The Super Bowl of Gaslighting

Super Bowl of Gaslighting (final)

If you live in the reality-based community, you may be unaware that in MAGA World there are millions of people who firmly believe that Donald Trump is a great humanitarian, a world-beating philanthropist, and a selfless benefactor of mankind.

I don’t mean amoral opportunists and cynics like Mitch McConnell who know Trump is a cretin but who have made a Faustian bargain. (Can you still call it that when both sides are the Devil?) I mean true believers who really think Trump is a wonderful man.

My handful of friends and acquaintances who are on that liquid diet of fluorescent purple Kool-Aid routinely regale me with tales of his generosity, his charitable donations, his acts of kindness, blah blah blah. Don’t bother sending these folks Snopes links debunking those fairy tales. As one woman told me when she refused to read what the non-partisan factcheckers had to say, “I like to make up my own mind.”

Not for these people the Donald Trump who had his charitable foundation shuttered by the state of New York for stealing money from children suffering from cancer. Fake news! No, their Trump is a latter day Albert Schweitzer who also knows more about ISIS than the generals and more about epidemiology than Anthony “Dr. Doom” Fauci with his fancy book learnin’.

Why these Americans are so willing to believe these salutary things about Donald in defiance of a Mt. Everest of evidence of his lifelong shittiness I don’t know. I do know that many of those same people think Barack Obama is the anti-Christ, so you do the math.

But if you’ll believe that Donald Trump has a heart of gold, you’ll believe anything…..including the howling lie that Trump has handled the COVID-19 pandemic like a champ. (Just ask him.) Because that is very much the narrative Trump and his amen corner in the right wing media are attempting to spin.

RASHOMON VS. REALITY

With the novel coronavirus pandemic we are witnessing what the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent called “one of the most monumental and destructive leadership failures in modern times—and the extraordinary lengths to which Trump’s propagandists are going to rewrite it as a spectacular triumph.”

Here’s the Post’s Max Boot with the truth:

(T)he coronavirus is the most foreseeable catastrophe in US history. The warnings about the Pearl Harbor and 9/11 attacks were obvious only in retrospect. This time, it didn’t require any top-secret intelligence to see what was coming.

The alarm was sounded in January by experts in the media and by leading Democrats including presumptive presidential nominee Joe Biden. Government officials were delivering similar warnings directly to Trump. A team of Post reporters wrote on Saturday: “The Trump administration received its first formal notification of the outbreak of the coronavirus in China on Jan. 3. Within days, US spy agencies were signaling the seriousness of the threat to Trump by including a warning about the coronavirus—the first of many—in the President’s Daily Brief.” But Trump wasn’t listening…..

Trump was first briefed on the coronavirus by Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar on Jan. 18. But, The Post writes, “Azar told several associates that the president believed he was ‘alarmist’ and Azar struggled to get Trump’s attention to focus on the issue.” When Trump was first asked publicly about the virus, on Jan. 22, he said, “We have it totally under control. It’s one person coming in from China.”

In the days and weeks after Azar alerted him about the virus, Trump spoke at eight rallies and golfed six times as if he didn’t have a care in the world.

Yet Trump would now have us believe, in his trademark Orwellian way, that he was on the forefront of the fight against this pandemic, and demands lavish praise for his “10 on a scale of 10” handling of it.

(Quickly checking my birth certificate. Nope, not dated yesterday.)

In an exhaustive account of the administration’s dysfunctional response, the New York Times recounts how Trump continued to ignore the warnings from all quarters while the federal government—that he had widely stripped of expertise and experience—did almost nothing to prepare.

Those 70 precious days that Trump squandered with his arrogance and his ignorance are the difference between the US and South Korea, which recorded its first COVID fatality the same day, but had a leadership willing and able to take decisive action. The contrast is etched in blood: Today the ROK is past the peak and on the mend, with just 232 deaths to show for it (a rate of five per million citizens). The US, by contrast, is still in the throes of the pandemic, harder hit than any other country on Earth, with over 40,000 deaths (123 per million) and still rising.

But Trump will have none of this. To flog his revisionist version of events, he recently took time out from what was supposed to be a public health briefing in order to play a campaign video allegedly showing how well he’s handled the crisis, a video made with taxpayer dollars (amateurishly so, it must be said), by administration staffers who might otherwise have spent that time fighting the pandemic.

The saddest part—available in the reportage from the Guardian—was Trump standing there watching it with the reporters, with a pouty little boy face, pointing at the screen as if to call their attention to it and say, “See? I am a hero!” (With a thought bubble over this head reading, “You fake news-reporting bastards.”)

FORGET IT, JAKE

One of the chief ways Trump is trying to deflect responsibility is by blaming China, with his nationalistic followers (including his lickspittle Lindsay Graham, who somehow manages to grow more odious by the day) quickly seconding the motion.

As with the best disinformation, there is just enough truth in here to sell the scam, and Bill Maher ain’t helping. But as Brian Stewart says, with the title of his recent Bulwark piece, “China Being Wrong Doesn’t Make Trump Right.”

China certainly does bear unforgivable blame for hiding the nascent crisis, lying about the extent of the problem, and stonewalling the rest of the world at a time when foreknowledge and preparation could have saved tens of thousands of lives all over the globe. All those sins were exacerbated by the authoritarian Xi regime….and ironically, are largely the same sins, and same authoritarian impulse, that Trump displays and admires.

But the administration’s fingerpointing at China makes a convenient distraction from its own grievous culpability, not to mention fueling racism and xenophobia (Trump’s go-to move), which hardly need any more gas here in the land of the free. Trump’s attempts to blame China ring especially hollow given that for weeks he was meekly reluctant to press Xi on what was going on for fear of offending him, in fact praising the Chinese….until it suited his purposes not to.

Of course, none of this should surprise us. This is who Trump is, precisely as Adam Schiff said in his powerful “Midnight in Washington” speech in the impeachment trial, and he will never change: “You can’t trust this president to do the right thing, not for one minute, not for one election, not for the sake of our country. You just can’t.”

KYLE SHANAHAN’S SOCIAL RESPONSIBLE PLAY-CALLING

I’ll concede that in the title of this piece my metaphor is slightly off. “Super Bowl” implies a contest between two evenly matched forces. (Unless it’s the Seahawks and Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII.) But what we are witnessing is not Trump and an opponent trading competing visions of an artificial reality; what we are witnessing is Trump frantically spinning his own false narrative in defiance of the facts, science, and empirical reality. If it’s a head-to-head NFL-style matchup, it’s Trump vs. The Truth.

But you get the idea.

Speaking of Super Bowls, as a 49ers fan I was heartened to read that epidemiologists now think that last year’s devastating 4th quarter collapse, in which the Niners blew a ten point lead in the final seven minutes, wound up saving thousands of lives by obviating a victory parade through densely packed downtown San Francisco. (“You’re welcome”—Kyle Shanahan.) It’s no joke: experts believe that the town of Bergamo, Italy became the hardest hit in all of that devastated country because of a Champions League match there on February 19th, in a stadium packed with 40,000 fans, many of whom had traveled from visiting Valencia and took the virus back with them to Spain.

In any case, California’s elected officials, including Governor Gavin Newsom, SF Mayor London Breed, and LA Mayor Eric Garcetti, deserve great praise for their quick and responsive handling of the pandemic, as evidenced by that enormously populous state’s relatively low death rate—around 1100 as of this writing, or just 29 per million—one of the lowest in the country. (Shanahan helped by failing to call a timeout at the end of the first half and barely running the ball in the second.)

But while we’re in the world of sports, temporarily paused though it is, let us stop for a moment to note another measure of the Awfulness of Donald Trump.

Trump has long coveted ownership of an NFL franchise, but has been blocked by the other team owners, which may be the only time I’ve ever rooted for that abhorrent group of gaseous plutocrats. (You can’t really blame them: he almost singlehandedly bankrupted and destroyed the USFL as owner of the New Jersey Generals, inspiring one of the most famous epistolary takedowns in sports history.) That grudge is part of why, as president, Trump waged war on Colin Kaepernick in order to hurt the NFL, along with his own virulent racism and fake patriotism, and the political advantage he gained in pandering to his neo-Confederate base.

It also gives you some idea of just what a hideous human being Trump is that even an elite club of racist, asshole billionaires are repulsed by him.

THE GREATEST SHOWMAN

Even now, while American are dying by the thousands, Trump remains concerned almost exclusively with how he looks, his approval ratings, and his own re-election prospects, all on display at his daily televised campaign rallies, er, I mean press briefings.

And the outrages keep on coming. A sample:

It was revealed that in the early days of the crisis, even as the White House was telling Americans not to wear masks, it was secretly ordering 3600 masks for its own use.

Trump threatened to exercise an arcane, never-before used provision of presidential power to adjourn both houses of Congress in order to push through recess appointments without the bother of confirmation by the Senate.

In an act of towering egotism and transparent pandering, Trump insisted that his own serial killer-like signature appear on the relief checks that are going out to almost every American. As the Washington Post’s Paul Waldman writes, this means that “the Internal Revenue Service—an agency that is already understaffed and overworked after years of budget cuts—is now devoting resources to implementing a public relations task meant to make Trump look good.”

Most Americans will get their money via direct deposit and be spared the sight of that scrawl, but still, some low-information citizens will uncritically assume that the money is Trump’s largesse—which is how he sees it too—or possibly even that it came out of his own pocket, rather than bipartisan Congressionally appropriated funds that he had little to do with. (See the top of this essay.) The sheer shamelessness of this ploy may cause it to backfire, however, as the mechanics of putting his name on the checks has delayed their issue. (I guess it took him longer to sign all those checks than he thought.)

On that same front, numerous outlets, including Vanity Fair and the investigative journalist David Cay Johnston, reported that the $2 trillion economic rescue package passed by Congress included provisions specifically tailored to go into the pockets of real estate developers like Trump and his son-in-law Jared “The Uncanny Valley” Kushner. Truly the Trump/Kushner kakistocracy knows no bounds, even in the midst of the worst public health crisis in 100 years. (Meanwhile, the WaPo’s Hugh Hewitt risibly defended Kushner. That Hewitt and the despicable Marc Thiessen are the best that the Post can manage for “credible” conservative commentators says it all about Team Trump.)

At the same time, the much vaunted Paycheck Protection Program ostensibly for small businesses proved so incompetently organized and managed (if not outright corrupt) that it ran out of money, though not before doling out most of its funds to companies that are not small by any reasonable measure, like Ruth’s Chris Steak House, which got $20 million dollars.

With the masks, the checks, the CARES bill, and the PPP, we see that Trump’s putative concern for so-called regular folks is a cruel joke. We keep hearing, “The virus doesn’t care if you’re rich or poor,” which is true medically speaking, and a rare leveler in this second Gilded Age. But viewed another way, it could not be more false: the statistics grimly show that the pandemic is hitting the poor, the economically disadvantaged and vulnerable, and people of color harder than anyone else. (Not a big shock.) And the government isn’t doing anything to counterbalance that.

In other words, the virus may not care if you’re rich or poor, but how well you are able to weather it does depend very much on your tax bracket.

Finally, in the latest not-from-the-Onion-but-could-be-from-the-Onion news, hundreds of angry, semiautomatic-weapon-toting, overwhelmingly white pro-Trump protestors—some waving Confederate flags—gathered in virus-welcoming throngs on the steps of state capitol buildings in Michigan, Minnesota, and Virginia to demand an end to shelter-in-place measures. In Lansing, they chanted “Lock her up!,” for no apparent reason other than those outlined in The Handmaid’s Tale, in reference to Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer, whom Trump had previously dismissed as “a woman governor.” As icing on the rancid cake, that Michigan astroturf protest turned out to have been organized by a group with links to the family of Betsy DeVos and her brother, Blackwater founder Eric Prince. Connections were also revealed to pro-gun groups, and it wouldn’t surprise me to see the Kremlin’s hand in it as well, much as it was in fomenting divisive rallies in 2016. In any event, the mentality of people who think they can fight a virus with AR-15s requires no comment. Every single thing about this reeks of the criminal stupidity of Trumpism, but above all the juvenile temper tantrum at being asked to make sacrifices, that a virus won’t bow to their will, and the impulse to blame it all on government and Democrats and a woman of course.

So naturally, the Trump administration jumped in to disavow this madness and call for the protestors to stand down.

Just kidding! One of Trump’s advisors, the submoronic Stephen Moore, called for “civil disobedience” (against his own administration?), telling Trump supporters to “protest against these government injustices” and be like Rosa Parks.

Who is rolling over in her grave.

Trump himself responded by tweeting LIBERATE MINNESOTA, LIBERATE MICHIGAN, and LIBERATE VIRGINIA in support of these batshit rallies. The man simply can’t help pandering to the very worst that this country can produce. As if to out Onion the Onion, he also remarked of these protestors carrying battlefield weapons and demanding reckless public health risks, “They seem to be very responsible people to me.”

Is he aware that he’s President, and his own staff created the guidelines that these troglodytes are screeching about? More to the point, are those troglodytes aware of it?

WILL TRUMP GET AWAY WITH THIS ONE TOO?

So apart from simple appreciation of the theater of the absurd, what’s the point of dwelling on Trump’s campaign to rewrite history and cast himself as our savior, rather than Typhoid Mary with a spray-on tan?

Only that it bears on the election. Which, for all his headspinning criminality, incompetence, negligence, rapaciousness, and general malpractice, Trump could still conceivably win.

Yes, by all reasonable metrics, Trump ought to lose in a McGovernesque landslide. He is bungling the response to the worst pandemic in a hundred years, one that has already killed 40,000 Americans, and also the worst economic disaster since the Great Depression as a direct consequence thereof, with commerce ground to a halt, the markets in freefall, and 22 million Americans out of work. (As if, even before all this, being the vassal of a foreign power wasn’t enough to doom him. Because, oh yeah, he also got impeached a couple months ago.)

And broken record time: while no one blames Trump for the coronavirus, we can rightly blame him for an epically horrific failure to respond in any kind of even marginally competent way, which has made matters infinitely worse than they had to be.

But while there is good reason to think he’s in big electoral trouble, Trump’s defeat is November is far from assured. After a brief “crisis bump” at the start of the pandemic—tellingly, far smaller than other world leaders got, or an American president normally would—Trump’s approval rating has dipped again….but only back to its regular level. We know that thus far it’s had a floor of about 40%, which is the point at which Kool-Aid hardens into concrete. (Scientific fact. Look it up.)

We keep hearing that this scandal is different than Pussygate, Russiagate, Group-of-SevenGate, Ukrainegate, and all the rest. We keep hearing that you can’t gaslight a virus, in the words of the very wise Charles Blow, and that is true. But it’s not the virus that needs to be gaslighted: it’s the American people. And we tend to suck up gas like mother’s milk.

Trump’s supporters long ago proved that they are impervious to reason, facts, and even their own self-interest, so don’t look for them to turn on him even when they lose their jobs, their savings, and their very lives. In the same way that they persist in believing he is a great philanthropist, I can readily imagine his myrmidons sticking with him all the way down into the mass grave, and dragging the rest of us along with them. And that, my friends, is the dictionary definition of a death cult.

As I still have my get-out-Internet-jail-free card when it comes to breaking Godwin’s Law, let me offer a simple comparison.

Plenty of Germans stood by a certain someone to the truly bitter end, even as their country was bombed to cinders, with Russian troops approaching from the east and Americans from the west, while their erstwhile leader cowered in a bunker poisoning his dogs and putting a pistol in his mouth and unwittingly providing fodder for an endless supply of Internet memes.

And these Germans did so not because Schicklgruber was a totalitarian and they were forced to, though some were. Millions of them did so willingly.

American exceptionalism notwithstanding, do we really imagine that the American people will be wiser, saner, or more humane, in circumstances that are not nearly so dire? The events of the past four years suggest we will not. I invite your attention once again to the aforementioned festival of Darwinian stupidity on the steps of the Michigan, Minnesota, and Virginia state capitols.

We have no idea how the election will play out and only a fool would try to predict it. This is a fluid, fast-moving environment with a crazy high optempo. Who, six weeks ago, imagined the state of the world today? Trump’s fortunes may fall if 100,000 to 240,000 Americans die, as he arbitrarily warned some weeks ago, or half a million or more, as some projections had it. Some pundits have suggested he was lowering expectations with that highball estimate, so that if it’s only 50,000 (only!) he can claim victory. The ultimate irony would be if we avoid the worst and his ass is saved thanks to the efforts of governors like Newsom, Cuomo, Murphy (of New Jersey) and Walz (of Minnesota).

But as of today we already have over 40,000 dead and are on track for something like 60,000, according to the latest dart-throw. To this layman’s eyes, watching the curve, it’s hard to think it won’t be far more….and that’s not even considering that the count is surely underreported due to sheer lack of testing. Living in New York, I know my share of people who have (or have had) the virus and not one of them had a test that would put them in the official count.

So, yes, in normal times, these circumstances would amount to electoral doom. But these are not normal times. And if there is one thing we ought to have learned in the past four years, it’s that Trump followers are unmoved by scandal that would have sunk any previous politician, by common sense, and even by objective reality itself.

Ask Hillary Clinton.

Perhaps the only true thing Donald Trump ever said had to do with gunplay on Fifth Avenue. So as the author Mort Rosenblum writes, “We are faced with two existential questions: Do sentient Americans outnumber the ignorant and the apathetic? And are Republicans so committed to their own interests that they are prepared to let this unhinged madman destroy their children’s world?”

This calculus does not even take into account the extreme lengths to which the GOP is going to exploit the pandemic as cover for further advancement of one-party rule in this nation, which we discussed last week. It was glorious to see their outrageous efforts to suppress the vote in Wisconsin fail, as voters of the Badger State chucked a Republican state Supreme Court justice out on his ear, the first time in 12 years that an incumbent had been removed from the Court, and another bad omen for Donald. For that very reason you can bet the GOP will try even harder next time.

But we showed in Wisconsin that we can beat them even when they cheat, and we can continue to do so if we stay focused, sound the alarm every time they try to pull this shit, and not let up the fight until Trump is frogmarched out of the Oval Office by US Marshals in January 2021.

THE CREEPY CRAWLIES

Finally we must note Trump’s claim last week, apropos of “re-opening the economy” (whatever that means), that “When somebody is president of the United States, your authority is total.”

We learned long ago that Trump hasn’t read the Constitution, if in fact he can read at all, so this typically arrogant overreach shouldn’t come as a surprise. But on the heels of his appalling March 13th Rose Garden denial of any responsibility at all for the current crisis, it says something about how lame he is even at his favorite thing, which is being the boss.

A slew of sharp-eyed observers immediately weighed in to lacerate him.

Charlie Sykes of the Bulwark writes: “There is something quintessentially Trumpian about the claim of total authority and zero responsibility. He alone can save us, he insists, but don’t blame him if he doesn’t.” Benjamin Wittes and Quinta Jurecic of Lawfare echo that in a piece for The Atlantic called “The Lazy Authoritarian,” saying, “Trump needs the optics of authoritarian assertiveness without any actual responsibility.” Comparing America’s would-be strongman to Hungary’s Viktor Orban, who may have gone further than any other despot in exploiting the pandemic, the LA Times’s Windsor Mann writes that, “As much as (Trump) would love to have dictatorial powers, he doesn’t want to put forth the effort necessary to seize them. Just as he inherited a fortune, he wants to inherit an autocracy.”

True to form, it didn’t take long for Trump to punt that “total authority” he had just grabbed and pass the responsibility for those decisions to the states—not because someone gave him an audiobook of the Constitution (read by Dennis Haysbert, presumably), but out of craven ass-covering. As the Washington Post reports:

Trump’s the-buck-stops-with-the-states posture is largely designed to shield himself from blame should there be new outbreaks after states reopen or for other problems, according to several current and former senior administration officials involved in the response who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.

OK, so as usual Trump has feet of clay. But just the mere speculation about “total authority” is fraught. Also in the Bulwark, Bill Kristol writes of the dangers of even purely “performative authoritarianism”……and worse, the dangers of those who don’t think it’s dangerous:

(O)ne thing that alarms me is how chic it is to be conspicuously not alarmed. If you want to be viewed as a sophisticated Trump critic—not one of those vulgar Never Trumpers—you’re allowed to be somewhat dismissive of, regretful about, or even at times contemptuous of Trump. But not alarmed. Alarmism is de trop.

I mean, after all: Why are your heads exploding just because the commander-in-chief—a man who seems not to understand anything about American government, or the Constitution, or the law—is claiming to have total authority at a moment when 23,000 Americans have died in the course of seven weeks from a pandemic this man did almost nothing to prepare for?

Such little children, with your exploding heads.

(Note that his figure of 23,000 deaths was just five days ago. It has nearly doubled since then.)

Kristol’s point is that this sort of too-cool-for-school dismissiveness is usually what precedes an authoritarian takeover. (They laughed at Hitler too, etc etc.) In the New Yorker, Masha Gessen makes the same point when she writes of “autocratic creep”:

At the end of the day, like at the end of so many days, all of Trump’s threats and claims can be normalized or chalked up to so much authoritarian hot air. This is exactly how autocracy works: it creeps in, staking one claim after another, but it does not firmly and finally announce its own arrival….

From the inside of a country, things generally don’t look as dire as they do from the outside, because conditions are quickly normalized, because people know that things can always get worse, and because modern-day autocrats don’t generally announce when they are usurping power….

(The pandemic has) created all the conditions for Trump to continue his autocratic attempt. The stories of dramatic power grabs elsewhere may also have dangled the hope that at least we will know when the worst has arrived. That is a false promise. The autocratic creep continues.

Our autocratic creep is in the White House, and he favors really long neckties.

*******

Illustration: The Ringer

Shanahan jokes courtesy of Eric LaFranchi, Anthony Weintraub, and Michael DeNola

4 thoughts on “The Super Bowl of Gaslighting

  1. Pingback: Live and Let Die

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