"Donald J. Trump defeats COVID": The absurd Soviet-style propaganda campaign around his illness

Mixing the worst totalitarian traditions with uniquely American narcissism, the Trump regime tries to deny reality

By Heather Digby Parton


Published October 5, 2020 9:05AM (EDT)

U.S. President Donald Trump leaves the White House for Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on the South Lawn of the White House on October 2, 2020 in Washington, DC. President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump have both tested positive for coronavirus. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
U.S. President Donald Trump leaves the White House for Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on the South Lawn of the White House on October 2, 2020 in Washington, DC. President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump have both tested positive for coronavirus. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Four years ago, almost to the day, Donald Trump was on the campaign trail mocking Hillary Clinton's bout of pneumonia and insisting that contracting such an illness rendered her too weak and unfit to be the president. The campaign ran what was called by some the nastiest political ad ever, called "Dangerous." It depicted Clinton as a doddering invalid who was so incapacitated she couldn't handle foreign policy and national security.

It's not news that Donald Trump is a crude and cruel piece of work, of course. But it's worth recalling that ugly incident because it provided a window into his twisted psyche and the way he views his "brand" as being a virile strongman with superior genes. One aspect of that brand is that he isn't one of those losers who gets sick.

Perhaps the best way to understand exactly how Trump wants people to view him is to read the ludicrous letter he dictated to his New York physician, Dr. Jacob Bornstein, during the 2016 campaign, in which he described himself as potentially "the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency," whose "physical strength and stamina are extraordinary."

Various reports have trickled out since we found out that Trump had tested positive for COVID-19, revealing that at first he was in denial about having been exposed to the virus, so much so that he flew around the country, further exposing hundreds of his supporters and donors to it. When he finally realized that he was sick, Trump reportedly got scared, asking his staff if he was "going to go out like Stan Chera," an old friend of his from the New York real estate world who died of the disease last spring.

But just as Trump has admittedly "downplayed" the pandemic from the very beginning — spreading more disinformation than any other source, according to a recent study — he is now attempting to "downplay" his own illness by staging one amateurish propaganda stunt after another. It would be downright amusing if the stakes weren't so high, and if so many other people's lives weren't hanging in the balance.

Although we can't state this as a scientific certainty, it certainly appears that the gathering in the White House Rose Garden to announce the Supreme Court nomination of Amy Coney Barrett on Sept. 26 was a "super-spreader" event. There's a long list of people who were in attendance and have since tested positive, and since it can take up to 14 days to show symptoms, there could still be more. Trump's reckless visit to his golf club fundraiser in New Jersey to meet with donors from all over the country last week, after he knew that his aide Hope Hicks was sick, could well have been another super-spreader event: More than 200 people were there.

It remains unclear whether Trump had been tested before his debate with Joe Biden last Tuesday. He and his entourage showed up too late to be tested, refused to wear masks and were on the "honor system" when they all claimed they had tested negative that day. The timeline strongly suggests that Trump had already been infected, and the White House is not being forthcoming about his testing history. So far, Biden has tested negative three times. But until two weeks have passed, I don't think anyone can feel reassured that Trump's toxic aerosols didn't make their way across the stage during his 90-minute primal scream session.

The Washington Post reports that even though the White House is clearly the site of a major COVID cluster, officials there didn't bother to issue instructions to the staff until Sunday night — and even then, all they said was that staffers should stay home and call their health care provider if they feel sick. By all accounts, people are still working at the White House without masks and the CDC hasn't started any official contact tracing. According to the Wall Street Journal, Trump told people who had tested positive to keep it quiet and even his campaign manager, Bill Stepien, was kept in the dark as the virus ran unchecked through the White House. Stepien has since tested positive and is quarantining at home. 

So it's a chaotic mess in TrumpWorld, as usual. But what isn't so usual is the way the medical professionals are handling this. It's clear that Trump has been much sicker than anyone let on at first. He required supplementary oxygen at least twice, needing oxygen and has been given cocktail of experimental therapeutic drugs. All this is clearly threatening to his self-defined brand as the "healthiest individual ever elected."

Presenting that image is so important to Trump that he has apparently convinced Dr. Sean Conley, the White House physician (and a Navy officer), to throw his integrity away in press conferences that are such obvious cover-ups he's tripping over his own tongue. When questioned over his inconsistent reports about the status of the president's health, Conley replied, "I didn't want to give any information that might steer the course of illness in another direction," which is such an absurd statement you almost feel sorry for him. (Unless he really believes he could make Trump sicker by telling the truth.)

Meanwhile, Trump is staging videos from the hospital, having pictures taken of him signing blank pieces of paper and giving the impression that he's working in different rooms around the clock — when the metadata makes clear that the photos were taken within minutes of each other. On Saturday night, his daughter posted this preposterous tweet:

This propaganda is reaching Soviet levels of absurdity, except that instead of the party and the bureaucracy going to extreme lengths to hide the ill health of their leader, this time it's the leader himself running the cover-up. And because it's Trump, it's an outrageous exercise in narcissism.

In his video on Saturday, he said:

This was something that happened, and it's happened to millions of people all over the world, and I'm fighting for them. Not just in the U.S., I'm fighting for them all over the world.

His fans are actually saying he led us into this battle against the virus by modeling the reckless and irresponsible behavior we should all be following:

They're already commemorating the great victory:

Apparently, Donald Trump has Made America Great Again by getting COVID-19. 

By Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

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