Presidents lead with words as much as deeds. When they lie, the damage done isn't only to their credibility. It's also a blow to the country they must mobilize when it faces new challenges. That's why journalism that reports on the impact of lies is no less important than the news stories that reveal them.
Imagine a tourist standing at a corner in Moscow 30 years ago, studying an official city map. It shows the avenue he's following but not the cross street, or even the park he's just passed. A visitor, understandably, would have been confused. A citizen of the former Soviet Union? Not at all. For 50 years, the KGB made sure cartographers falsified most all public maps, misplacing streets, rerouting rivers, and losing landmarks to fool the communist empire's enemies. Fessing up in 1988 to Izvestiya, the daily newspaper, Viktor Yashchenko, head of the Soviet Cartography Administration, said: "We received numerous complaints." Doubtless, no understatement there.
For most of the 20th century, Russians gave their leaders little to no credibility, and for good reason. Their lies affected every aspect of daily life. Humor made that clear. Take the Soviet economy's notorious shortages. "I hear on the radio we're producing enormous quantities of meat, milk, and butter," a Russian said, "but my refrigerator is always empty. What should I do?" His friend nodded. "Plug your refrigerator directly into the radio."
With President Trump's lies about the coronavirus (COVID-19) spreading as fast as its infections, Americans these days just might get the point.
For Americans in 2020, COVID-19 isn't the only domestic contagion. The consequences of a president who produces lies on an industrial scale is also coming home to roost. To their credit, many in the news media have tried hard to explain what's different about the only president in history whose prevarications have compelled journalists to create an electronic tote board to keep track. But for all their efforts, the news media have failed to report fully on the damage done by Trump's mendacity. That cost is becoming clear as the effects of Trump's lies exacerbate a global pandemic that is now becoming local coast to coast.
Let's stipulate that assessing the impact of political lies is tricky. For one thing, most Americans discount what they hear in politics, where spinning stories and eye-rolling exaggerations are par for the course. Epistemologists, the scholars who study what makes things true or valid, also could question the nature of political facts. For instance, Trump can create a parallel reality — say, his mythical Deep State — that, however goofy, justifies what he says and does for his true believers. And many psychiatrists assert Trump is certifiably off-center, with the symptoms of a pathological liar who, whatever his intentions, compulsively spews falsehoods rather than facts.
Nonetheless, the sheer volume of Trump's lies has created a motherload of mendacity ripe for research. Take the coronavirus. Considering the history of disease outbreaks, misleading statements are nothing new. Lies, mythmaking, and scapegoating have gone hand-in-hand with health calamities for centuries. From the 1350s, when the Black Death — the bubonic plague that killed a third of Europe's population — led to the murder of beggars, clerics, and Jews, to the Spanish Flu epidemic in 1918, when that era's America-firsters targeted new immigrants as its source, prejudice and politics have led so-called leaders to lay blame when disease has struck.
Trump's emissions have followed a similar pattern, albeit with 21st-century consequences. His disinformation and its impact on his own administration is a case in point. When a president says everything is under control and virus test kits are plentiful and COVID-19 is no worse than the flu, it's not just crazy Eddy mumbling at the end of the local bar. The news, of course, has contradicted Trump's pronouncements with the facts. But his misinformation has set back public health professionals struggling to communicate about the disease, damaging not only the government's effort to fight the virus, but also the public's attempt to understand its risks.
As if sowing disinformation from the Oval Office isn't enough, Trump also is greenlighting an effort to politically weaponize his lies about COVID-19 as a theme in his presidential campaign, as well as abroad. To be sure, from falsely blaming the Obama administration for stalled test kit development to calling the coronavirus a "Democratic hoax," Trump clearly is doing his personal part. But the prevarication is also spreading to his appointed officials who are supposed to be focused on the crisis. The cost is obvious: Instead of doing their jobs, they're showing up as his political flacks, including beyond the water's edge.
Appearing March 6 on Fox and Friends — Trump's favorite morning show, whose hosts are best known for their nonstop bootlicking — Secretary of State Mike Pompeo described the cause of the current pandemic as the Wuhan virus, not COVID-19. Despite his responsibilities as diplomat-in-chief to foster international cooperation in fighting the disease, Pompeo defended his loaded choice of the name, suggesting the virus was an affliction spawned by globalization and the machinations of the Chinese regime. The Trump stump speech applause line might play in Peoria; expect less clapping when U.S. officials seeking vital Chinese health data come calling in Beijing.
That Trump is impeding a global response to the pandemic isn't in question. Whatever the value of halting visitors from Europe, his Oval Office speech earlier this week banning travel from 26 countries and criticizing their officials for inaction stunned European Union leaders, who condemned both the steps and lack of even a courtesy call beforehand, much less consultation. Just like his rallies, Trump's xenophobia was hard to miss. In case anyone did, Fox News commentators, as usual, took their rip-and-read scripts straight from White House printers, parroting Trump's criticism as they praised his perfect pandemic-fighting prime-time address.
Even if Trump changes his tune, the confusion he already has sowed at home won't be undone. Thanks to his groundless assertions and reassurances, Trump's supporters are blaming the media for exaggerating the pandemic's threat rather than listening to the experts and examining the facts. Multiple polls this month reveal sharp partisan differences, with nearly twice as many Democrats as Republicans expressing concern over the virus. Logic suggests their personal actions will similarly vary, leading the skeptics to take fewer precautions to prevent infection and, in the process, threatening not only their health, but also others who are trying to stay safe.
Trump's failure to confront the public health challenge of the coronavirus honestly and openly will also exact a broader price. A president's credibility is a crucial part of his leadership role in protecting, as well as advancing, U.S. interests and Trump has done neither himself nor the country any favors. In a major survey of 37,000 people in 33 countries completed last October by the Pew Research Center, two-thirds of those polled said they had no confidence in Trump to do the right thing. In fact, Trump was viewed most negatively among five major world leaders, including Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping.
That was before COVID-19 took over the world's front page. Unfortunately for the United States, given Trump's abysmal performance, as well as prevarication from the beginning of the global health crisis, it's a safe bet he will have no trouble keeping his lock on last place in 2020, as well.
Don't stop now! Stay in the know with Kent Harrington's expert commentary on today's political landscape and on needed accountability.
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