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A Virus Is Not a Messaging Problem

It shouldn’t take a pandemic to clarify what is at stake in politics.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention informed President Donald Trump that coronavirus was spreading within the United States between people who had no history of international travel. He immediately went on television and claimed that the number of cases in the U.S. would be “close to zero” in “a couple of days.”

That would turn out to be untrue, but he perhaps believed he could will that outcome into existence by saying it into a microphone. The president has long believed in the teachings of Norman Vincent Peale’s midcentury self-help gospel, The Power of Positive Thinking, which promised to turn believers into achievers. Depressingly, his faith has been lavishly rewarded.

Trump sees his presidency as a story of things that happen to Donald Trump—turncoats betraying him, enemies being identified and crushed, the masses showering him with adoration, powerful men weeping at his strength. He sees the threat of a pandemic in much the same way: as something that could have disastrous consequences for him personally. (He may not even understand that widespread deaths would be “bad” for him; he seems mainly concerned about reassuring the markets.)

This is why his response to the potential for a public health crisis revolves around messaging. As soon as Vice President Mike Pence became the administration’s figurehead in its response to the coronavirus threat, his first act was, in the words of The Washington Post, to “seize control of all federal communications on the virus, requiring Cabinet officials and government experts to get clearance from his office before making public remarks, according to two senior administration officials.”

Trump believes coronavirus is a thing that happens on TV, and that he can control what the TV says. Throughout his administration, his biggest eruptions of anger have tended to come when he believes someone who should be loyal to him has caused the TV to cover him negatively. If he can get everyone on the same page about how effective the response to coronavirus has been, all will be well.

For Trump and his loyalists, carrying out the daily work of the federal government is subordinate to creating the story of what they are doing. And although that attitude doesn’t exactly suggest that the administration is mounting an effective response to the virus, it has, thus far, worked astonishingly well for them politically.

How have Trump’s political fortunes come to be so divorced from the question of what his administration is actually doing, or not doing? One explanation can be found, I think, in this feature The New York Times’ “Reader Center” published on Monday about how its reporters and editors understand and carry out their mission of political impartiality. The paper’s chief White House correspondent, Peter Baker, went well beyond his quoted colleagues in his commitment to the principle. Baker does not vote. He also does not, he says, think:

I try hard not to take strong positions on public issues even in private, much to the frustration of friends and family. For me, it’s easier to stay out of the fray if I never make up my mind, even in the privacy of the kitchen or the voting booth, that one candidate is better than another, that one side is right and the other wrong.

This is, in addition to being silly, impossible. The “public issues” he claims not to feel strongly about include nearly everything that happens outside the home and many things inside it. He presumably believes, for example, that a government should refrain from publicly executing journalists it dislikes. This is a political question, and one on which most journalists agree.

Baker probably does studiously avoid taking a side in most supposedly “political” arguments, but he is only able to do so because the government has very little power to hurt him (unless, of course, it actually does start executing journalists).

In that sense, the White House and the political desk of The New York Times view coronavirus in much the same way: as a messaging problem. Trump is concerned with managing how the political press covers his response to the crisis; the Times will judge him on how well he succeeds at controlling the narrative. All of this posturing will come to a crashing halt if the virus spreads and scores of Americans begin to die, but unless that comes to pass, the possibility of that dire outcome will remain merely a future headline or chyron in the mind of Trump and Baker alike.

If you studiously refuse to have any political commitments, and you’re relatively affluent, you probably understand the crisis as little more than an elite feud. Meanwhile, our very large and heterogeneous nation has many regions, or cities, or communities, where life has been a slow-motion disaster for decades—where everything is falling apart or has fallen apart. Most national political reporters and television pundits don’t live in those places. They may be aware of them—they probably read Hillbilly Elegy, J.D. Vance’s fashionable portrait of Appalachian dysfunction, at some point in the last four years—but if there is a connection between “politics” and the state of those places in their minds, it is a tenuous one: They believe, if only vaguely, that politicians and their policies could have had a hand in creating this state of affairs.

Mostly, though, politics as discussed by these figures is almost completely divorced from consequences because what happens in Washington or at the statehouse has a much smaller impact on their lives than what happens on Wall Street. (And, again, Trump is mainly trying to manage the markets.)

Once, not so long ago, reporters would take notice of how bad things had actually gotten if the conservative movement’s commitment to treating government service as a patronage program for ideologues, donors, and family members caused some unignorable catastrophe of government incompetence. Anderson Cooper left Manhattan to see New Orleans for himself in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Almost overnight, the TV news began covering the Bush administration in a dramatically different way. (Conservatives found the fact that it took such a severe natural disaster for the media to notice all the mismanagement and cronyism in the Bush administration to be evidence of liberal bias.)

Trump, on the other hand, has already presided over a similar catastrophe in Puerto Rico, and it never produced a similar moment. His own unwillingness to see his administration’s response to Hurricane Maria as a failure or acknowledge it as such seemingly helped him simply move on from the story, making the deaths of thousands and displacement of hundreds of thousands of people just another “forgotten” scandal.

Today, however, with coronavirus threatening American lives, everyone who sees politics as a story people on television tell each other is about to see their beliefs tested. The outbreak could be a very bad thing for many Americans, not just the ones who live in the poor, faraway places that often bear the brunt of natural disasters and government incompetence. Even if those places see the worst suffering, viruses do not practice economic or racial segregation as carefully as mortgage lenders and Republican redistricting experts do. If you are sufficiently wealthy, it’s easy to insulate yourself from most of the negative consequences of corrupt or authoritarian or plutocratic governance, but it is much harder to do so when one of those consequences is a viral pandemic.

If the outbreak spirals out of control, it will be in part because we have a government run by people who view politics in much the same way that cable news panelists view politics: as an exercise in creating narratives. If your job is to explain politics to Americans, you should probably develop a point of view on how alarming that is.