Support The Bulwark and subscribe today.
  Join Now

The Trumpian Doublethink

The president says America is fighting a plague. His son tells Fox that it's all a media hoax. Which is it?
May 19, 2020
The Trumpian Doublethink
(Collage by Hannah Yoest / photos: GettyImages / Shutterstock)

 “Doublethink means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.”

—George Orwell, 1984

So we are back to Orwell again.

On Monday, Donald Trump’s campaign took a break from his relentless attack on reality to announce the launch of a new “investigative website” that is called, without even a hint of irony,

We shit you not.

And yet this wasn’t the craziest Trump moment of the day. Because in the middle of his latest briefing, the president claimed that he was currently taking hydroxychloroquine—an unproven drug that might actually kill vulnerable patients—and had been taking it for some time. Here’s the tl;dr on HCQ:

Clinical trials, academic research and scientific analysis indicate that the danger of the drug is a significantly increased risk of death for certain patients, particularly those with heart problems. Trump dismissed those concerns, saying he has heard about the drug’s benefits from doctors and others he has spoken with.

Keep in mind that the supposed—but unproven—benefits of HCQ are as a therapeutic for people who have COVID-19, not as a prophylactic to prevent you from contracting the virus.

Also keep in mind that it’s an open question as to whether or not the president of the United States is

  1. Taking an unproven and unnecessary medication which the medical establishment has warned is dangerous in the context of COVID-19, or
  2. Lying about taking this medication.

Satire despairs.

This clusterfork came two days after one of the president’s grown-ass sons, Eric, claimed that the novel coronavirus which has killed, officially, more than 90,000 Americans will “magically vanish” after the November 3 election, freeing the country to reopen.

Why will it vanish after November 3? As Eric explained Fox’s Jeanine Pirro there is a “cognizant strategy” by Trump’s enemies to use COVID-19 to thwart his father’s ability to hold his trademark rallies. After daddy’s glorious reelection, the Deep State Fake News Whatever will no longer need this phantom threat, so it will simply vanish.

“You watch, they’ll milk it every single day between now and November 3,” Eric Trump said. “And guess what, after November 3, coronavirus will magically, all of a sudden, go away and disappear and everybody will be able to reopen.”

At first blush, this is confusing and more than a little incoherent. Eric’s father—President Donald J. Trump—has called the COVID-19 pandemic a “horrible scourge,” a “horrible plague,” and a “matter of life and death.” He holds briefings almost every day to talk about the pandemic.

So which is it? A plague? Or an anti-Trump hoax?

Back in March, President Trump described the pandemic as “probably the worst thing the country’s ever seen.”

“We lose more here potentially than you lose in world wars as a country,” he said in a rare moment of solemnity. (You might remember that as the day people fell over one another to observe that Trump had finally turned a corner and adopted a “presidential” tone.)

“I want every American to be prepared for the hard days that lie ahead. We’re going through a very tough few weeks,” he said, as he extended the federal guidelines for another 30 days—no groups larger than 10 people, no unnecessary travel, no going to restaurants or bars.

“It’s a matter of life and death, frankly,” the president said then.

His son Eric now: No big deal. Democrat scam. Will vanish easily.

This isn’t your average “Jumbo Shrimp” oxymoron, it’s a fundamental contradiction—what philosophers might call a violation of the law of non-contradiction. That law posits that “opposite assertions cannot be true at the same time” or, more simply that the claims “A is B” and “A is not B” are mutually exclusive.

But defying this law has been a defining feature of Trumpism.

This is, after all, the president who declared of March 13

“No, I don’t take responsibility at all.”

But on April 13 declared:

“When somebody is the president of the United States, the authority is total. And that’s the way it’s got to be. It’s total.”

Of course, as Orwell wrote: war is peace; freedom is slavery; ignorance is strength.

So here we are. TrumpWorld insists that we believe:

  • Trump saved America; but he is not responsible for the deaths of 90,000 Americans.
  • The pandemic was the worst thing that ever happened to America; but it was an over hyped scam.
  • It’s the Democrats’ fault that we shut down the country; but it was Trump who saved millions by shutting down the country. 

This all suggests a number of things about Trump’s habits of mind. But it also suggests what he thinks of his voters. Every hustle relies on the existence of a sucker who wants to believe.

In that sense Trump is like the Iranian mullahs who would say one thing when they were preaching in the countryside in Farsi, but another thing when they were in Tehran, or talking to foreign audiences in English.

One message for the world, another for the rubes.

The Trumps’ multiple stories are yet another sign that they view their voters as marks.

In their defense: they may not be wrong.

Charlie Sykes

Charlie Sykes is a founder and editor-at-large of The Bulwark and the author of How the Right Lost Its Mind. He is also the host of The Bulwark Podcast and an MSNBC contributor.