Donald Trump’s position heading into November’s presidential election is surprisingly strong. He remains personally unpopular, of course, but he heads toward reelection with—for now—a strong economy and—for now—no major foreign policy crisis.
Notice that I keep saying “for now.” There’s one glaring weakness that could bring Trump down hard, and we’re seeing it on full display in his reaction to the COVID-19 outbreak.
I am not just talking about the outbreak itself. Rather, I mean the authoritarian blindness that is driving Trump’s erratic public statements on the outbreak—because it indicates a more intractable problem with his way of thinking and making decisions.
What is “authoritarian blindness”? It’s a term for the well-documented tendency of an authoritarian state to be unaware of what is happening in the world around it and unable to respond appropriately. The paradox of authoritarian regimes is that the more efficient and all-pervasive the surveillance state, the less it knows about what is going on. The regime becomes blinded because people are afraid to tell the truth.
A fascinating article by Zeynep Tufekci described how this phenomenon was a factor in the Chinese government’s initial response to the COVID-19 outbreak. Because an authoritarian system is designed to suppress information, rather than absorb it, the doctors on the front lines who initially warned about the disease were ignored and sometimes punished: “If people are too afraid to talk, and if punishing people for ‘rumors’ becomes the norm, a doctor punished for spreading news of a disease in one province becomes just another day, rather than an indication of impending crisis.”
Tufekci provides a great analogy:
An Orwellian surveillance-based system would be overwhelming and repressive, as it is now in China, but it would also be similar to losing sensation in parts of one’s body due to nerve injuries. Without the pain to warn the brain, the hand stays on the hot stove, unaware of the damage to the flesh until it’s too late.
You can begin to see how this might apply to the Trump administration. No, we do not live under an authoritarian system, and there is no well-developed surveillance state or regime of censorship in America. But Donald Trump has developed and promoted two key concepts that produce much the same effect as authoritarian blindness: “fake news” and the “deep state.”
The point of the “fake news” concept is to describe information from any media not obsequiously friendly to the president as some kind of conspiracy intended to hurt him. Veteran reporter Lesley Stahl says Trump told her he uses the term “to discredit you all and demean you all so that when you write negative stories about me no one will believe you.”
The point of the “deep state” concept is to describe information coming to the president from within the federal bureaucracy as a partisan conspiracy to overthrow him by means of a “coup.” (That’s the president’s word, not mine.) Thus, some of Trump’s prominent supporters dismissed a warning from a CDC official by spinning a conspiracy theory connecting her to the investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election.
The practical effect of these two concepts is that they create a voluntarily accepted, self-induced authoritarian blindness, in which the administration and its circle of sycophants will accept no information from outside their bubble.
You can already see this blindness manifesting itself in the administration’s muddled messages about COVID-19. As recently as Monday morning, Trump was still offering what one observer called the “‘mayor from Jaws routine,” exulting that COVID-19 is not that big a deal because so far it’s smaller than the regular flu—as if this were the end of the outbreak and not the beginning.
Trump also dismissed concerns about the virus as a product of the “Fake News Media” trying to “inflame” the situation. This ties in to a view peddled by his supporters in the conservative media that COVID-19 is just “the common cold” and that “the forces arrayed against Donald Trump are doing everything they can to weaponize this to harm the economy, to harm the stock market in hopes of harming President Trump.” This last bit is from amateur epidemiologist Rush Limbaugh.
That is how Trump has been treating the outbreak, too: as more of a danger to the stock market and to his re-election than a danger to human lives. This is why his initial reaction was to send Larry Kudlow out to tell people to buy the dip in the stock market. (This also turned out not to be good investment advice.)
Then there is the way Trump spews misinformation about the virus and the government’s response, while repeating in a self-satisfied tone his underlings’ real or imagined flattery. “Every one of these doctors said, ‘How do you know so much about this?’ Maybe I have a natural ability. Maybe I should have done that instead of running for president.”
His glib confidence that he understands complicated systems completely is the clearest sign that he hasn’t got a clue—and that everyone around him is too busy shoring up his fragile ego to tell him the truth.
Note particularly the closed information loop created by the president’s symbiosis with friendly news sources such as Fox News Channel, from which Trump regularly draws information on crucial issues. The president won’t believe COVID-19 is a crisis until he sees it described that way on Fox & Friends or by Sean Hannity—and they won’t describe it that way if they think it will contradict the line coming from the White House.
COVID-19 is not quite a crisis yet. It is a situation that could grow into a full-blown crisis if the virus continues to spread—which it almost certainly will. Even more likely is the probability that local and federal officials will rally and undertake heroic measures to slow the spread of the virus regardless of what is going on in the White House.
But we don’t really know yet, and I’m not going to play armchair epidemiologist. While some of the reactions in the public sphere have bordered on panic, many people and institutions are making rational responses to uncertainty.
Regardless of the outcome of this outbreak, we have already seen the basic weakness of Trump’s administration: its slowness and reluctance to respond to any information outside its bubble. If it’s not this crisis, it will be some other crisis: the economy, our disastrous capitulation to the Taliban, or just some ordinary back-and-forth during the campaign. Trump won’t know he’s losing independent voters until they are already lost, because the only people he listens to are those who tell him he’s doing great and that all the voters think he’s a very stable genius.
There’s a bitter irony here in the role the conservative press now plays. For years, conservatives warned that the leftward bias of the mainstream media actually hurt Democrats, because the press was telling them what they wanted to hear and this blinded them to unpleasant realities. This was even codified as the Taranto Principle: “the press’s failure to hold left-wingers accountable for bad behavior merely encourages the left’s bad behavior to the point that its candidates are repellent to ordinary Americans.”
That was back when conservatives were still struggling to create their own alternative media in an attempt to break the left-wing information bubble. But as outlets like Fox gained large audiences and became the sole, automatically trusted news source for millions of voters, they created their own bubble. Trump’s diatribes about “fake news” and the “deep state” have turned that bubble into an impenetrable bunker.
The result is that pro-Trump Republicans now suffer from their own Taranto effect, leaving them blissfully unaware how much the rest of the country doesn’t like their man.