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Trump’s Orwellian Plague

Oceania is at war with Eurasia. They have always been at war with Eurasia.
April 8, 2020
Trump’s Orwellian Plague
(Photo: GettyImages)

Faced with COVID-19 , Donald Trump conducted a lethal experiment in political pathology. Jonathan Haidt described the results to Thomas Edsall: “A marker of our political sickness is that taking the virus seriously has become itself a marker of tribal identity.”

So perverse are Trump’s behaviors that he evokes dystopian fiction: George Orwell’s 1984, wherein the totemic Big Brother—imbued, like Trump, with imaginary omniscience—personifies the obliteration of objective reality. Every day Trump’s metafiction starts anew.

Some highlights from Tim Miller’s definitive timeline:

On January 22, Trump declared: “We have it totally under control. It’s one person coming from China.”

On February 26, cases were “going very substantially down . . . within a couple of days . . down to zero.”

On March 9, COVID-19 was a “flu” which “will go away.”

On March 16, as our death toll passed 60, Trump belatedly ordered 15 days of social distancing.

And on March 17, America’s Big Brother erased his own history: “I felt it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic.”

But not so much.

On March 22, Trump explained that “we cannot let the cure be worse than the problem.” Two days thereafter, he wanted America open for business by Easter: “You will have packed churches all over our country . . . It would be a beautiful time.” As Trump spoke there were over 52,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19, and 471 deaths.

On March 29, confronting projections that his misappropriation of Easter could cause millions more, Trump extended social distancing through April—cutting the fatalities, by his own estimation, to between 100,000 and 240,000. Trump promptly commended himself as America’s Savior, adding the surreal assertion that “a month ago nobody ever heard of this.”

But Trump had heard of it: In mid-January he was warned of the pandemic’s lethality. This mendacious self-exculpation capped 10 toxic weeks of disinformation punctuated, and finally punctured, by the resulting acceleration of death.

Like the subjects of Big Brother’s mega-state, Americans have died to serve Trump’s false and contradictory narratives. The difference is that America remains a democracy—Trump has conjured a country without borders, defined by the unquestioning submission of an electorally-crucial plurality to his suffocating fatherland of the mind.

Faced with a pandemic which threatened this fealty, Trump’s venal propagandists redoubled their efforts to repeal reality through mind-numbing repetition, immersing his followers in yet more alienation and rage. Their enemy was not COVID-19, but those who warned of its ravages.

Here’s Rush Limbaugh: “It looks like the coronavirus is being weaponized as yet another element to bring down Donald Trump.” Trish Regan decried “another attempt to impeach the president”; Laura Ingram “a new pathway for hitting President Trump.”

Candace Owens excoriated liberals’ “doomsday cult.” Sean Hannity sneered: “The Apocalypse is imminent, and you’re all going to die.”

By dispensing Trump’s Kool-Aid they became accomplices in death.

Consider the attacks on social distancing as economic surrender. Glenn Beck proclaimed: “I would rather die than kill the country.” Dennis Prager called it “appeasement” and “cowardice.” The Federalist preferred promoting immunity through “chickenpox parties”; a Wall Street Journal piece recommended “the deliberate infection” of first responders.

Bravely spoken.

Trump’s malignant echo chamber even transmuted quiet and dedicated public health experts into scheming subversives: the estimable Anthony Fauci became a “Deep-State Hillary Clinton-loving stooge.” “Congress should subpoena Dr. Doom Fauci’s phone records,” a pro-Trump commentator tweeted, “and see how many times he has called Hillary in the past 60 days.” Death threats compelled the U.S. Marshals to protect him.

But the most frighteningly Orwellian aspect of the crisis was that Trump induced his followers to risk countless lives in obeisance to his lies.

This polarized public conduct in lethal ways. An academic survey of 3,000 Americans between March 20-23 confirmed that: “Republicans are less likely to report responding [ to COVID-19] with CDC recommended behavior” whereas Democrats “responded by changing their personal health behaviors, and supporting . . . testing and treatment.” In a document “discussed widely at the White House,” the Washington Post reports, a Republican pollster warned that Trump’s loyalists were “putting themselves and their loved ones in danger.”

Heedless, Trump and his enablers subordinated epidemiology to the president’s narcissistic cult of personality. By separating his base from life-saving truths, they insured that more Americans would perish.

This deadly divide has its own map. As of early April, Van Newkirk reports in the Atlantic, 10 percent of the deaths from COVID-19 so far have occurred in the deep red states Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia—even though they contain only 7 percent of the nation’s population.

Two of Trump’s Southern sycophants—Governors Ron DeSantis of Florida, and Brian Kemp of Georgia—demonstrate how replicating the president’s contempt for science increases fatalities. DeSantis refused to order self-sheltering until April 2—by which time Florida was a burgeoning hotspot. Kemp waited until April Fool’s Day, having just learned—by his own mortifying account—that carriers of COVID-19 can remain asymptomatic. Eight Republican governors still eschew statewide orders; despite overwhelming evidence that quarantines are saving lives, Trump won’t direct them to act.

The proliferating body count generates fresh lines of agitprop which repeal his last. One day he proclaims himself a “wartime president.” The next he disclaims responsibility for shortages of testing and equipment. Amidst his ceaseless tsunami of deceptions he shifts blame to Barack Obama; or governors; or the media; or the Democrat’s “hoax” of impeachment; or imaginary profiteers within struggling hospitals who peddle or hoard fictitious surpluses. The villain depends on the day.

But the hero is always constant: Trump never rates his inhumane and criminally-derelict leadership less than a “10.”

And why would he? Between January and mid-March Trump proved that, in matters of life and death, his base will believe anything—until he tells them to believe something else.

So it was in 1984. No matter that, in Orwell’s telling, the existence of Big Brother may itself be a lie. He’s exactly who Trump wants to be.

Richard North Patterson

Richard North Patterson is a lawyer, political commentator and best-selling novelist. He is a former chairman of Common Cause and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.