Since the dawn of the Trump presidency, countless experts have warned that the president’s lack of credibility would imperil the country in the event of an emergency.
With the worsening coronavirus outbreak, those fears may be coming true.
President Trump’s political allies have made overly optimistic statements only to be contradicted by the government’s top scientists and doctors. For example, Trump claimed on Monday that the coronavirus was “very much under control in the USA.” A day later, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the virus’ spread to the US was inevitable. He said the stock market is “starting to look very good” even as the Dow was nosediving amid coronavirus anxiety.
And the president has been blaming the media for this predicament, reverting to the same tactics that he has employed ever since taking office.
On Wednesday, in a widely-criticized tweet, he claimed that CNN and MSNBC “are doing everything possible to make the Caronavirus look as bad as possible, including panicking markets, if possible.”
He misspelled coronavirus and the typo is still visible on his Twitter profile more than eight hours later.
But misspelling the name of the virus is the least of the government’s problems. President Trump has systematically undermined trust in the media and other institutions that play important roles in public health emergencies. He has explicitly said not to trust sources that he doesn’t personally approve.
He has engaged in what several columnists have called a “war on expertise.” Scientists have been among those adversely affected. Last December an investigation by The New York Times concluded that science is “under attack” by Trump appointees.
“Trump’s disdain for science and his cuts to science and public health programs have subverted preparedness for emergencies like the coronavirus,” said Michiko Kakutani, the famous literary critic and author of “The Death of Truth.”
Trump has also contradicted accurate information from government agencies, like the National Weather Service, as when he insisted that Alabama was threatened by a hurricane last year. The so-called Sharpiegate caused anger and consternation inside the federal agencies responsible for weather forecasting.
Now health agencies like the CDC are in the spotlight. High-minded warnings about breakdowns in trust and the death of truth have more impact when deaths from the coronavirus are being reported every day.
“When you learn you have a dangerous disease, you need to be able to trust your doctor. When entire populations face a dangerous public health crisis, they need to be able to trust their governments,” Dr. Leana S. Wen, a visiting professor at George Washington University’s Milken Institute School of Public Health, wrote in a Washington Post op-ed last month.
That’s a problem in this environment, where trust is in short supply. Multiple polls have shown that only one in three Americans believe he is honest and trustworthy.
The President’s lies have given the public ample reason to distrust what he says – and this has negatively affected perceptions of his administration as a whole.
“This president has lied about everything from trade deficits to Russian interference in US elections. He has disparaged experts at almost every opportunity,” said Daniel W. Drezner, professor of international politics at Tuft University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and author of the forthcoming book “The Toddler in Chief.”
“At a time when people are looking to the federal government for reassurance,” Drezner said, “he will be hard-pressed to provide any.”
Ultimately, Kakutani said, Trump’s free-flowing falsehoods undermine the credibility of the government leaving the public unsure of who or what to trust.
“Truth and an informed public are essential to the functioning of a democracy – and essential, too, for a practical and reasoned response to an emergency,” she said.