because you believe, real estate boosting that makes your apartment more valuable, faith in the North Korean dictator that makes the nuclear weapons skulk away into the shadows and makes the world a safer place. Or at least people will be confident that it's happening, because of your fast talk and easy charm, and how is that not good enough? "Leadership is all about confidence."

He knew how bad the pandemic was going to be, as he told Woodward, but he "didn't really think" it would be that bad. He didn't think the "entire world" would be infected. He expected his happy talk would change the odds, and if they didn't he'd keep saying they did anyway, because that's what cheerleaders do. He doesn't think there's anything wrong with that, and he never will.
It's often said that Trump's approach to everything is "transactional." I think Trump's approach to reality is transactional. The truth is the truth when it serves his purposes. In those moments, Trump believes in reality. But in other moments, not only does he walk out to a podium and contradict reality, he does so without necessarily believing that he's lying. As I've said in the past, Trump doesn't believe in truth. There are (as we see them) facts, lies, and true and false interpretations of reality, but to Trump they're all equally valid. He'll use any of them to shape reality, and he'll believe whatever he's saying at the time, even if it contradicts what he said six hours ago. In part this is because, as Yastreblyansky says, he believes in the Power of Positive Thinking and therefore thinks confidence can shape reality. In part it's because it's important to him to be his audience's daddy, someone who dominates us the way his father dominated him.

Trump told Woodward the truth in part because he wanted to impress the famous reporter -- I'm privy to some amazing inside information that you don't know about, because I'm president. (That's Trump: He's the most powerful man in the world, yet he feels the need to make a reporter believe he's cool.) In that moment, the truth seemed useful to him.

But in public, Trump goes with the magical thinking -- and he appears to believe the fairy tales he tells. We know he's doing something other than just lying because he acknowledges the truth and then insists that if we see things his way, there'll be a better truth.

In March, when the cruise ship Grand Princess, full of sick Americans, was docked off San Francisco, Trump told us he didn't want them to disembark "because I like the numbers being where they are." More recently, he's insisted that people aren't really sick unless they test positive, and so he wants to "slow the testing down." He's telling us that reality will be different if it's reported differently.

(This is because reality for Trump consists solely of what happens to him. The reality of other people, including the sick, just isn't real to Trump.)

As Fintan O'Toole noted in a New York Review of Books essay in April, Trump believes Positive Thinking can defeat contagion.
In How to Get Rich, Trump links his own germaphobia to the idea that some people are born losers. Winners are people who think positively—and positivity repels germs. “To me, germs are just another kind of negativity.” He then goes on to tell the story of an unnamed acquaintance who is driven home from the hospital in an ambulance after being treated for injuries sustained in a crash. The ambulance crashes and he has to be taken back to the hospital: “Maybe he’s just a really unlucky guy. Or maybe he’s a loser. I know that sounds harsh, but let’s face it—some people are losers.” The train of thought here is typically meandering, but the logic is clear enough. Losers are inevitably doomed by their own negativity, of which germs are a physical form. Infection happens to some people because they are natural losers.
So Trump told Woodward the truth because telling the truth was a way of saying to Woodward, "You may think you're an important guy, but I'm president and you're not." And he told the public lies because he doesn't think his lies are lies, because believing something makes it true.

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