The forced monotone of Donald Trump’s public address to the nation on March 12 was a striking contrast from his most recent State of the Union address. He sought to calm the nation as it faced the pandemic of the novel coronavirus COVID-19 in what was perhaps his most important public address. On the verge of breaking beneath the gravity of circumstances that spun far out of his control, however, rather than show his customary confidence, Trump seemed a President scrambling and in panic mode trying to rehearse stale tropes, but immobilized by events.
President Trump tried to look as presidential as possible, re-inhabiting a role of authority that he had long disdained, as he was forced to address a nation whose well-being he was not in control. The national narrative, as it was begun by WHO’s declaration of a pandemic, was perhaps seen as a narrative which seemed to spin out of his control, below his eyes, as he tried to calm markets by addressing the nation in what he must have imagined to have been as reassuring tones as he could summon. With his hands grasped but thumbs flickering, as if they were a fire under which he sat, as if he were wriggling like a kid strapped in the back seat of a car where he was a passenger to God-knows-where, wrestling with the increasing urgency that his aides demanded he address the outbreak of the virus in the United States that he had long tried to deny. Serial flag-waving continued to fuel President Trump’s attacks on China and the World Health Organization, as if trying to toe the line of adherence to America First policies of nationalism before a global catastrophe, that did not compute. If America First as a doctrine allows little room for empathy, affirming national greatness and the importance of a logic of border closures was all he could offer, and would be predictably lacking reassurance or empathy as he attempted to create a connection at a defining moment of his Presidency, but looked particularly pained.
If Trump rarely trusted himself to make hand gestures as he plighted through the speech, thumbs flickering, hands clasped, he every so often seemed distinctly out of synch with his austere surroundings, gold curtains drawn to reveal two flags, barely aware, perhaps, that the eyes of the world were very much on his performance in this new sound studio to which he was not fully accustomed, trying to explain that he had undertaken measures that had made us safe, even if he must have been worrying that the lack of worry he had been projecting and urging in previous weeks had risen across the nation, and his performance was not calming them at all. He was tasked with describing the vulnerability of the nation to the novel coronavirus whose effects he had downplayed repeatedly, but was no longer able to dismiss, and no longer able to concede posed a far greater threat to the American economy than the danger of “illegal” migrants he had so often pointed to as a cause of national decline: the virus that had already crossed our borders repeatedly, since the first cases of COVID-19 were diagnosed in San Jose and Seattle, would potentially bring down his presidency, and he lacked any ability to explain the scale of the effects of the virus that he had effectively helped release by ignoring warning signs.
The link of America to the world defined in his America First candidacy–even made the very identification of a pandemic difficult to process. And he did so in the starkest national backdrop possible, vaunting his closing of borders, suspension of “flights” from China, and ties to Europe–even as he encouraged Americans to return from abroad, and had allowed unmonitored entrance of Europeans and world travelers into New York that would make it the site of the entrance of the disease to the majority of American cities where the viral load arrived, with over 900 people entering America through New York daily for months after China suspended travel from Wuhan on January 23–after China called the outbreak “controllable” on New Year’s Eve. The declaration that echoed the concerns of the World Health Organization may have been buried in global celebrations, even as Trump blamed it for starting a sense of false complacence before undeniably “real” news that he feared would come to define his Presidency.
Trump was unable to accept declarations of the World Health Organization had just called the coronavirus outbreak–an outbreak which, we now know, he had in fact been hearing alerts from American intelligence as early as November 17, about the outbreak of cases of the novel coronavirus in Hubei province, rather than January, when initial infections in the United States were reported. As much as Trump found it difficult to admit the vulnerability of the United States to a global pandemic–or to the recommendations issued by WHO–who set the caduceus that symbolized medical ethics authority over the North American continent–at which he bristled at the notion of a global scope of edicts across boundaries, as if a map where national divides were erased as if it compromised national authority for a disease the President has been uncannily persistent in localizing in China, even before an increasing preponderance of evidence of its global circulation and transmission over a series of months.
As cascading fears grew in markets across the world, Trump was perhaps forced to realize his new relation to the world, even as the German stock exchanges plummeted as the measures he announced seem either difficult to process, or failing to address the importance of maintaining trade ties–or of taking adequately prudent steps of public health.
Slumping in his seat at the Resolute Desk, perhaps contemplating how no predecessor had ever delivered on air unprepared remarks from the desk, and visibly discomfited in doing so. He must have hoped to make up for his televised performance by sending surrogates scrambling to social media, issuing clarifications for misstatements–as the exemption offered U.S. citizens to return from China, or the exemption of Ireland, as well as England, and an assurance that trade would “in no way be affected” by the ban, as markets had reacted poorly to his performance. While it seemed that Trump was cognitively unable to process the possibility of a crumbling American economy–and a decline of America’s place in a global economy–under his watch, a prospect faced since he had met with airline executives with whom he discussed the effects of stopping flights of foreign nationals from China in a March 4 meeting, offering them a bailout that limited the impact economic effects of heightened travel advisories, is it possible he had no sense of the massive fallout on the national economy?
As Trump spoke, global markets not only failed to register confidence–but plummeted, as he revealed no clear plans to to call for social distancing to contain the spread of the virus, and revealed that lack of national preparation for confronting an infectious disease that had no vaccine. He may have remembered that he had outright fired a former cabinet member, barely remembered in the rogue’s gallery of administration, Tom Bossert, who had demanded preparedness “against pandemics” and a “comprehensive biodefence strategy” of the sort the previous administration of Pres. Barack Obama had tried to institute, or that a simulation of a pandemic that could devastate the American economy and kill up to half a million revealed in October 2019 “just how underfunded, underprepared and uncoordinated the federal government would be for a life-or-death battle with a virus for which no treatment existed.”
It seems likely he was rather trying to conceal the massive scale of lying to the nation about the effects of an economic downturn unprecedented in scale, but which the increased lines at Wuhan’s Tianyou Hospital the previous November had already indicated had a problem of infectious diseases on their hands that would have a potentially global consequence. Trump tried to spin the consequences as purely local, in an unprecedented wishful thinking whose scale of deception far exceeded the pathological deceits he had long taken to perpetrate on investors, business partners, and even on family members–from hiding his older brother’s treasured trucks that were a Christmas gift and then admonishing him not to cry, or he would destroy them before his eyes. Even as satellite imagery showed a clear rush to hospital emergency rooms in Wuhan in November, as clusters of cars marked in red crowded the emergency rooms that revealed “a steep increase in volume starting in August 2019 and culminating in a peak in December 2019,” when China began epidemiological investigations that led to identifying and sequence of the novel coronavirus by January 12, ten days before the city went on lockdown to contain its spread.
While Trump registered no alarm at the arrival of the very pandemic whose global impact American simulations feared would cripple the national economy, he tried to offer spin on having closed borders to the virus, as if it were not already diffused within the country, in a mind over matter sort of exercise that suggested limits purchase on reality, as if he was able to recognize the risk earlier administrations had identified as a national priority.
Did Trump really believe, as he would later claim, that he had been the first to impose travel restrictions from China in the face of the pandemic? Forty other nations not only beat him to it, but he had not only failed to isolate the nation from the virus’ spread, but perpetuated an idea that the decision to “cut off China” saved lies. The lack of orientation reveals a low level of commitment in assembling the rushed draft of the address with Kushner, Stephen Miller, and Pence, without any members of his Coronavirus Task Force, assembled almost until the moment Trump went on air, which read as if his problem was able to be reeduced to increasing the border as a preventive barrier.
Perhaps he had never wanted to give this speech. The behind-the-scenes picture that emerged in the Washington Post revealed a leader who, while starting the second Oval Office address of his Presidency, not only failed to share it with the members of the Coronavirus Task Force, but had resisted the address, was in a foul mood, and included many gaffes–from asserting that ht eUnited States “first” banned travel to China to asserting that the rates of infection were low at home–inaccurate low numbers of infections and death promoted false confidence–and incorrectly conveying the impression that all flights were suspended from Europe–even as in limiting restrictions to foreign nationals, Trump encouraged a broad re-entry of infected Americans, often through crowded airports, across the nation. If confirmed cases were low, he had clearly not grasped the magnitude of the threat, and projected much of his discomfort in undertaking the address by grousing to his aids over a stain on his shirt, that seems to have been concealed by keeping the jacket tight around his girth.
While he had kept the virus at a distance in public remarks before March, viewing its spread in the lens of a narcissist as a motivated attack against his political fortunes, politicized by Democrats to advantage, but a hoax and fundamentally fake news, fears of the newly declared pandemic entering the United States assumed new concreteness–given the skepticism with which he approached all medical advice, and laissez faire attitude toward public health–in a map of airline flights–the only optic of globalization he would be able to process or allow. Would the virus allow itself to travel to the United States not from the southern border, but on flights from either Europe, where it ran rampant, or from Wuhan, Tokyo, and Beijing?
The possibility of an industry-wide free fall was perhaps placed on his front plate, but the potential collapse of the airline industry, from which he tried to find some silver lining, suggested the clearest problems that COVID-19 would strongly effect the United States–and shape the economic profile of the country, as airlines announced new plans to maintain surface cleanliness in planes, misreading the dangers of contracting coronavirus as the subject on which he had to reassure the nation. (The airlines would be seen as vital to the nation in coming months, as he championed “a great plan for the airlines” able to “keep the airlines going” in mid-April, juggling balls of the economy, while never admitting responsibility for its spread.
The deep dissonance between undermining a policy of public health care that had been a pillar of his political platform–with projection of all danger on immigration from south of the border–left little logical room to confront the novel coronavirus whose spread Americans increasingly feared. Having excavated the hopes for a public health program and international commitments to health, Trump shifted to demonize the virus as coming from abroad–“a foreign virus”?–already in the ecosystem of alt right news, and sought to calm markets into faith in the fundamental security of the economic system. Rather than challenge his notion of the security of the border, the border-crossing virus only
The relative complacence with which he faced COVID-19 may have burst after three American airlines–Delta, American, and United–all promptly halted flights to China, after meeting with other airline executives with Trump on March 4, was their decision possibly in response to Trump’s limited stoppage of airplane flights of foreign nationals from China, even as he raised an elevated travel advisory? Or was it their response to the massive bailout that they had just secured. Having made them happy, Trump tried to turn his attention to the nation, but foregrounding in coming days a sudden fear of economic collapse: “we do not want airlines going out of business, we do not want people losing their jobs and not having money to live when they were doing well four weeks ago”. Trump proclaimed, foreseeing an end to the new “invisible war” that metastasized before his eyes, promising money would be “on the way, . . . now, in the next two weeks,” as if suddenly contemplating the scale of economic collapse.
Panic had quickly set in days before the attempt to rally the nation. Did Delta, American, and United already realize the risks that continuing such flights ran? While no one stopped valuable revenues of flights to Hong Kong, Bangkok, Tokyo, Singapore or Macau, did the funneling of flights to New York and San Francisco could even create a dense viral load?
Turning attention to the nation, and national worries about the state of health care, was not nearly as fun, or as close to his heart. The address to the nation that was intended to restore faith of the markets turned to some of the worst tropes of national opposition, and defending sovereign borders, that suggested how poorly the President perceived the geography of the highly infective virus that had already spread across China, but which Trump had ingested among his talking points somewhere between Making America Great Again and a paranoid Plot Against America. If the meeting that he had with airline executives in the White House as a para-cabinet meeting had failed to calm alarm at the pandemic outbreak, the addresss provided an even less reassuring sense of control as the pandemic had already entered our borders, and no plan to address public health needs or risks were even being formed among this crew of needy businessmen, who seem to have been seeking with Dr. Birx and President Trump and a grim-faced VP to see how they could maintain a front on normalcy in the face of the pandemic’s infectious spread, by keeping the planes in the air as much as possible, but by reducing flights to China in the continued magical thinking that this whole coronavirus thing would pass.
The preservation of global flight paths would lead to a bailout of the airline industry, by April, with the arrival of $25 billion in grants to help an “industry” that the CARES Act singled out so prominently as being crippled by COVID-19. The final residue of a globalism that America still cares about and imagines to dominate–even as 30% of these “grants” turned into “loan” as Congress considered the broader impact of COVID-19 on the US economy–although they were deemed sufficient to prevent employees from seeking unemployment insurance, a number Trump hoped wouldn’t rise on his watch, as well as capping executive pay. But as shelter-in-place orders moved all business flights to Zoom platforms, and the idea of any tax on the internet seemed outrageous, the airline executives were by no means happy, even if fuel was cheap, as seats sold were in free-fall. (Was the decision to ask all Americans to return home immediately a needed boost to airlines to engage in a massive airlift, even if health ramifications were not so fully thought through?)
The issue of the economic figures, the macro picture of microeconomics of Americans, that dominated the discussion, would dominate the public address. The conference led the wheels to keep spinning as the airplane employees were kept “employed,” and prevent airline stocks from absolutely tanking. The impact of rushing to return all Americans from Europe and China who might be infected by COVID-19 was less something that was on the radar of the Trump folks, even if Dr. Birx attended the meeting, which was dominated no doubt by quarterly losses of airline companies and their liability for passengers contracting COVID-19, as well as what funds they could secure from the government, as the percentage of seats sold had already dropped massively and refunds were offered to all passengers who had tickets that they wanted to exchange or refund. With American Airlines getting $5.8 billion, Delta promised $5.4 billion, and United Airlines securing $5 billion, with $3.2 billion for Southwest Airlines, they would listen to the demand they stop China flights. Trump had less success turning his attention to the nation, outside the old categories of national borders, security, and foreign threats of what he called on national television “the foreign virus,” in his first attempt to address the nation Presidentially in a true emergency.
How could Trump respond by declaring the pandemic a national emergency, but by returning to themes of national defense and strong borders? A hasty huddle with Steven Miller and Jared Kushner fell so flat as a defining moment of how Trump confronted the pandemic precisely because of the immobility of national terms on which he fell back, employing the threats of external danger to the nation that he had adopted in other national emergencies, while his utter lack of comprehension for managing a public health disaster revealed an almost tragic inability of empathy: twiddling his thumbs, or restlessly sitting before his teleprompter, he tried to summon a Presidential self–as opposed to the “raunchy” populist Trump persona of attack, but seemed unable to not try to map the national emergency as a foreign threat. And amidst the staid tones of a national scripted address recited woodenly from the teleprompter, showing no empathy for Americans who feared the impending spread of the disease, in describing the “foreign virus” in his national address. What was widely described as a failure to be Presidential lead Ben Rhodes to see the speech as a defining moment that registered the extent of failure before the biggest test of the Trump Presidency.
For President Trump, undoubtedly with help from Kushner and Miller, had hastily adopted the habit of relabeling of the novel coronavirus that the World Health Organization had named COVID-19, as if one of a variety of possible deceptive nicknames would take hold. Since reposted a tweet on March 9 from a conservative commentator that cast the coronavirus as “China Virus” his Secretary of State, choosing how Mike Pompeo had not only attacked China for suppressing information about the virus in “a classic Communist disinformation effort” on March 3, but described a “Wuhan virus” on FOX on March 7–an association shared on social media as similar mischaracterizations were tweeted by Republican congressmen–Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) on March 9 describing the “Chinese coronavirus” and Paul Goasar (R-Ariz.) on March 8 the “Wuhan virus” and Tom Cotton (R-Ark) describing the “Wuhan coronavirus”–as if seeking acceptance of a shorthand of displacement with traction on alt right social media, after the Washington Times launched the unfounded rumor linking the virus to “a lab linked to China’s biowarfare program”–a social media meme generator of sorts, that began as travel lockdowns in China began, as a Daily Mail article sourced to Israeli intelligence about the lab was broadcast that day on Steve Bannon’s podcast, linking bat studies of the Wuhan Institute of Virology of zoonotic viruses, and allegations of a need to investigate the Institute’s laboratories link to the novel coronavirus outbreak–recasting the pandemic as a matter of sovereign relations and sovereign borders.
The appeal of the isolationist reading of the pandemic outbreak sought to underplay its global nature, by assigning sovereign responsibility, in short, to the virus as it was infecting global populations among unseen pathways.
The actual apocalypticism of a viral outbreak that would depopulate the globe met a Machiavellian eagerness to demonize the other–if not immigrants, the Chinese government, and perversely perpetuated a war of civilizations a the basis for reading the pandemic’s global spread.
Or, more likely, was Trump’s intent to displace blame from his own denial of public health dangers and Presidential incompetence? As Trump embrace the misidentification as a strategy of public deception and in public policy debates, issuing two tweets of March 16 again investing the virus with national provenance, building on the foreign provenance of the pathogen cast on March 11 as a “foreign virus” that was to be seen in national terms that demanded to be confronted as a nation–long before using the term in addressing the Coronavirus Task Force March 18. After refusing to apologize for using the term ‘China Virus’ on March 11, he inserted the phrase repeatedly in public remarks, as a strategic response to the paranoid attribution of the virus to American bioterrorism, as if hoping to nurture a similar home-grown paranoia of the sort he had earlier sewn..
Disinformation became a staple of confronting COVID-19. Investing a global pandemic with sovereign terms was a category confusion accentuated in Trump’s continued mis-mapping of the novel virus as a “Chinese plot”–or, as Trump prefers, a “Chinese virus,” potentially brought in our borders by migrants, rather than address fault-lines within our health care system, or the global risk coronavirus posed. In intentionally mis-mapping the virus by investing it with nationality, Trump sought to deny the global nature of the emergency facing the nation. The origin of the novel coronavirus was, as the ravages of the virus outbreak in China had taken a huge toll on medical facilities and hospitals in China, creating a shortage of medical workers, suspending elective surgeries, who were forced to turn away patients from many hospitals turned into coronavirus clinics. As the spread of infection paralyzed public hospitals in Wuhan, creating a public health crisis as over 80,000 were infected, would American medical facilities be able to cope?