When one of Donald Trump’s incriminating confessions is reported in the news media, and audio tape makes the claim impossible to deny, the only recourse is to construct a defense. Trump’s confession to Bob Woodward that he “wanted to always play [the coronavirus] down” is especially challenging to defend, but the president has come up with his line: He was just trying to forestall panic.
“I don’t want people to be frightened,” he explained yesterday, “I don’t want to create panic, as you say, and certainly I’m not going to drive this country or the world into a frenzy.” Ari Fleischer told Fox News watchers that this argument was “perfectly supportable” because “no president should panic anyone.”
Obviously the idea that Trump is, or ever has been, guided by a desire to soothe the public and maintain a steady hand on the ship of state is ludicrous on its face. The president who routinely communicates in ALL-CAPS TWEETS and warns Americans that their placid communities are about to be overrun with minorities and anarchist mobs is obsessed with fomenting panic.
But even if Trump did not spend his days poking the public with sharp sticks and screaming wildly, there is a second and even more fundamental problem with this defense. Presidents aren’t only supposed to avoid panic. They’re also supposed to alert people to the existence of real threats.
A world in which the president had to guard against overreaction to the coronavirus has no relation to the actual reality. In the actual history we are living through, Trump has catastrophically underreacted to the coronavirus. The president ignored or silenced his scientific advisers, failed to organize a plan, and undermined the leaders who were working around him by attacking social-distancing guidelines and even staging his own superspreader events.
Trump in general is extremely bad at gauging risk. He gins up panic at threats that are minor or nonexistent, while ignoring or denying altogether threats that are extremely serious. One reason is that he, like most political conservatives, filters news through an ideological bubble that eschews science and empiricism, so that Obama’s stimulus is going to generate hyperinflation but climate change is a hoax. Another reason is that Trump is personally myopic and corrupt to a degree that he is unable to follow even his own long-term political advantage, which is why he focused on preventing a stock market drop, and instead allowed an economic collapse. Additionally, he is completely reactive to whatever is on television, leaving him unable to plan for long-term threats.
Trump’s supporters, in turn, have so deeply internalized this model of presidential functioning that, when confronted with evidence that Joe Biden was warning last October that the government was unprepared for a pandemic, actor and right-wing activist James Woods suggested Biden must have been tipped off to the coming pandemic in advance:
Planning to avert future catastrophes through long-sighted management? What is this witchcraft?
Yes, in theory, every potential threat presents the risk of either overreaction or underreaction. But the context here is month after month of disastrous underreaction. Trump’s claim to have prevented overreaction is like the visual joke created by the morbidly obese guy wearing an “I BEAT ANOREXIA” T-shirt. Except he is saying it with a straight face!