In the last week before Election Day, Donald Trump and his team have decided the best possible message on the coronavirus pandemic is the same one Trump wanted back in the spring.
"I wanted to always play it down," Trump told Bob Woodward in a taped conversation on March 19. "I still like playing it down, because I don't want to create a panic."
By "panic," of course, Trump meant he didn't want people to have negative feelings that he was worried might imperil his re-election. With the confidence borne from never facing meaningful consequences for decades of sociopathic behavior, the president embraced the idea that as long as he kept accusing the media of exaggerating the virus in order to damage him politically, the public (or at least his public) wouldn't take the coronavirus seriously.
On Feb. 28, when the coronavirus had only just started to threaten the U.S., Trump gave a speech in South Carolina where he declared, "This is their new hoax," saying that "Democrats want us to fail so badly" that they were willing to exaggerate the threat of the virus in order to endanger his re-election.
Now, with more than 225,000 people dead and 8.6 million infected, all trends make clear that the situation is getting worse, as the U.S. sets new records in transmission rates, dwarfing earlier peaks in the spring and summer. The virus has torn through the White House, infecting Trump and his wife and his son and dozens of others close to the president, including five aides to Vice President Pence whose diagnoses were announced over the weekend.
Despite this, Trump is still committed to the same lie he rolled out in February: The panic is a hoax perpetuated by Democrats and the media to hurt him.
"That's all I hear about now. Turn on television, 'COVID, COVID, COVID, COVID, COVID.,'" Trump said at a Saturday campaign rally in North Carolina. "A plane goes down, 500 people dead, they don't talk about it. 'COVID COVID COVID COVID.' By the way, on Nov. 4, you won't hear about it anymore."
There has been no such plane crash anywhere in the world, an example Trump appears to have made up whole cloth. But it's also telling that the number of fake dead that Trump conjured up in this imaginary disaster was still well below the 943 people who had died of COVID-19 the previous day.
On Monday, Trump doubled down, tweeting that it should "be an election law violation" to cover "COVID, COVID, COVID" this close to the election.
This further confirms what Trump told Woodward in the spring: He knows he's lying when he accuses his opponents of exaggerating the pandemic. He remains confident that he can brazen this out, and believes his lies have the power to erase the millions infected and the death toll that's quickly approaching a quarter of a million. (Either that, or he recognizes he's got no other options.)
"We are not going to control the pandemic," White House chief of staff Mark Meadows shouted at Jake Tapper of CNN on Sunday, in the condescending tone that is standard for Trump officials talking to reporters.
Meadows went on to say they are "going to control the fact that we get vaccines, therapeutics and other mitigation areas," which is just more Trumpian lying designed to trick people into believing that mask-wearing and other social distancing efforts are not necessary. Meanwhile, in many parts of the country, hospitals are being overwhelmed with patients and morgues are running out of room.
As Democratic nominee Joe Biden said in a statement, this "was a candid acknowledgment of what President Trump's strategy has clearly been from the beginning of this crisis," which was to ignore the whole thing and hope "the virus would simply go away."
Or, as journalist Lindsay Beyerstein put it bluntly on Twitter, the Trump campaign's closing argument is, "F*ck you, die of COVID."
Trump's strategy of waving his hands and telling people not to notice the pandemic that's wreaking havoc on the country is working on one set of people: His followers, who have a cult-like devotion to him.
A new Pew Research poll shows that only 24% of Trump supporters believe the coronavirus is an important election issue, compared to 82% of Biden supporters. This represents a sharp decline in Trump voters taking this seriously since August, when 39% of Trump voters saw the pandemic as an important issue.
Trump's injured ego and his unwillingness ever to admit he was wrong has infected his entire base of support. Most of his voters have apparently now decided that getting infected and risking death is a better option than facing that the hated liberals were right about Trump all along.
This polling also made clear that maintaining one's support for Trump means embracing an increasingly incoherent set of rationalizations. Eighty-four percent of Trump supporters claimed that "the economy" was their main voting concern. That, of course, is profoundly delusional, since the economic crisis facing the country is a direct result of Trump and the Republicans failing to take the coronavirus seriously. Now the pandemic is spiraling out of control, which will only deepen the economic crisis, but so far Republicans are refusing to pass any meaningful legislation to curtail the economic damage.
Trump may think the lying-and-whining strategy is a good one, since he has evidently convinced his already loyal followers to walk straight off a cliff with him. But it doesn't seem to have any impact on the rest of the country, except perhaps to stiffen the resolve of the strong majority of voters who dislike Trump to overcome the myriad obstacles Republicans have put in their way to vote him out of office.
But even if Trump's "what coronavirus?" strategy doesn't win him re-election, it will still have major ramifications going into the winter. Trump has made it a loyalty test for his supporters to shun social distancing and masks, which has clearly contributed to the spread of the virus. Even if he loses in November and his supporters become less belligerent and reckless — and there's no guarantee of that — it will be too late for many people. The pandemic is entering into another critical stage, and many people will get sick and die who otherwise wouldn't have. Our entire nation will once again pay an unfathomable price, all because Trump's voters were more concerned about sticking it to the liberals than about their own families and their own lives.