Let’s Not Abandon Virus Happy Talk Too Soon

The US economy is going to be back soon, bigger and better than ever; testing is in great shape and we’re going to have stadiums packed shoulder to shoulder – and one more thing, sometimes fantasy isn’t all bad.

Watching the crowds at the Michigan statehouse protesting and in Boston and so many other places, who wouldn’t wish that, as President Trump said Sunday night, you can have it both ways. “We have a pretty good roadmap right now,” Trump said during the Fox News Town Hall. “You could say 65 but let’s make it 60 – we have to protect those people and we have to watch it and maybe they stay back longer. But no, I think you can really have it both ways.”

To digress a little, there may have been more than a little incongruity in that production, using the statue of the Great Emancipator as a TV set and calling it “America Together: Returning to Work.” America together? Then again, Abraham Lincoln headed a divided nation. Trump heads a divided nation.

In the third year of a bloody Civil War, to declare “that all persons held as slaves” within the rebel states “are, and henceforward shall be free,” was salt in the wound for many and President Trump said he is a lot like Lincoln, at least in that he also faces a “disgraceful” press. “I am greeted with a hostile press the likes of which no president has ever seen. The closest would be that gentleman right up there,” Trump said, turning to the statue. “They always said Lincoln – nobody got treated worse than Lincoln. I believe I am treated worse. You’re there. You see those press conferences. They come at me with questions that are disgraceful. To be honest, disgraceful. Their manner of presentation and their words.”

There was more. “I feel that if I was kind to them, I’d be – I’d be walked off the stage. I mean, they come at you with the most horrible, horrendous, biased questions. And you see it. Ninety-four or ninety-five percent of the press is hostile. And yet, if you look in Florida today, we had hundreds and hundreds of boats going up and down the Intracoastal: ‘Trump. Trump.’ We have tremendous support.”
We’ve heard all that before. What’s the point?

Right, there is no point other than to examine the usefulness of fantasy. And why stop there? If that was the answer, what was the question? To Fox’s credit, they didn’t edit out some pointed questions, all posed via video screens from home.

“President Trump, my husband and I thank you, your family, and your staff for your great dedication to our country,” the questioner started. “We pray for you every day. The question I have is about your manner of presentation. Why do you use descriptive words that could be classified as bullying? And why do you not directly answer the questions asked by the press but instead speak of past successes and generally ramble? “
The questioner finished, “Please hold on to your wonderful attributes that make you our great leader and let go of other characteristics that do not serve you.”

It’s been said before, actually on this page, that there are a lot of people who on the one hand don’t expect miracles from a real estate developer who always was and will be a salesman, and on the other hand, who don’t want him to fail and be humiliated. There are those who want the brash, often outrageous salesman to shake things up, say and do things that perhaps no other president would do, and leave the country in better shape, not a shambles that would take years to repair. There are those who want him to stay lucky.

The salesman, as Arthur Miller taught a post-war audience in 742 performances and four revivals, was ideally a master of illusion. The central character was fascinating because of his flaws and his dreams and the illusion which he had sold to himself. As Wikipedia helpfully tells us, “the illusion not only ‘suggests the past, but also presents the lost pastoral life’.”

Willy Loman “tends to re-imagine events from the past as if they were real,” the entry goes on. “He vacillates between different eras of his life. Willy seems childlike and relies on others for support, coupled with his recurring flashbacks to various moments throughout his career.”

The audience night after night became engrossed in this tale of illusion that had come to envelop Willy Loman’s entire family. Miller had captured an American tale. It resonated. It was transfixing.

Again, as has been recounted here, when President Trump was on that long plane ride back from India he heard on a broadcast someone publicly challenge his view which at that time was that this virus out of China was something quickly to be vanquished.

That someone, the CDC’s director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, Nancey Messonnier, was nearly fired according to all accounts.  Instead she was merely silenced, a warning to the government’s medical bureaucracy not to step out of line.

Now, another Messonnier moment appears to be at hand, challenging the “back-to-work” narrative carefully crafted within the White House and embraced by the president. Having suspended Corona Virus Task Force briefings and to some extent sidelined its top medical experts Tony Fauci and Deborah Birx, President Trump now has been greeted by another unwelcome interjection from Messonnier’s Centers for Disease Control.

The Washington Post, having been awarded three Pulitzer prizes earlier in the day, Monday unearthed one of those draft reports on the virus circulating inside government that had yet to be edited by Vice President Mike Pence and the many others with some part of the White House virus portfolio.

Said the Post, “Covid-19 deaths in the United States will rise to more than 3,000 a day by June 1, with new confirmed cases surging to about 200,000 daily, a draft government report projects.:”

It got worse. “The predictions belie the projections made Sunday evening by President Trump, who said the US could eventually suffer as many as 100,000 deaths. At 3,000 deaths per day and rising, the national total would quickly outstrip that number if the new report is correct.”

The White House’s first reaction was to say the draft was not an official White House document and would not be used to guide policy. “I think it’s false, I think it’s fake news,” Trump told The New York Post.

The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, whose projections are used by the White House Task Force, Monday validated the leaked draft report, seeing a midpoint of 134,475 fatalities by August 4, a big jump from its previous prediction of 72,433. The new top of the range is 243,000 by August 4, Currently US deaths are moving beyond 69,000.

The Post’s story threatened the White House narrative that looks forward to a near-term reopening of the economy, but should it have been surprising? After all, the Task Force’s Birx over the weekend said the top of the range has always been around 240,000 deaths by August. She has also been more explicit than ever about how inadvisable it is for at least 20 states to ignore the Task Force guidelines, not having met the minimum criteria of the White House for re-opening.

The NIH’s Fauci, as noted Friday, has been blocked from testifying this week before a House Appropriations sub-committee labelled by the White House as a Democratic publicity stunt, but he has hardly been muzzled, and is clear about the danger of “leapfrogging” the guidelines. “You’re inviting rebound,” he told CNN Monday night.

So to return to the beginning and the usefulness of fantasy and the role the president has never abandoned, that of a salesman who promises what he is selling is a return to a better America. Did anyone who was paying attention really believe virus deaths would be limited to 100,000 or fewer? Have all those medical experts, even including a few during some hours of Fox News, been ignored when they have warned again and again and again that the virus is highly transmissible, relentless and indiscriminate in its spread?

Yet many are not just avid fans but transfixed by the way President Trump has cheered on those governors who are reopening their states’ non-essential businesses and beaches, and protected meat-packing plants from lawsuits filed by workers forced to return to the job only to become infected. “We think we’re going to have a vaccine by the end of this year and we’re pushing very hard,” the president said Sunday night. Does anyone believe that is anything more than a hope?

The president believes his job is to be a “cheerleader.” He has millions of fans who think he is doing what they want, cheerleading. Governors are learning that they are the ones who will be blamed should they trigger a second wave of virus deaths or never dampen the current plateau of deaths.

The president is the one who will be doing the blaming. He’s moved on from the early stages of assessing the threat to now leaving it behind. So how important are the hopes and dreams, perhaps the fantasy of a president at this advanced stage of the pandemic?

We end as we often end, saying the virus doesn’t care who is cheerleading, who is being prudent, who is on the right side or the wrong side of all the medical-care arguments. It’s a nearly inanimate mechanism that invades where it can.

In the end, whenever it ends, there will be no doubt who was right, who is still alive. Meanwhile in a haphazard, disorganised but slowly self-correcting way, we’ll wander through the indulgent fantasies and the cruel realities, looking to tomorrow for answers.




Colin Lambert

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