So far, Trump has lied about coronavirus a lot, and always to make it seem like things are better than they are.
Trump lied when he said the number of Americans infected with coronavirus was declining even as health officials told him and the public the truth about it rising. He lied when he said there were enough coronavirus tests for every American even when Vice President Mike Pence ― who’s leading the administration’s response ― said that wasn’t true, and he lied when he blamed the shortage of tests on former President Barack Obama. He lied when he compared a year’s worth of influenza deaths to a few months’ worth of coronavirus fatalities in an effort to mislead Americans about the severity of the new disease.
When the number of Americans dying from this virus grows, everyone is going to notice. Everyone is also going to notice the increasing disruption of their daily lives as schools and businesses close, Americans miss work because they’re ill or afraid of getting sick, and as the economy suffers.
And people are paying attention. More than 90% of Americans have heard about coronavirus, according to a survey by Public Opinion Strategies, a Virginia-based pollster. “This has already become one of the top news events of the last decade in terms of Americans’ familiarity,” according to a statement from the firm.
Nobody yet knows how far coronavirus will spread in the United States nor how many people will get seriously ill or die. A handful of domestic fatalities have already occurred, and, if the experiences of other countries suffering worse outbreaks to date are any guide, there will be more. There are more than 100,000 reported cases of COVID-19 worldwide, and the death toll is approaching 4,000.
Countries with more severe coronavirus outbreaks than in the United States are already taking increasingly drastic measures to stop the spread ― measures that may soon be needed in the U.S.
As of Monday, the entire nation of Italy is locked down as authorities attempt to slow the advance of the virus throughout the country and the rest of Europe. Public events like sports matches and public spaces like museums are closed. There are approximately 60 million people in Italy who have been instructed to self-quarantine, which is equivalent to the combined populations of California and Florida. Covering up that much upheaval would be challenging, even for Trump.
Trump and his surrogates can try to keep lying about it, but it’s much easier to trick people into thinking that positive economic indicators during Obama’s presidency were fake, that Trump’s margin of victory against Hillary Clinton in 2016 was larger than it was, or even that the crowd at his inauguration was bigger than Obama’s.
The president’s lies about Obama and Clinton before and during the 2016 presidential campaign were too varied and numerous to count. As president, he’s lied about his vaunted wall at the U.S.-Mexico border. And, of course, he lied about Russia and Ukraine.
Those lies, and the many more like them, are qualitatively different from his lies and misinformation about coronavirus. They can be viewed as political in nature, and, even though proving the falseness of those claims isn’t difficult, Trump supporters have demonstrated a willingness to reject any facts that contradict Trump’s untruths and a hostility toward anyone who challenges them.
That’s because about half the country is primed to take Trump’s word over that of Democrats or the news media or anyone with actual expertise. It’s also because things like jobless numbers or crowd sizes are abstractions.
But there’s nothing abstract about human suffering compounded by a president who’s either in denial or so maniacally focused on his reelection that he’d rather lose a few citizens that admit things have taken a bad turn. There’s nothing abstract about a dead family member, friend, neighbor, co-worker or acquaintance.
What’s more, coronavirus is hitting some of Trump’s staunchest supporters. Reports that an attendee at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington last month has been diagnosed with COVID-19 has already caused four Republican lawmakers who attended to self-quarantine.
One of those is Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), who just last week tried to carry on the failing effort by Trump and his allies to label coronavirus a hoax by mockingly wearing a gas mask on the House floor. Trump and several members of his administration also attended CPAC.
Viruses don’t care who you voted for in 2016, and only the most committed Trump supporters may be able to convince themselves that his administration’s bungled response to the coronavirus outbreak didn’t happen once the funeral notices start coming in.
Even China’s authoritarian regime is learning the limits of propaganda and falsehoods amid an infectious disease outbreak. Perhaps, as Americans witness a rising death toll, coronavirus will teach Trump the same lesson.