President Donald Trump at a press briefing about coronavirus testing in the Rose Garden of the White House on Monday in Washington, DC.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images
  • President Donald Trump, unable to get the novel coronavirus under control, is going to declare victory anyway. Then he's going to pretend the problem simply doesn't exist despite a rising national death toll.
  • This is what incompetent authoritarians do when they have problems. They try to bend reality using lies and propaganda.
  • The problem with this strategy, when it comes to the coronavirus, is that many Americans won't have the luxury of joining Trump in his fantasy. They'll be too busy trying to keep one another alive.
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
  • For more stories go to www.BusinessInsider.co.za.

President Donald Trump has found a way forward for his administration in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, and it comes straight from the Soviet playbook.

It looks like this: Declare victory over a problem, and then lie and obfuscate no matter how clear it becomes that the problem still remains.

That's it. That's the plan, if you can call it a plan. To be more accurate you might call it a performance. Trump is acting out a reality alternate to the one that exists before the eyes of many Americans, and his gamble is that the performance will be so strong - helped along by the instruments of his office and surrogates in politics and the media - that Americans will leave the reality they see and join his fantasy.

This imposition on reality is something you see more often in totalitarian regimes like the Soviet Union, where leaders also use the threat of violence to reinforce their narratives. It's a magical thinking that allows leaders to abdicate their responsibility to take care of society and focus only on hoarding political power. Now Trump is using it to avoid the painful work of governing during a pandemic.

It will be a difficult task. With over 80,000 Americans dead from Covid-19 and hot spots reappearing in China, Singapore and South Korea, we are starting to see that this virus will not give up without a fight. It will be a fight many will be unable to wish away.

Declaring victory mid-pandemic

The White House declaration of victory over coronavirus is upon us. In a press conference on Monday, Trump said that the United States had "prevailed" in ramping up testing and congratulated his administration on its accomplishments. Soon, he told reporters, every American who wants to get a test can get a test - a promise he made back in March that has yet to be fulfilled.

For weeks Trump has been pressing aggressively for the country to reopen economically, even though the White House's own projections see cases continuing to rise through the month of May. And already the Trump administration is trying to decide on a "final death count" (though people are still, and will still be, dying of Covid-19).

The cover-up of the Trump administration's pitiful handling of the coronavirus is upon us too. The White House tried to block key members of the White House coronavirus task force, like Dr. Anthony Fauci, from testifying about the pandemic response. This after a whistleblower filed a complaint accusing the administration of downplaying the coronavirus from the beginning, and failing to adequately prepare in the early stages of the pandemic.

During his testimony, Dr. Fauci told Sen. Elizabeth Warren point blank: "If you think we have it [coronavirus] under control, we don't." This is the kind of display - a kind of injection of reality - that the White House was trying to prevent.

The failures continue. The White House developed guidelines for states so they can determine when to reopen, but some states are opening even though the guidelines haven't been met. Based on his own office's actions, though, it's clear Trump couldn't care less. Last month The White House shelved a more detailed and rigorous step-by-step guide from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention for how to open safely, according to the Associated Press. Those guidelines were supposed to be released last Friday, but the White House thought they were too stringent.

All of this denial just adds danger to this disaster. It will only make those who accept Trump's fantasy much more cavalier with their health and the health of those around them.

What should be a federally-coordinated effort to get all 50 states through this pandemic, guided by public health officials working with the facts at hand, has become a political litmus test for loyalty to Trump. In Congress - the branch meant to have oversight over the government - the GOP is complaining that the creation of a coronavirus oversight committee is a partisan witch hunt against the president.

Americans - who are seeing millions of jobs get destroyed and are making massive sacrifices to get through the pandemic - apparently don't have the right to ask questions about what went wrong in the initial response to the outbreak. Facts are not welcome here.

Dreams of a demagogue

What Trump is doing is exactly what incompetent autocrats do when they don't have solutions. They pretend the problem doesn't exist.

Trump can't get the coronavirus under control. He doesn't have the tolerance for pain, work ethic or skill to deal with this. Neither do most of the rest of the people working for him.

He'd rather be golfing, so he's going to construct a reality where he can get back to doing just that. That reality will then be passed to us through White House briefings and Fox News and other right-wing media. They will continue to insist that the belief or disbelief of the pandemic's severity is a political act, rather than a factual matter.

This reality distortion phenomena works in authoritarian nations because governments have the power to impose their version of events on society. While Trump has only partial control over the media and Congress, authoritarians have full control over the media and the levers of power. With those tools in hand authoritarians can ensure that any other account of what transpired is simply not given any oxygen, no matter how true it may be. Citizens are forced to accept a reality that contradicts what they're seeing right in front of their faces because they have no choice.

The Soviets succeeded in imposing their reality on society by weaving the ideology of into the fabric of every day life. Everything was seen through a political lens. Children were taught to emulate Stalin-era folk heroes, who's great acts of valour were turning in their own family members if they showed signs of wavering from the Communist Party. Holidays were all political - just a means to reinforce the regime's ideology and box out opposing narratives.

And this imposition of reality mostly worked, even when it came to massive events. It allowed Josef Stalin to hide an empire-wide famine that killed 5 million people across the Soviet Union in 1932 and 1933. Statistics were altered, the media (even foreign correspondents) made no noise, and citizens were scared to talk about it.

"Officially, there was no famine," William Henry Chamberlin, the Moscow correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor at the time said, but "to anyone who lived in Russia in 1933 and who kept his eyes and ears open, the historicity of the famine is simply not in question."

Of course, there are events that transcend this subjugation of material fact. The Soviets tried to use their reality distortion field during the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, for example, but the problem was simply too big for them to lie away.

In the coming months we'll see how many Americans are sucked into Trump's version of that reality distortion field.

He has taken the autocratic step of making the coronavirus political, thus injecting politics into everyday life in a way most Americans have never experienced. He's using textbook tricks to confuse people about what's going on; like questioning the coronavirus death toll, blaming China for all his failures, and refusing to acknowledge issues with supplies at hospitals around the country.

Trump claimed that he's the "king of ventilators." In reality he's the emperor of wearing no clothes.

Certainly some, Trump's most devoted supporters, will join his reality simply because they want to. It won't matter what's going on around them. The rest of this country, though, will have to square what Trump has said and done (or is saying and doing) with the world around them - with a rising national death toll, and with sick friends, neighbours and relatives they're worried about.

They'll have to wear masks, keep washing their hands, and work from home if they're lucky enough to be able to. Their day to day lives will change until there's a coronavirus vaccine, no matter what Trump says or does.

So for some Americans joining Trump's coronavirus-free fantasy will not be an option. "Reality," a former president said in a time that seems long, long ago, "has a way of asserting itself."

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