Support The Bulwark and subscribe today.
  Join Now

Donald Trump and Clay Travis, Together At Last

Donny from Queens wants football back.
August 11, 2020
Donald Trump and Clay Travis, Together At Last

The last time Clay Travis tweeted at me, on April 10, he said I was angered by the fact that when it comes to COVID-19, “Trump’s response has been successful.”

Since April 10, an additional 144,000 Americans have died from the virus, so there’s that. I’ll give Clay this: It’s true. This largely-avoidable mass death does make me angry.

Here is another thing that makes me angry: On Tuesday morning, Clay had the honor and the privilege of being joined by the president of the United States on his talk radio program and together they did a victory lap over the body bags while calling for the return of college sports.

For those who are new here, Travis was a former Al Gore employee and niche sports talk personality who built an audience around conservative cultural grievance, culminating with his recent rise to prominence as one of the nation’s leading COVID-19 happy-talkers. In March, Travis posited that it would be “unlikely in my opinion that more than a few hundred at most will die from the coronavirus in the United States.” He also criticized Ohio Republican Governor Mike Dewine’s decision to ban spectators from the NCAA basketball tournament saying people had “lost their mind” and were “overreacting.”

This means Travis’ predictions about the death caused by the virus were off by about 40,000 percent (yes you read that right, 40,000%). If Gov. DeWine and others had bowed to the pressure from people such as Clay and held March Madness in indoor arenas with shouting fans from all corners of the country, it seems likely that the death toll Clay never imagined possible would be even higher.

You might expect that someone who was so badly mistaken—in a pretty black-and-white, look at the data, here are the actual number of bodies—would reevaluate their priors. Or at least wouldn’t rush back out and make the exact same predictions and demands four months and thousands upon thousands of deaths later.

But nope, that shit doesn’t sell podcast subscriptions. Or as Clay Travis might say, “Don’t Be A Pussy.”

So he has gone on, tweeting out his daily “Coronavirus positivity.” Some examples:

April 11: “[S]even straight days of declines in new daily cases since a peak was set last Saturday, four day low in deaths” (There were more deaths four days later; every day this summer has had more cases.)

June 19: “[D]eaths have slowly moved down in Florida even after the state has opened up.” (Since July 14, every single day has had more deaths in Florida than June 19 did.)

July 14: “Deaths decline 20% from last Tuesday to 736 this week” (This is more deaths, in one day, than Clay predicted the country would suffer for the lifespan of the virus. Every Tuesday since has seen more deaths than 736.)

August 3: “Deaths beginning to decline again.” (Decline from where exactly? Nevermind.)

Now, I don’t want to characterize these as Clay’s worst predictions. I spent about 5 minutes doing a search of his recent positivity tweets, those are just what I caught on the first pass. The point is: This is a guy who has become a multi-media star by spreading COVID-19 misinformation on a podcast, a radio show, and myriad guest appearances.

I’d even go so far as to say that there’s a chance—and I’m just spitballing here—that if you looked at the totality of everything Clay has said about the virus since February, it is possible that nobody else, anywhere in America, has been as wrong about COVID-19.

And yes, I understand how crowded this field is.

So naturally, this is the guy who our great president sits down with to talk about whether or not college football should play this fall.

You can imagine how it went.

During the course of the 22 minute interview the president called for the return of college football, trashed the NBA and MLB’s social justice activism and then praised the NHL and PGA (can’t qwhite figure out the connection there). Trump also refused Travis’ repeated attempts to cajole him into condemning the human rights crackdown in Hong Kong in order to positively contrast Trump’s strongness with the cowardly NBA players (oops).

On the question of bringing college football back, Trump offered a nonsense pseudoscience word salad that did not address any of the practical realities that would be required to make it work. Here is the relevant parts of his answer:

They want to play football and they know better than anyone else . . . One of the great doctors said these people are so powerful and so strong and not lots of body fat. . . maybe none in some cases, they’re very healthy people, people don’t realize it’s a tiny percentage of people that get sick and they’re old and it just attacks old people especially old people with some kind of a physical problem, a weight problem, isn’t it wonderful that I’m a perfect physical specimen . . . somebody said I had zero percent body fat wouldn’t that be nice, this attacks older people very viciously if it’s the wrong person but these football players are very young strong people physically, so they’re not going to have a problem . . . Could it happen? But I doubt it you’re not going to see people dying and many people get it and they have kids that get it they have the sniffles, young kids almost none have a serious problem with it. I mean the state of California almost nobody that’s young had a, like zero, had a problem with meaning a serious problem with this disease, they get better very quickly if they get it at all. So I think football is making a tragic mistake.

Putting aside the fact that the person who gave that answer is running as the mental acuity candidate against Joe Biden.

Put aside the joke (I think?) about how someone thought he has zero percent body fat.

What is striking about this answer is that the president has absolutely no plan for how, exactly, football would come back. He’s expressing a wish.

And this is exactly the problem. If you take Travis at his word that he is someone who wants football to come back—and not just someone who wants to complain about the libs who won’t let football come back—then you want a president who comes on your show to talk about bringing football back to having something resembling a plan for how to make it come back.

But Trump has never tried to actually manage the pandemic. The only time he hasn’t just been wishcasting has been when he was trying to manage the PR of the pandemic.

Here’s the truth: If you wanted football to be played in the fall of 2020 in any manner even kind of resembling what we are used to, one of two things would have needed to happen in the distant past. Either

  1. We crushed the pandemic in the spring and early summer.
  2. The players were getting paid for their work.

With neither of these conditions being met, real football was never going to happen. Anyone who thought otherwise was living in a fantasy world.

Ben Sasse wrote to the Big Ten Conference arguing in favor of holding the season by saying that “life is about trade-offs.” And that’s true.

But to get football the trade-offs needed to be made on our end. We needed to be wearing masks. We needed to sacrifice the economy in the short-term to crush the curve. We needed a government that took the virus seriously instead of listening to sports talk phonies who saw an opportunity to get famous by telling people what they wanted to hear.

Or alternatively we needed to have made a trade off where we treat these athletes like the minor-league professionals they are, allowed them to collectively bargain, so they were able to be put in an NBA-style bubble away from the other students. Instead of pretending that the star quarterback at Florida State is a “student-athlete” in the exact same way the captain of FSU’s fencing team is.

That’s it. Those are the options and the trade offs that were, once upon a time, available to us. Everything else is forcing a kid whose grandma has already contracted COVID to put himself, his family, and his community at risk for no pay so that we can have fun on Saturdays and pretend that America is doing just fine.

Look: Nobody would rather be with their oldest friends, in a southern college town, drinking a whiskey, waiting to head into a packed stadium to scream their lungs off more than me. It is one of, if not my favorite, pastime. For many who share this love it is an electric, quasi-spiritual experience. It is an oasis of escape from life’s drudgeries. There’s something different in nature about college sports, it’s a tie that binds us to our younger selves.

It makes sense that this would carry with it cultural and political implications. That people would feel not completely whole or completely “back” if this communion was stripped from them. That the people who have experienced that loss would lash out at those who are taking it away from them.

But that’s life. The pandemic has created a new reality. And if we are ever able to recapture what we once had, we must recognize that and defeat it. Wishing it wasn’t so isn’t going to get the job done.

The thing is: All of this planning and executing is hard work.

Tweeting #WeWantToPlay is easy.

And if we want to have college football back, we need leaders who will do what is hard.

Tim Miller

Tim Miller is The Bulwark’s writer-at-large and the author of the best-selling book Why We Did It: A Travelogue from the Republican Road to Hell. He was previously political director for Republican Voters Against Trump and communications director for Jeb Bush 2016.