On COVID-19, Trump’s Rhetoric Matters More Than Ever

Last night, President Trump took to prime-time to deliver the most important address of his presidency. With the spread of the coronavirus moving through America at a pace comparable to what we saw a few weeks ago in Italy (a country now under nation-wide quarantine), we needed to hear — in a manner more serious and informative than we have thus far — from our commander-in-chief.

It was an opportunity for Trump to clearly and concisely explain the nature and extent of the threat, the measures being taken by our federal government to deal with the crisis (and provide aide to the inflicted), and what citizens can do to protect themselves and others. Another objective: instilling a sense of confidence in our institutions and calmness to our economic jitters.

It was not an easy or enviable position to be in, but we elect presidents to do hard things for the American people. This includes steadfast leadership and strong communication during tough (and scary) times — even when that leader is rather famous for his rhetorical dishonesty.

Unfortunately, by any objective measure, the address itself was a mess. While the president’s dispirited delivery was further roughened by hoarseness and some cringe-worthy gasps (not a great optic when talking about a deadly virus), that was purely a cosmetic issue. The real problem was with Trump botching the announcements of multiple major policies designed to manage the crisis.

Following the speech, the White House scrambled to correct the record.

Trump had grossly misrepresented the European travel restrictions, telling the world that he was suspending all travel from Europe to the United States, including trade and cargo (information that immediately sent stock futures plummeting and caused panic among Americans traveling abroad). The policy itself, however, states that the ban does not include trade and cargo, and that only foreign nationals would be stopped from traveling here…not Americans returning home.

It was unacceptable that this stuff even made it into Trump’s teleprompter, let alone out of his mouth. And one has to wonder if stocks would be taking the hit they are today if he had described the policy correctly.

Trump’s statement that health insurances companies would be providing coronavirus treatment for free was also wrong. The agreement was to provide free testing, not free treatment. That’s a big difference.

Speaking of testing, notable in its absence was information on when coronavirus testing would become widely available. Thus far, despite promises from the administration and the CDC, it hasn’t.

But on the positive side of things, the address wasn’t a complete disaster. There were some helpful elements, and they weren’t trivial.

President Trump finally stopped downplaying the seriousness of the crisis. While some of his coronavirus-related policies over the past several weeks have been good (and he deserves credit for that), his rhetoric and communication with the public has been far from it.

Trump had offered false assurances that he had stopped the threat when he hadn’t. He said the infection rate was going down when it wasn’t. He claimed a vaccine was just a few months away, when the real estimate was closer to a year and half. He said that anyone who wanted to get tested for the virus could get tested, and that wasn’t true either. Just a couple days ago, he was still insisting on Twitter that the coronavirus was less dangerous than the common flu, even as people like Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, were saying exactly the opposite (according to Fauci, the coronavirus is ten times more lethal than the seasonal flu).

Thankfully, all of that nonsense seemed to end last night. Trump finally got himself on the same page as Fauci and other top health officials, stating that while the health risks to a majority of Americans (including young people) remain low, the elderly population is at a significantly higher risk. He urged older Americans to be “very, very careful,” advising them to avoid nonessential travel, crowded areas, and nursing-home visits unless those visits are medically necessary. He spoke in support of local communities on school closures, social distancing, and the reduction of large gatherings. He spoke in detail about the dire importance of good hygiene and healthy habits, including staying home when you’re not feeling well.

These were things we needed to hear from the president himself (not just Mike Pence and others on the response team), and I’m glad we did. His words should also — hopefully — compel influential members of the pro-Trump media to stop waving off this crisis as a Democratic hoax, or blaming the mainstream media for over-hyping the threat.

Up until now, figures like Rush Limbaugh had been dangerously claiming the coronavirus to be a “common cold.”

“Why do you think this is ‘COVID-19?’” Limbaugh told his audience just yesterday. “This is the 19th coronavirus. They’re not uncommon.”

In reality, this “novel” coronavirus is by no means common, and it was labeled with the number 19 not because 18 similar viruses came before it, but because it emerged in the year 2019.

Similarly, Sean Hannity had been irresponsibly bolstering the notion that this is all an example of Deep State fearmongering, while others at Fox News had been smugly mocking public concern.

Since these pundits essentially say whatever they think Trump wants to hear, the president’s new tone and narrative will likely pull them into the realm of reality, along with their listeners and viewers. That’s a good thing, especially being that the Trump base is largely comprised of the very demographic most at risk during this crisis.

And let’s hope the momentum sticks. This morning, President Trump, for the first time since this crisis began, has spent more of his Twitter time sharing information from the CDC than attacking his political and media opponents. That’s encouraging.

These may seem like baby steps, especially in light of how much misinformation the president and his media supporters had previously spread, but it’s something. And right now, at this very sensitive time in our history, anything that helps build public awareness and reduce public risk should be greeted and hailed as a positive development.

This is one issue that we cannot afford to have swallowed up by politics. The president’s success on this front is far more important than either side’s tribal commitments, rhetorical or otherwise. We should be rooting for him to get it right. And when he gets it wrong, we should call on him to do better (not rationalize the wrongdoing).

Let’s hope he exceeds expectations.