The dire shortage of protective medical gear needed to handle the spread of coronavirus is not some great secret. For weeks, hospital administrators, medical professionals, and political leaders warned that this was a looming crisis. Increasingly, it’s not even looming. Over the past few days, photos have gone viral of nurses resorting to wearing trash bags and makeshift protective masks as they treat highly infectious patients.
And yet, to hear Donald Trump explain it, the current situation is remarkable only for just how extraordinary the government has been in solving it. The same day that a nurse died at one of those hospitals where giant black trash bags have been converted into hospital gowns, the president declared that when it came to filling medical equipment needs, “It’s hard not to be happy with the job we’re doing.” The next day began with Trump tweeting “Congratulations AMERICA!” after the Senate passed a $2 trillion coronavirus stimulus plan on a unanimous vote and ended with the news that America now has more coronavirus cases than any other nation in the world.
The story is playing out in parallel universes: one where an abject crisis is causing historic economic disruption and human suffering on a global scale, and one constructed by Trump, in which—through his ingenuity and stewardship—America is on the precipice of putting this all behind us.
“As we look forward,” the president said on Tuesday, “we begin to see the light at the end of the tunnel.” The next day, the number of deaths in the U.S. reached a new peak.
That Trump has built this alternate reality is not the least bit shocking. He has spent much of his life constructing and reconstructing tales of his grandeur. Public relations is his primary skill. So it’s only natural that he would apply it to a medical epidemic as well.
What goes underappreciated, is just how unorthodox such an approach is in politics. Under the usual constructs, no politician in his or her right mind would act in his manner. Indeed, the truism of crisis management is that leaders should avoid talking up how quickly things are improving, lest they come off as insensitive to those still suffering.
That certainly was the guiding principle in the wake of the last comparable economic disaster: the market collapse in 2008. In the early months of their administration, Barack Obama and his team found themselves navigating a difficult balancing act: selling their legislative interventions and, simultaneously, nodding to widespread suffering by conceding that they still had work to do.
On the occasions when they would try to put a positive gloss on their record (the so-called “recovery summer” and the talk of “green shoots” of economic optimism) it would usually result in admonitions about them being detached from reality.
“It was one of the biggest questions we faced, which is how to show we were on the right track without sounding out of touch,” recalled Eric Schultz, who was running communications for the Democratic Party’s Senate campaign arm during that cycle. “Atmospherically, Republicans and the entire rightwing media were trying to talk down the economy and were obstructionists at the time. And so our ability to tell a positive story was harder in the face of that. They’d make the case of how out of touch we were and they’d be able to find plenty of case studies to show it was true.”
By the time the 2010 cycle rolled around, Obama had settled on a hackneyed electoral pitch: the economy was a car which Republicans had driven into a ditch. As he would say: “We’ve been pushing and shoving and sweating, trying to get this car out of the ditch” while “Republicans have been standing there, sipping on a Slurpee, watching us and saying, ‘You’re not pushing hard enough!’”
Not surprisingly, the elections were a disaster for Democrats. And in the aftermath, some in the party criticized Obama for actually being too rosy in his salesmanship.
“A metaphor about a car in the ditch when people are in trouble and angry at Wall Street is just out of touch with what is going on,” Stan Greenberg, the longtime Democratic pollster said after the electoral bloodbath.
But if Obama was being too rosy back then, Trump is acting positively Pollyannaish now. After a few days of sober talk about the coronavirus’ spread—conceding that it could sideline Americans well into the summer—he has spent the past week describing a disease that is close to being conquered. He has talked about reopening America’s economy by Easter, overstated basic facts about the availability of treatments, tests and therapies, and blamed his predecessor and foreigners for any perceived failure, all while giving himself a perfect score for his handling of the epidemic.
To his critics, he’s become the living embodiment of the “this is fine” meme—with the only question being if he is consciously aware of the fires that surround him.
“We often debated the balance between touting progress and acknowledging reality, but we almost always erred on the side of acknowledging the pain and hardship that people were experiencing as a result of the financial crisis,” said Jon Favreau, Obama’s former speechwriter. “I suppose it was fine for Trump to brag about the economy when the economy was in fairly good shape, but a few months from now, how will the absurd self-congratulation appear to people who’ve lost a job or lost a loved one to this virus? You can’t spin your way out of double-digit unemployment.”
But while Trump’s unorthodox approach seems fraught with risk, his detractors sense that there is a chance it works. It’s not just because he’s constructed a universe in which he will pass off any blame (if not China for failing to contain the virus, than Obama for not leaving him with the exact right bureaucratic infrastructure to handle it; or the media for over-hyping it; or Democratic governors for keeping their states locked down because of it).
It’s also because he is giving the public something it craves—which is hope. Indeed, Trump has been fairly explicit about this being the primary motivation behind his happy talk. The infamous exchange he had with NBC’s Peter Alexander over what message he’d send to frightened Americans is remembered for the fact that he petulantly responded by calling Alexander a “terrible reporter.” The more illuminating comment, however, came moments later.
“I think it’s a very bad signal that you are putting out to the American people,” Trump said. “They’re looking for answers and they’re looking for hope.”
The president’s ability to keep Americans hopeful is limited, of course. Three million Americans filed for unemployment insurance this week. Upwards of 40 percent of the country believes the president has done a bad job managing coronavirus. And epidemiologists and medical experts warn that his desire to loosen public health measures will only prolong the crisis and, in turn, make the economic damage far worse.
Can hope withstand that? Perhaps not. But that, in Trump’s mind, is a question and set of accompanying problems that he will tackle on another day.
“The difference with Trump, at least in this case, is he is really looking ahead just one day. He wants to program the next episode of the TV show. And so I think he is going back to what works for him: you blame foreigners, you blame elites and experts who are out to get him, who don’t know what he knows, and make it a partisan issue,” said Ken Baer, a longtime Democratic operative who worked for Obama during the 2010 cycle. “I think his bet is it will make him popular and get him through the next couple weeks. The question is: What’s the reality? And will it work when you have real pain?”