In this space I am parking my short description of the de facto plan the Trump government has for getting the United States out of the public health emergency caused by the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. This is my read on what the government’s guidance and actions amount to. I will revise the text and add new links as more information flows in. My purpose in posting it is to challenge the American press to be a lot clearer in its descriptions.
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 shit,” Steve Bannon’s phrase for overwhelming the system with disinformation, distraction, and denial, which boosts what economists call “search costs” for reliable intelligence.
Stated another way, the plan is to default on public problem solving, and then prevent the public from understanding the consequences of that default. To succeed this will require one of the biggest propaganda and freedom of information fights in U.S. history, the execution of which will, I think, consume the president’s re-election campaign. So much has already been made public that the standard script for a White House cover up (worse than the crime…) won’t apply. Instead, everything will ride on the manufacture of confusion. The press won’t be able to “expose” the plot because it will all happen in stark daylight. The facts will be known, and simultaneously they will be inconceivable.
“The plan is to have no plan” is not a strategy, really. Nor would I call it a policy. It has a kind of logic to it, but this is different from saying it has a design— or a designer. Meaning: I do not want to be too conspiratorial about this. To wing it without a plan is merely the best this government can do, given who heads the table. The manufacture of confusion is just the ruins of Trump’s personality meeting the powers of the presidency. There is no genius there, only a damaged human being playing havoc with our lives.
UPDATE: A few developments since then, as reported in the Washington Post and other news sites:
May 15, 2020: Trump’s continually strange comments on possibly ‘overrated’ coronavirus testing. (Link.)
The answer wouldn’t seem to be that testing isn’t necessary, but that more testing would be preferable to make sure people who are infected take precautions as soon as possible. The whole commentary is confusing and in many cases nonsensical.
June 27, 2020: With Trump leading the way, America’s coronavirus failures exposed by record surge in new infections. (Link.)
While public health experts urge caution and preventive measures such as mask-wearing and social distancing, Trump, Pence and other top aides repeatedly flout their advice, leaving confused Americans struggling to determine who to believe. “They’re creating a cognitive dissonance in the country,” one former senior administration official said. “It’s more than them being asleep at the wheel. They’re confusing people at this point when we need to be united.”
July 6, 2020: Trump and Biden campaigns shift focus to coronavirus as pandemic surges. (Link.)
White House officials also hope Americans will grow numb to the escalating death toll and learn to accept tens of thousands of new cases a day, according to three people familiar with the White House’s thinking, who requested anonymity to reveal internal deliberations. Americans will “live with the virus being a threat,” in the words of one of those people, a senior administration official.
A review of Trump’s public commentary on the virus reveals precious little in the way of a reality check for a country confronting a surge in cases. He has instead again focused like a laser on downplaying the pandemic — suggesting the rise in cases is merely a symptom of increased testing (it’s not), questioning the efficacy of and need for wearing masks, and repeatedly suggesting the virus isn’t so bad after all. It all culminated Saturday in Trump declaring that “99 percent” of cases are “totally harmless” — a statement that bears no resemblance to what health officials have said.
July 13, 2020: Trump’s attacks on Fauci and other experts reinforce that he’d rather Americans be confused than concerned. (Link.)
Trump would rather have no one be trusted than that he stand out as unusually untrustworthy, even if the cost is confidence in his team and in experts trying to tamp down the pandemic.
July 15, 2020: As the coronavirus crisis spins out of control, Trump issues directives — but still no clear plan. (Link.)
There is no cohesive national strategy, apart from unenforced federal health guidelines. Instead, the administration is offering a patchwork of solutions, often in reaction to outbreaks after they occur. Although Trump and his team declare sweeping objectives, such as reopening schools, they have largely shirked responsibility for developing and executing plans to achieve them, putting the onus instead on state and local authorities.
July 15, 2020: As the Trump disaster gets worse, a new political theory helps explain it. (Link.)
Law professors David Pozen and Kim Lane Scheppele present “executive underreach” as a species of leadership failure that’s as destructive as executive overreach, defining it as: “a national executive branch’s willful failure to address a significant public problem that the executive is legally and functionally equipped (though not necessarily legally required) to address.”
July 17, 2020: Rancor between scientists and Trump allies threatens pandemic response as cases surge. (Link.)
September 11, 2020: Fauci’s message to skeptics. (Link.)
Trump in recent weeks has been committing less of his time and energy to managing the pandemic, according to advisers, and has only occasionally spoken in detail about the topic in his public appearances. One of these advisers said the president is “not really working this anymore. He doesn’t want to be distracted by it. He’s not calling and asking about data. He’s not worried about cases.”
On Thursday, President Trump said “we’re rounding the corner” and “we’re rounding the final turn,” suggesting that the pandemic will soon be a thing of the past. This is exactly the sort of reckless rhetoric that folks like Dr. Anthony Fauci have to counter. “We are still in the middle of this,” Fauci told Wolf Blitzer on Friday.
In interviews with Blitzer and MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell, Fauci tried to correct Trump’s salesman-type happy-talk about an impending vaccine and a return to normalcy. When Mitchell brought up Trump’s fantastical talk, Fauci said “I’m sorry, but I have to disagree with that.” I’m sorry that he’s been put in this position, where he has to correct the president’s deeply misleading claims.
“I say look at the data; the data speak for themselves,” he said on CNN. “You don’t have to listen to any individual. And the data tells us that we’re still getting up to 40,000 new infections a day and 1,000 deaths.”