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Who Can Trump Blame for the Pandemic?

Can Trump really propaganda his way out of this catastrophe?
March 20, 2020
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(Digital collage by Hannah Yoest / photos: GettyImages / Shutterstock)

The pandemic that Donald Trump has been denying pretty much on the regular since January is no longer possible to deny, what with the thousands of dead Italians and the virus multiplying every day on this side of the Atlantic because exponential growth is, as the science nerds say, a bitch.

And so the Trumpists have found themselves in an impossible position. They were forced to acknowledge that COVID-19 is a really bad thing. But now they need someone to blame for it, because if they don’t start pointing fingers PDQ, then people might look around and start saying, “Hey, the president kept telling us everything was great and now it’s not great and either he was too dumb to understand what was going on or he was too dishonest to tell us the truth. But either way we’re going to have a chance to fire the SOB.”

So before people can start stitching together all of the evidence and stock trades and paper trails, Trump and his people need a villain. Fast.

In the ordinary course of events, you’d expect Trump to try out candidates for scapegoat at his Huge Rallies. But he can’t hold them anymore because of the pandemic that he let fester while he was blabbering on for week after week with happy talk about COVID-19 being nothing more than a beautiful, perfect flu-hoax.

So instead, he’s decided to use press conferences.

During his recent pressers, Trump has tried out a series of different objects to blame and a series of different obfuscation tactics.

On Wednesday, for instance, Trump blamed China. A week or so ago, Trump and his followers all started calling the coronavirus “the Chinese virus.” Members of the White House press corps took the bait and asked if maybe this wasn’t intentionally racist. Trump replied, “It’s not racist at all. It comes from China, that’s why.”

This is a basic Trump move: Try to turn a real problem into a culture war and then, when some reporter notices what you’re doing, turn it into a fight against The Media.

Fighting over racism is easier for Trump than fighting over his botched response to the pandemic—which is really saying something, by the way. But he figures that even so, while his base mostly doesn’t mind the racism, they might get a little freaked out by the prospect of mass graves visible from space.

On Thursday Trump amped it up a little. I mean, he had to: The numbers keep growing and people keep dying and suddenly Make America Great Again looks a lot like it should be Joe Biden’s campaign slogan.

So Trump opened with a continuation of his “relentless effort to defeat the Chinese virus” and then moved on to pointing out all of the people who are way more responsible for the pandemic than he is.

First Trump blamed the states, saying, “Governors are supposed to be doing a lot of this work . . . the federal government is not supposed to be out there buying vast amounts of items, and then shipping. We’re not a shipping clerk. As with testing—the governors are supposed to be doing it.”

Maybe no one’s told him that more than half of America’s governors are Republicans?

And then he decided to blame everyone else in America for not being prepared.

“Nobody knew there’d be a pandemic,” he said. How could the president have been expected to know a pandemic when literally no one else in the whole wide world—nobody!—knew?

Except, of course, that two days earlier, Trump had claimed that he absolutely knew: “I felt it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic.”

Whatevs.

The next step will probably be to blame Biden. Megan McCain’s husband’s website ran a piece this week arguing that if Biden had been president, he never would have taken the brave actions Trump took to protect America from the deadly pandemic that Trump said absolutely wasn’t a pandemic even though he knew it was a pandemic long before anyone else was calling it a pandemic. (Though nobody knew there’d be a pandemic.)

If Trump was clever he’d try to blame John Bolton. But that would require him to admit that something went wrong inside his administration. So he probably won’t.

We’re in uncharted territory. I mean, the country is, but Donald Trump is, too. There’s no escape from the coronavirus. He can’t file for Chapter 11. He can’t petition shady people at Deutsche Bank to bail him out. He can’t blame a “Mexican” judge. There’s just the constant, grinding math that doesn’t care how big a star he is or how many feelings his Fox News audience has.

Donald Trump bulldozed the Republican party, corrupted American political life, and lied, bullied, and bragged his way out of every consequence that has ever come near him. But it turns out that COVID-19, of all things, is immune to his bullshit.

I don’t think Trump can propaganda his way out of letting COVID-19 wipe out our parents’ savings and make our grandparents sick. But because he’s Trump, he’s sure as hell going to try.

Molly Jong-Fast

Molly Jong-Fast is a contributor to The Bulwark and the author of three books. Follow her on Twitter @MollyJongFast.