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Trump’s Unreality Forcefield

A new interview makes clear that the president is unwilling or unable to understand the threat of the pandemic.
August 4, 2020
Trump’s Unreality Forcefield

During the Obama years, Republican politicians and conservative pundits obsessed over President Obama’s unwillingness to say three magic words: radical Islamic terrorism. It was a phrase that launched a million think pieces and cable segments and hackneyed applause lines from presidential hopefuls.

As Donald Trump came to reveal, for many Republicans these magic words were little more than a stand-in for their desire to hear “Brown People Bad.” But in polite company a more sophisticated argument was proffered. The logic was that a president cannot defeat a foe that he is unable to recognize. And if the president won’t say that our foe is radical Islam then he doesn’t really know who the foe is or what the scale of the threat is and thus will be unable to defeat it.

In the case of Obama and radical Islamic terrorism, that argument was largely hogwash. Obama did know the foe but he had separate concerns—concerns that, given his successor, we now know many of us on the right should’ve taken much more seriously—about the demonization of Islam.

But here’s the thing: The logic of the argument was sound, if inapt, and it very much applies to President Trump’s handling of COVID-19, in ways that were on full display yesterday, in his tweets and in a long-awaited interview with Axios reporter Jonathan Swan that was released in full.

They all show that President Trump is fundamentally incapable of recognizing the true nature of what he calls the “invisible enemy.”

His malignant narcissism means that he is consumed by the need for constant praise. He is completely incapable of giving a shit about whether Americans are dying, since it’s so much less important than whether people are nice to him on TV.

Then there’s the selective info he receives from his diet of Fox News propaganda, phone calls with random golfing buddies, and F-list aides who coddle him with happy talk and cherry-picked data.

On top of that is his tendency to put his finger in his ears and scream “la la la la la” when someone tries to break through his forcefield of bullshit by telling the truth on one of the propaganda shows he watches.

In two incidents yesterday this willful ignorance was on full display. First was his shameful tweet calling Deborah Birx—an adviser who has gone out of her way to feed his need for happy talk—“pathetic” for simply stating the facts about how the virus has reached community spread in more rural parts of America. Birx wanted to encourage more diligent adherence to social-distancing guidelines, thus protecting a population that is largely made up of the president’s supporters. People who, you would think, he would have an interest in not dying.

Then in an absolutely devastating exchange with Jonathan Swan, Trump thinks he has his interlocutor nailed when he provides charts that his staff has prepared about the percentage of COVID-19 deaths relative to the number of cases in the United States. On this largely worthless metric, the country appears to be doing well. Swan presses Trump on the more relevant metric, the number of deaths per capita and Trump is completely confused. He can’t even follow the premise of this very basic argument because he is an ignoramus who was either not prepped or simply refuses to acknowledge the troubling data provided to him.

Like a child, Trump lashes out at Swan—“you can’t do that”—when the reporter tries to break through his unreality forcefield.

Watch the whole thing—this exchange starts around 13:00:

This is willful ignorance in vivo. And people are dying because of it.

Earlier in the interview Swan practically begs Trump to take responsibility for leading the fight against this virus and he won’t do it. Here’s the exchange (starting around 7:00 in the video above):

SWAN: They don’t listen to me or the media or Fauci, they think we’re fake news. They want to get their advice from you. And so when they hear you say “everything’s under control, don’t worry about wearing masks,” I mean, these are people—many of them are older people, Mr. President—it’s giving them a false sense of security.


TRUMP: I think it’s under control.

SWAN: How? A thousand Americans are dying a day.

TRUMP: They are dying that’s true. It is what it is. . . .

“It is what it is”?!

Trump simply does not care about the casualties befalling our country at the hands of this “invisible enemy” because he doesn’t recognize the virus as the real enemy. He sees Birx as the enemy for undermining the phony story he’s trying to perpetrate. He sees Swan as the enemy for asking challenging questions.

This is a depraved, insane, and illogical misreading of the threats that face him and the country. America’s actual foe is radical covid-nineteen. It is a foe that’s terrorizing the country Trump leads, leaving mass death in its wake.

The president is unwilling to acknowledge its true scale.

And since he can’t recognize it, he can’t defeat it.

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.