Lots of people have ridiculed President Donald Trump for telling journalist Bob Woodward that he “wanted to always play [Covid-19] down … because I don’t want to create a panic.” That’s hilarious, because Trump obviously loves creating panics — about Mexican immigrants, antifa, single-family zoning, and, scariest of all, low-flow toilets.
But Trump was, as he often does, telling us by accident something profound about American politics.
Nineteen years ago today, a group of men from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Lebanon, and the United Arab Emirates hijacked four passenger jets. They successfully flew three of them into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. All in all, they murdered 2,977 people in one day.
By March 19, the day Trump explained his reasoning to Woodward, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had already predicted that the coronavirus would kill hundreds of thousands of Americans and possibly as many as 1.7 million.
In the first situation, George W. Bush, then the president of the United States, actively fomented panic. Americans could not sleep safely in their beds unless we invaded Afghanistan. The FBI should be able to obtain the bank records or internet activity of citizens anytime it wanted without a warrant. Saddam Hussein was hiding anthrax in his mustache.
In the second situation, one that was objectively much more frightening, the president of the United States openly acknowledged that he played the danger down. This goes not just for the danger of Covid-19 itself: His administration has also played down the continuing economic danger to tens of millions of Americans.
What accounts for the glaring disparity in reactions?
History shows the answer is as obvious as it is bizarre: Reality often has nothing to do with gigantic government actions. Instead, politics is mostly about illusions that leaders strive to create inside our heads.
Bush wanted a pretext to do a lot of things that were unnecessary, while Trump wanted an excuse to do nothing when, in fact, a lot really needed to be done.
In the case of 9/11, the Bush administration did not attempt to respond rationally to the actual events. Instead, they used it as a justification to do what they had always wanted to do but couldn’t get away with. An influential think tank, the Project for a New American Century, had explained the year before that “the United States has for decades sought to play a more permanent role in Gulf regional security,” a goal that “transcends the issue of the regime of Saddam Hussein.” Then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld told an aide just hours after American Airlines Flight 77 plowed into the Pentagon that he wanted to “go massive — sweep it all up, things related and not,” including Iraq if possible. Both Bush and his national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, soon explained that they saw 9/11 as an “opportunity.”
By contrast, Covid-19 really did demand a large-scale government response, but there was little that Trump wanted to do. So Trump has delivered hours of a TV show in which he starred, but not enough PPE for doctors and nurses, or contact tracing, or desperately needed funding for states and cities, and people thrown out of work. Bush wanted a pretext to do a lot of things that were unnecessary, such as invading Iraq, while Trump wanted an excuse to do nothing when, in fact, a lot really needed to be done.
Any look at history shows that this is how the world works. Governments decide what they want to do, and then search for some public rationale.
On December 16, 1989, Panamanian troops shot a U.S. soldier and threatened to rape the wife of a Navy officer. But in the world of political illusion, President George H.W. Bush explained that this meant that we had to invade Panama, which we did, killing hundreds or thousands of people (the precise toll is disputed). An anonymous member of Congress accurately said at the time that “the December 16 incidents were the excuse, and not the reason, for the invasion.” There was no actual connection between the attack on Panama and what had happened to the American troops, which would have been totally ignored if Bush hadn’t wanted a war to oust the country’s military leader, Manuel Noriega, who had once been a CIA asset but had turned into an antagonist to U.S. interests.
On August 2, 1964 the U.S.S. Maddox exchanged fire with North Vietnamese ships in the Gulf of Tonkin. No U.S. sailors were killed; the Maddox suffered a single bullet hole. Then on August 4, nothing at all happened, although the U.S. dreamed up an imaginary second attack on the Maddox. In the world of political illusion, the U.S. used these events as justification to escalate a war that ended up killing millions of people in Indochina.
This isn’t just an American thing.
In April 1980, members of Islamic Dawa, an Iraqi Shia organization opposed to Saddam and backed by Iran, threw a grenade at Tariq Aziz, the deputy prime minster of Iraq. According to Saddam, this meant that Iraq had to go to war with Iran, which it did, leading to the deaths of a million people on both sides.
In June 1982, Palestinian terrorists attempted to assassinate the Israeli ambassador to the U.K. in London. According to Israel, this meant that it had to invade Lebanon, leading to the deaths of thousands and the Sabra and Shatila massacre.
In September 1938, Herschel Grynszpan, who was Jewish, shot a German diplomat in Paris. According to the Nazi Party’s SA paramilitaries, this required them to carry out Kristallnacht.
Today more than any other, we should understand how much Trump’s berserk honesty tells us about life on earth. Our lives have value insofar as the powerful can use them to create whatever “panic” they desire. If not, we Americans will die quietly in a void, as a thousand of us are currently doing every day from Covid-19.