Since the day President Donald Trump took office and started lying about the size of the crowd at his inauguration, media critics and political analysts have been warning about the danger to democracy of a president who consistently fails to tell the truth.
Without a free flow of reliable, trustworthy, verified information, democracy is impossible, we said. And in a democracy, one of the primary sources of such information is supposed to be the government, from the National Weather Service telling us when a hurricane is headed our way, to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention telling us when we are in the midst of a what CNN is now calling a pandemic.
Life and death stuff.
In recent months, I have come to conclude that we in the media didn’t do a very good job of explaining how and why a liar in the White House is so dangerous. I say that because Trump’s followers didn’t seem to understand the kind of damage the president’s war on truth could do to all of us. At his rallies, they cheered his lies about what a great president he is and bought into his ruse of dismissing anything critical of him as “fake news.”
Well, maybe now with the coronavirus tearing through a nursing home in Washington state, the death toll rising throughout the nation and the economy melting down like it’s 2008 all over again, people will come to see how dangerous it is to have a president suggesting coronavirus will magically go away in April when the weather warms up or comparing it to the common flu and calling it a Democratic “hoax,” as he did at a recent rally in South Carolina.
Trump has consistently given the nation the very opposite of the kind of clear, accurate information it needs at a time like this. He has instead only added to our confusion with misinformation, lies and flat-out propaganda. The combination of his administration playing down or ignoring the early information about the coronavirus threat even as he downsized government health agencies, resulted in the government failing to get out in front of the virus and then winding up woefully behind the curve in its ability to test for it when it started to hit.
As far back as Feb. 24, Trump tweeted that the virus was “under control.” Two days later, he said the number of cases in the U.S. would soon be “close to zero.” Not exactly.
Two top administration officials, counselor Kellyanne Conway, she of the “alternative facts,” and former cable TV host turned economic adviser Larry Kudlow, followed by telling Americans the virus was being “contained.” Not even close.
“In the U.S. it is the opposite of contained,” Harvard University epidemiology professor Marc Lipsitch, told CNN fact-checker Daniel Dale. “It is spreading so efficiently in so many places that it may be difficult to stop.”
Perhaps the clearest snapshot of where Trump’s priorities lie in this crisis came Friday in his photo-op visit to the CDC in Atlanta. Talking about the Grand Princess cruise ship waiting for several days off the coast of California with 21 infected passengers on board, the president said, “They would like the people to come off. I would like to have the people stay, because I like the numbers being where they are. I don’t need to have the numbers double because of one ship that wasn’t our fault.”
Those were people, not numbers, on that ship, Mr. President, just as those are real children in detention facilities on the southern border who were taken from their parents and put in cages as the result of a White House directive; some of them have even died.
CNN had an interview Monday morning via phone with a woman on that ship whose husband was out of his diabetes medicine. Can you imagine if you had someone you loved on that ship and your president is talking about keeping people on it to make his “numbers” look better?
Go cheer that at a Keep America Great rally.
The ship was finally allowed to dock in Oakland, Calif., on Monday. How much extra suffering do you think the delay caused elderly sick patients? How much anxiety did it cause for loved ones?
But, hey, it kept the president’s “numbers” temporarily down. And that’s what really matters in Trump’s America, isn’t it?
David Zurawik is the Baltimore Sun’s media critic. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @davidzurawik.