Donald Trump has been here before. At the dawn of the 2000s, the Manhattan real-estate developer and short-fingered vulgarian was literally — as the New York Times would later document — the worst businessman in America, having lost more than $1 billion in one 10-year period.
But then, to paraphrase Dylan, you didn’t need an accountant to see which way the bottom line was blowing. The man had literally bankrupted casinos, the closest thing we have to a license to print money. And the banks had made him sell his airline and his yacht. Or you could just check out the late-night infomercial stuff Trump was trying to foist on consumers — Trump Steaks, Trump Vodka, and a Trump University where presumably you, too, could learn how to blow through a billion.
But rather than face reality, Donald Trump just invented a new one, with the help of a TV guru named Mark Burnett. To the millions of future voters who’d never read the Wall Street Journal but avidly watched NBC’s The Apprentice once it debuted in 2003, the man that banks wouldn’t touch with a 10-foot pole played America’s shrewdest CEO, and judged the business savvy of his competitors as if his own six business bankruptcies had never happened.
Now, with America in its worst crisis since the Civil War, with both a deadly pandemic and a second Great Depression, the man who rode that wave of as-seen-on-TV reality all the way to the White House is looking to pull off his greatest stunt yet. POTUS 45 hopes that by pretending he’s a wartime president at the helm of the great American economic and spiritual comeback, no one will notice the rising death counts or the ever-longer lines at food banks.
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Imagine if FDR had responded to Pearl Harbor by waiting a few weeks to proclaim that Hawaii is OPEN FOR BUSINESS!, without ever declaring war on Japan, let alone attempting the hard work of mobilizing the nation for war, and you can grasp some sense of the virtual-reality goggles that Trump is hoping to wrap around America between now and Nov. 3.
The president — who, as I write this on a Sunday morning, is proudly tweeting that his California golf course is reopening, just two days after the government released the worst unemployment report since it started keeping those statistics — is essentially proclaiming “Mission Accomplished” with everything but the aircraft carrier. But at least George W. Bush, in invading Iraq (under false pretenses, but I digress ...), actually tried to do something.
Trump is declaring victory and moving forward even as we learn that offers to make the masks that our health-care workers desperately need were turned down, promises to have coronavirus tests for every American were clearly not made in good faith, and actual guidelines from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were basically quashed because it would have spoiled the “America is open for business” narrative that has no basis in science.
So what’s the president’s plan? That all depends on what your definition of the word “plan” is. In the sense of marshaling the vast power and accumulated knowledge of federal agencies from the CDC to the Pentagon to increase the production of protective gear and the availability of tests, offer clear guidance on keeping the public safe, and to use the bully pulpit of the White House to offer empathy for the dead and urge sacrifice from the living? There is no plan for that. A plan to flood the zone with baseless optimism, a false definition of bravery, and tons of baloney while the star of TV’s The Apprentice plays pretend-president in the role of a lifetime? That’s already here.
“The plan is to have no plan, to let daily deaths between one and three thousand become a normal thing, and then to create massive confusion about who is responsible — by telling the governors they’re in charge without doing what only the federal government can do, by fighting with the press when it shows up to be briefed, by fixing blame for the virus on China or some other foreign element, and by ‘flooding the zone with [bleep],’ Steve Bannon’s phrase for overwhelming the system with disinformation, distraction, and denial ...,” wrote my friend Jay Rosen, the New York University professor and media critic, in a short piece that arguably offers the best look at where we are right now.
Rosen sees the “plan” as creating so much confusion that the average person no longer knows what to believe. In many ways, this is the culmination of years of noise about “fake news” and journalists as “the enemy of the people,” and the ultimate fulfillment of the 1985 prediction by another NYU media critic, Neil Postman (coincidentally, Rosen’s mentor), that America was on a path to replace civic discourse with TV-entertainment values and “amusing ourselves to death.”
Sunday morning’s Washington Post described Trump as “glum and shell-shocked,” not at the notion of so many Americans trying to cope with the sudden loss of a loved one, or struggling to put food on the table, but because the pandemic has ruined his reelection campaign. But the nation’s narcissist-in-chief does have a strategy for saving, well, himself. Here’s some of the appalling things it involves.
Numb Americans to the idea of mass death. Trump briefly flirted with the idea that he’d reinvent himself as “the war president” who’d defeat “the Invisible Enemy” of COVID-19, but with the death toll barely budging — it’s currently rising in the rest of America outside of New York — the new concept is how to stop worrying and love the virus, or at least get used to a long-term relationship. “The worst-case scenario with coronavirus is not mass death. It’s that people come to accept mass death — to accept that someone will die in the U.S. every 30 seconds as ‘just how it is,’” writes Brian Kahn for Gizmodo, adding: “They have turned the idea we should avoid the Bad Thing — namely, the needless deaths of thousands of Americans — on its head, arguing we should embrace it full-on and just plow forward with reopening the country.”
No wonder we’re starting to see straight-outta-Nuremberg eugenics-type stuff from “respectable” politicians like outgoing GOP Pennsylvania House Speaker Mike Turzai, who this weekend was tweeting stats about how many of his state’s residents who died had preexisting conditions like heart disease or hypertension, the not-so-subtle implication being that these folks were already “goners” so let’s hurry up and reopen Banana Republic and Applebee’s. The rising notion that COVID-19 only affects either the old, black, and brown folks doing the “essential work” that’s beneath white people, or immigrants in meat plants but not “normal Americans” is some of the worst nonsense I’ve ever seen. People with heart disease are now cannon fodder for capitalism.
Play the victim and blame, blame, blame. Why suffer the political fallout from ignoring 70 days of detailed warnings about the coming pandemic and failing to manufacture and order enough masks or test kits when you can paint yourself as the victim of a sinister plot by Communist China to unleash the coronavirus, or by your predecessor Barack Obama because, well, I actually don’t know why. However, I did see #Obamagate trending in the middle of the night this weekend, which is prime time at the headquarters of the Internet Research Agency in St. Petersburg, Russia. Meanwhile, bizarre internet conspiracy theories that COVID-19 was a “plandemic” somehow sponsored by Bill and Melinda Gates entered heavy rotation on YouTube, especially in the swing states of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania.
In that sense, Thursday’s stunning-actually-not-stunning news that William “Here’s My Roy Cohn” Barr’s Justice Department says it has no case against a close Trump associate, retired Gen. Michael Flynn — even though Flynn ALREADY PLEADED GUILTY to lying to the FBI — is one more piece of Team Trump’s grand jigsaw puzzle. It is the realization of the president’s infamous statement that “what you’re seeing and reading is not what’s happening,” that a massive scandal and cover-up with 37 indictments and the conviction of key Trump aides is just like the coronavirus, the result of a “Deep State” and others seeking to deny Trump and his “deplorable” voters legitimacy.
Freedom = Death, literally. Even George Orwell is probably spinning in his grave at the way commonsense public health advice from America’s top experts is quickly being recast as a war against your personal freedom and liberty. Increasingly, the arrogance from the very top — with Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, and their closest aides refusing to wear masks, with the zeal of authoritarian strongmen desperate not to show “weakness,” despite a current outbreak in the White House — is meant to boost the message that white middle-class folks who shop and go bowling in the face of the rising death count are the heroic “warriors” of the president’s World War III against a nonsentient virus.
Not surprisingly, this message is speeding the rapid unraveling of America’s social fabric right at the moment when we should be coming together in caring and empathy. There has already been violence, even murder, over whether folks should wear masks, as the experts recommend, or follow the death-defying example of Dear Leader. This weekend, a store in Simi Valley, Calif. — also home to a) Ronald Reagan’s library, and b) the acquittal of Rodney King-beating cops — barred masks, encouraged hugs, and proclaimed: “We’re open — to the truth.”
Clearly, there are millions of Americans willing to drink the Clorox to wash down Trump’s freedom fries of death. Despite that, Trump’s only goal in all of this — not to save American lives or get relief to needy Americans, God no — which is to eke across the finish line in November may prove a little harder than racking up killer ratings in season one of The Apprentice. Recent polls have shown a sharp drop in support for the president among older Americans, a key bloc that supported him in 2016. Maybe that’s because so many folks in the 65-and-over crowd know someone who died, or nearly died, from the virus. Death is the one state of reality that no one knows how to alter.
But Election Day is still nearly six long months away. With Trump determined to stick to his performative presidency, and with a real leader nowhere in sight, those of us who care more about the truth than Trump’s fatalistic brand of “freedom” are going to see more people needlessly pass away, and more everyday ex-workers denied what they need to survive — more normalization of death and despair. And so who will be the last American to die for Trump’s narcissistic TV-reality shtick?