The forced monotone of Donald Trump’s most serious public address to the nation was a striking contrast from the theater of his most recent State of the Nation on March 12, where he sought to calm the nation as it faced the pandemic of the novel coronavirus COVID-19. On the verge of breaking beneath the gravity of circumstances that spun far out of his control, Trump seemed a President scrambling and in panic mode trying to rehearse stale tropes, but immobilized by events. 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. And who can doubt that the serial flag-waving continuing to fuel President Trump’s attacks on China and the World Health Organization don’t reveal an adherence to America First policies of nationalism before a global catastrophe?
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. And 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.
The link of America to the world defined in his America First cand–evenidacy 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.
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?
These same problems, which could be forecast in mid-March and have since occurred in New York and other cities as health workers in America went into crisis mode, were not mentioned, as Trump tried to summon a fantasy world in which Presidential decisions had protected the nation from a bullet, as the virus spread across the nation, without any sense of national direction or policy. While Trump vaunts his abilities as a public communicator, the utter lack of empathy radiating from the Oval Office in the national emergency, far more habituated to disdain the failure of others than to construct a testing system in the United States–which, in early March, had not even begun, unlike in the United Kingdom, Italy, Japan South Korea, and, of course, China, although the United States had rejected World Health Organization testing kits for coronavirus infections.
Trump had adopted a massive offensive of denial of danger of what he cast as a partisan plot, even as hundreds of thousands left Wuhan daily for all to see–although genetic analysis of viral strains reveals the greatest load of viral strains that arrived in New York were from Europe, mostly Americans who were allowed to bring the virus “home” as travelers were only asked if they visited China and Iran, the only sites the State Department had identified as dangerous, based on sovereignty more than risk–and a rush of Americans returned from Europe after his declaration of travel restrictions–again casting urgency of limiting global travel in national terms, rather than risk as of mid-February, and ensuring the nation–anbd introducing Italy into a level three “high risk” category only on February 28, after the northern Italian lockdown was extended to a second week.
Linking the outbreak of SARS-CoV-2 to “China” seemed both as old a strategy of displacing agency and origin of a disease in with man-made toponymy that blossomed in the Renaissance definition of sexually-transmitted syphilis as the “mal francese” by Italian writers or “Italian disease” in France, or the “Polish disease” in Russia, or “Christian disease” among Turks, and Scots as the “Spanyie pokis” in an age of far more reduced global mobility, when identifying neighbors with disease whom one experienced collective contact with–mercenaries flooding the peninsula during the Italian wars, and missionaries flooding the Holy Land–with the disease’s probable origins in the New World, or the global contact it provoked. If syphillis was convincingly contracted among French invaders of Naples. the broad brushstrokes of contamination have been replaced by global vigilance and obligations of transparency, but invoking sovereignty or sovereign leadership that were deployed in Trump’s address to the nation seem of limited relevance to understanding the virus’ pandemic spread.
Why was there such a lack of international cooperation, and was it do to the continued denial by the President that “so far we have lost nobody to coronavirus in the United States” at the end of February, as if he read data visualizations as a sports competition; after the first American did, he assured the nation that “healthy individuals should be able to fully recover” promoting a sense of vigor as if the robust bodies of Americans had nothing to fear, omitting inequalities or disparities in our national health and adhering to national terms. But presumptive positive cases of infection in our borders could no longer be denied. Nor could he claim to have shielded the nation from, even as he patted himself on the back for closing borders that did little to pause the global creep of the disease. The exponential growth of infections within the United States should have been the focus of Trump’s address to the nation.
Only four days after the President of the United States had attempted to assure the nation “The risk is low for the average American,” separating the nation from the world, as the Dow tumbled over 2,000 points in a day, Trump did a real 360 to assume a sense of gravity as the lack of preparation of the American health system for the outbreak of a novel Coronavirus for which no course of action existed. He had earlier accused Democrats of having self-servingly fabricated “far beyond what the facts would warrant,” but the explanation of the state of events no longer held on a global stage. It seemed poll-tested. Democrats were far more concerned than the Republicans, and we wondered if COVID-19 was to emerge as yet another fault line to divide the United States, more than an object of national concern–cringing at its consequences.
Although the most recent polls of mid-March showed a dangerous convergence and narrowing of a gap between Democrats and Republicans in their level of concern for the globalizing coronavirus, COVID-19, Trump relished the public spectatorship the crisis placed him in, and he summoned strength to maintain composure hand clenched, his gravity punctuated as his thumbs jumped with some insecurity at assuming a role of such gravitas, as he assumed a deep gravelly baritone of persistence, unlike his usual taste for animated gestures, featuring a travel ban to Europe and some assistance to small businesses.
This was a concession. For President Trump had cast the coronavirus as purely a distraction, at rallies and public speeches, shoehorning the global pandemic into purely national terms. But Trump agreed to social distancing as a collective policy to the global pandemic. But the illusion that containment in hotspots of the virus’ arrival in late February already assumed new proportions as its spread through asymptomatic individuals was realized, late in the game, and the problem of mapping the contagion grew, replaced by questions of when a lockdown would begin emerged.
But was Trump even trying to respond to the global scope of the disease? Probably not. He had dismissed advice of the leader of his Coronavirus Response Team in mid-February about the pandemic’s dangers, dismissed as alarmist, as if limiting travel from China was recognized as hardly providing a credible buffer to the pathogen’s spread, and the sense of buffer it provided could hardly be guaranteed to be the sort of “wall” he imagined: a pandemic hosted by individual bodies, rather than confined to a metric that was “counted” by bodies, suggested that pathogens were swirling about the country, in ways that the simplest visualization readily affirmed. But only days before he addressed the nation, and even before the World Helath Organization declared a pandemic, the massive shock of the biggest fall in oil prices in almost thirty years must have triggered scenarios and narratives in Trump’s personal memory, of a Carter Presidency, that raised alarms which called for something like the rollout of a new Reality TV show of Presidential leadership, although the only script he really had was of remapping national boundaries and security.
The problem was, of course, that the pandemic was global, or globalized, and the value of national boundaries was more akin to static than a wall of defense that Trump had promised in late February campaign rallies. The problem of enlisting the tired logic of borders was possible only by removing charts from the maps, treating them as free floating signifiers, and rallying the crowds by false claims of empowerment that bracketed the virus’ global spread with a yellowing picture of global grandeur.
The lack of national differentiation in a simple Tableaux visualization seems to create a picture whose interconnected nature could not be denied, but was difficult to process, and indeed to present what that might mean for a constituency schooled in America First. The early February attempt to assuage anxiety while accepting credit that “We pretty much shut it down in coming from China” was not only demonstrably false, but the rise of infections, absence of testing, and proximity to anything like a vaccine was evident.
To be sure, the problem of processing seemed to recapitulate an epistemic divide of infection diseases, setting them up against each other as competing paradigms, as the notion of miasmatic contagion that Trump had long cast immigration was in competition with acknowledgement of the nature of an infectious disease–and a virus that was transmitted in ways we were yet in the process of fathoming, as the ability to detect the relation between confirmed cases of infections and those able to transmit the virus was not even clear. The same advisers who described Trump as “subdued” as he tried to connect the relation of responses to the virus to the danger of economic damage as he seemed only to focus on the danger the novel coronavirus assumed a reality for his electoral prospects in the future may have increased his inability to process the disease as a threat to the public good in and of itself that he had allowed to sneak up on the nation of which he was nominally in charge. As if such leadership was not part of the bargain, Trump suggested (he knew it was not true) that testing was about to begin, and would be soon available, that America had the best health care system in the world, that this was the safest place to be in a pandemic–even if all of those assurances have increasingly been questioned, and were already quite uncertain.
Why was the nation that provided such great health care without any testing kits to provide to its populace, and indeed had a health care system hardly able to provide care to all, having left much of its population without adequate health insurance, and no means to track the level of infections within its borders? Could the economy stay afloat in ways that would enable social distancing to continue, and allow workers to continue receiving paychecks in the pandemic, or would Trump push the nation into the oblivion of bankruptcy, believing he would be able to navigate out of it, as he had in his own businesses in the past? Were we finally feeling, in other words, the consequences of a President without experience in public office, more able to manipulate economic fictions than accept responsibility?
1. There were other perhaps possibilities. The Gates Foundation and Amazon announced teaming up to secure COVID-19 testing kits not available elsewhere to Seattle homes March 11, later to be extended to Amazon’s 800,000 employees, many wondered who was their feudal lord if they didn’t live in Seattle, even if schools had begun to close in Kings County. We were forgetting Amazon refused paid sick leave, even as the private web-based delivery service as poised to grow Jeff Bezos’ fortune another $24bn in the coronavirus pandemic, sending its stock share price rising 4% against the tide to record highs, even as Amazon workers walked out to protest the lack of health safeguards at its warehouses.
Rather than mentioning need for an excess profit tax, or suggesting the need for introducing a wealth tax, Trump insisted we were safe, even as job losses were slated to spread across the fifty states, as 3.5 million workers were at risk of losing employer provided health insurance by the month’s close. The back-of-the-envelope calculation by economist Gabriel Zucman predicted a 30% decline of demand in one quarter alone as a 7.5% drop of GDP, imposting a severe recession, in a quick study issued with Emmanuel Saez, that he argued could create massive layoffs only the government could defer: rapid consequences of a loss of employer-provided health insurance revealed by the month’s end how closely tied the loss of income was a loss of health coverage across the nation:
Trump assured viewers with no basis that the crisis was merely “a moment in time that we will overcome together as a nation and as a world,” as he began to “speak with you about our nation’s unprecedented response to the coronavirus outbreak that started in China and is now spreading throughout the world” in solemnity. To get over it, he offered the usual cocktail that mounted to bread and circuses, and another securing of dangers by firming up our own protective boundary lines: Trump ensured the nation of low-interest loans and deferred tax payments in the offing, as he boasted of having quickly closed borders to all but essential travel–as if he headed off a crisis potentially far worse.
For President Trump had exploited his prominent place in national airwaves to cast the coronavirus as but a distraction that viewed the alleged outbreak as a problem of messaging and by a purely national lens. But heagreed to social distancing as a collective policy to the global pandemic. The illusion that containment in hotspots of the virus’ arrival in late February already assumed new proportions as its spread through asymptomatic individuals was realized, late in the game, and the problem of mapping the contagion grew, replaced by questions of when a lockdown would begin emerged.