I was listening to a press conference where a Russian spokesman was serving up improbable hypotheticals and transparent lies to prove that Vladimir Putin didn’t poison his most recently poisoned political opponent. It was as if I’d been transported back to my Cold War youth and the Pravda bulletins that really were fake news.
As I listened, though, I realized that it sounded more recently familiar. From Sean Spicer’s preposterous insistence that President Trump’s inaugural crowd was “the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration — period,” to Kellyanne Conway’s Orwellian doctrine of “alternative facts,” to Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ declaration that “countless” FBI agents had told the White House they’d lost confidence in James Comey, a lie she was compelled to retract under oath, Trump White House briefings more closely resemble the six o’clock news with Joe McCarthy than an honest presentation of the facts.
Most recently, Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnaney denied that the President Trump had misled the American people about the virus, despite the fact that he’s on tape repeatedly misleading us about the virus, and conceding that misleading us was his deliberate intent.
In taped interviews with reporter Bob Woodward, the president volunteered that rather than accurately inform the public about the virus, he’d decided to “play it down.”
As early as Feb. 7, he acknowledged to Woodward on tape that the coronavirus was “deadly stuff,” “more deadly than even your strenuous flus,” with a “5 percent versus 1 percent and less than 1 percent” mortality rate. Meanwhile, for nearly another two months in his public statements to us, he continued likening the virus to “a regular flu” while insisting that “we don’t turn the country off” for the regular flu.
In early February he told Woodward about a “setback,” that the virus was particularly “tricky” because it “goes through the air … You just breathe the air, and that’s how it’s passed.” Yet he continued to tell the public — us — that the virus was “low risk,” “a problem that’s going to go away,” and that the U.S. case count “within a couple of days is going to be down to close to zero.”
Even after learning the virus was airborne, he’s persistently dismissed mask-wearing as political correctness, and apart from paying occasional lip service to the overwhelming medical consensus, has with words and by example actively discouraged masks and social distancing.
In mid-March he told Woodward that “it’s not just old people,” that “it’s plenty of young people,” too. But as late as August, he was still telling us that “children are almost — and I would almost say definitely — but almost immune from this disease … They just don’t have a problem.”
It’s all on tape.
He’s justified his serial deceptions on the grounds that he didn’t “want to create a panic.” He nonsensically claims his critics wanted him instead “to come out screaming there’s going to be great death.”
It’s possible to be both calm and truthful.
Just as it’s possible to be calm and a raving liar.
The president and his minions have likened his conduct to Winston Churchill’s during the Blitz and to the British wartime maxim, “Keep calm and carry on.” Except Churchill warned his people that he had “nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.” He cautioned them to expect “hard and heavy tidings.”
Churchill told his people the truth.
Trump is no Churchill.
The president also compares himself to FDR. Except when that president reassured us we had nothing to fear but fear, he meant the “nameless, unreasoning,” subjective fear that had settled on us during the Depression. The virus, in contrast, is a fearsome, objective force all its own.
FDR didn’t hide the truth the day after Pearl Harbor. When he asked Congress to declare war, he included a frank litany of Japanese advances and Allied defeats. He acknowledged that “our people, our territory and our interests are in grave danger.”
Trump is no Roosevelt.
For someone supposedly intent on avoiding national panic, President Trump is doing everything he can to foment it. In one Michigan speech alone, he warned that Joe Biden was planning to “surrender our country to the violent left-wing mob,” “overwhelm your state with poorly vetted migrants from jihadist regions,” “ban American energy,” “confiscate your guns,” “shut down auto production,” “delay the vaccine,” “destroy your suburbs,” “indoctrinate your children,” “eliminate your job,” “lock law-abiding Americans into their homes,” “encourage rioters and vandals,” usher in a “murder rate” and “crime wave like you’ve never seen,” “cut short the lives of thousands of young African-American citizens,” and install “somebody from Antifa as a member of your suburb.”
According to the president, Biden won’t rest until he’s flooded your neighborhood with “rioters, arsonists” and “flag-burners,” and “wiped out production of pick-up trucks.”
Let’s assume, though, that you were a leader who sincerely believed it was needful to hide the truth from your people to keep them calm.
If your concern was sincere, you wouldn’t discourage them from wearing masks once you knew a deadly disease was being transmitted through the air.
You wouldn’t invite them to rallies and sit them cheek-to-jowl at galas on the South Lawn.
You wouldn’t tell parents their children were immune if you knew the truth was they could sicken and die.
Sometimes a lie is just what you tell when you don’t want to look as bad as you are.
Peter Berger has taught English and history for 30 years. Poor Elijah would be pleased to answer letters addressed to him in care of the editor.