On Tuesday, in the midst of a rant against the World Health Organization, Donald Trump actually said, “It would have been so easy to be truthful.”
Richard Nixon in his speeches would often ridicule “the easy political path.” But Trump goes even further than Tricky Dick, since he never seems to be able to bring himself to take easy street to the truth. The only mystery surrounding Trump’s mendacity is whether he knows that he’s lying or whether he is trapped inside his own world of alternative facts.
Trump gets away with many of his lies either because they are too inconsequential or because they would require too much effort to disprove. Voters, for example, would have to know something about the events in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692, or the more recent history of McCarthyism to be able to debunk Trump, the Martyr, every time he wails that he is a victim of a historical “witch hunt.”
Trump’s lies about Covid-19 are both more serious and more politically devastating. Sure, Trump can demonize the WHO without most voters knowing that cutting off its funding also jeopardizes the continuing effort against Ebola in Africa. But when it comes to matters at home regarding the virus, Americans are paying keen attention.
A recent Monmouth University poll found that 83 percent of all Americans are either very concerned or somewhat concerned “about someone in [their] family becoming seriously ill from the coronavirus outbreak.” In similar fashion, an April Quinnipiac University poll revealed that three quarters of all Americans are concerned that they or someone close to them will be hospitalized because of the virus. And despite Rush Limbaugh continually likening Covid-19 to the flu, 64 percent of Republicans in the Quinnipiac poll worry about such hospitalizations.
That’s why persuadable voters in swing states are apt to remember Trump’s irresponsible distortions in November.
Take the president’s Big Lie that anyone who wants to get tested can be, easily—maybe even in a Walmart parking lot. He kept this up for more than a month, even though Politico reported Tuesday that commercial laboratories are now performing 30 percent fewer tests than they were before the Centers for Disease Control’s rigid new requirements for who can get tested went into effect in late March.
Imagine you’re a voter in Michigan (a state Trump carried in 2016 by fewer than 11,000 votes) and you’re panicked because you’ve been running a high fever. How would you feel if your doctor told you that under CDC rules you don’t qualify for a test or that you might have to wait two weeks for the results?
At moments like these, Trump’s lies become more than just a weird personality quirk of a lifelong real-estate hustler. For those worried about the virus, it is hard to forget the stomach-churning feeling of being played for a sucker by your own president.
It is more than just testing.
Remember that Dr. Trump (aided by such trusted Fox News epidemiologists as Laura Ingraham) has been plugging hydroxychloroquine as a miracle cure for Covid-19. Americans have been listening: 46 percent of registered voters in a Morning Consult/Politico poll say the drug should be used as a treatment even though the National Institutes of Health is only now launching a study into its clinical effectiveness.
Trump’s medicine-show hucksterism is already looking like more of an illusion than a breakthrough, with The Washington Post reporting that the national search for a viable treatment for Covid-19 has been “disorganized and scattershot, harming its prospects for success.”
Meanwhile, millions of voters have been waiting for three weeks for their promised $1,200 stimulus checks. With the rent overdue in many cases and money for groceries scarce, they were undoubtedly overjoyed to learn that the delay might stretch on even longer as Treasury works to inscribe the left side of each of their checks with the words “President Donald J. Trump.”
As president, Trump has refused to recognize the difference between talking about something and actually seeing it done. The result, in almost every sphere of American life, has been bloviating incompetence.
With the economy in free fall, a rational GOP president would cater to small businesses, who lean Republican and who are the bedrock of Main Street values. Owners of shops, salons, and small manufacturers took an immediate hit from the coronavirus. But when the White House rolled out the Paycheck Protection Program, it was an administrative disaster; major banks were initially incapable of processing loans, and now, the $349 billion originally allocated for the program has been almost entirely exhausted, with an estimated 700,000 unprocessed applications in limbo.
Of course, not all problems with the stimulus payments are Trump’s fault. But in political terms, a president is responsible for everything—good and bad—that happens on his watch. Trump, in short, cannot claim credit for soaring stock prices in a bull market and expect to be seen as an innocent victim in an economic collapse a few weeks later.
If there has been a rational scheme to Trump’s public comments as president, it has been built around dominating every news cycle with the confidence that most voters will forget last week’s controversy—let alone what he promised in 2017. The danger with that flimflam strategy has always been obvious: What if swing voters actually remember?
The fears and the anguished suffering stemming from Covid-19 mean that everyone is paying attention; they will remember that Trump claimed the churches would be full on Easter and that the economy would be booming again on May 1. Collective amnesia and sensory overload can no longer be his escape route.
As the nation confronts the worst public health crisis in a century, almost any other president would have displayed the flexibility needed to offer comfort and competence to the millions of Americans who have lost a job or a loved one in the last few months. But Trump has only one act—juggling lies after lies to bamboozle the credulous—and, at the worst moment of his presidency, his usual tricks and distractions are suddenly not working.