How Trump Sold Failure to 70 Million People

“On Wednesday, the U.S. shattered the world record for daily coronavirus cases by topping 100,000 for the first time—only to break the record again each subsequent day until a Saturday high of 128,000. Field hospitals and makeshift morgues are appearing around the country. Daily death counts have risen to more than 1,000.” 

“The president has variously lied by his own admissiondenied the severity of the disease, and promised false cures, all as the death toll shot into the hundreds of thousands.” 

“Biden won decisively, but more than 70 million Americans still voted for Trump. That’s more than those who voted for him in the 2016 election”

“One exit poll found that the virus was the most important issue guiding more than 40 percent of voters. But somehow, 80 percent of Republican voters said they believe that the virus is at least “somewhat under control” in the same week that cases reached record numbers. The virus alone clearly did not scare an overwhelming number of people away from voting for Trump.” 

“Trump’s vacuous promises about the virus were more than self-serving, disingenuous, and deadly; they were also convincing and appealing to many people. Understanding why will be crucial to America’s pandemic response even after Trump is out of office.
The narratives and tactics Trump used to persuade people to trust him as a sole beacon of truth—amid a sea of corrupt, lying scientists and doctors—draw on those of cult leaders, self-proclaimed healers, and wellness charlatans as much as those of authoritarian demagogues. They have proved effective over centuries. In 1927, the British physician A. J. Clark lamented the proliferation of “quackery” in the medical profession. The term was once simply synonymous with fraud. “The fact that this term has come to signify, in popular usage, a pretender to medical knowledge indicates very clearly that there is something about the cure of disease that particularly attracts both delusion and imposture,” Clark wrote. That is, when we are sick or threatened by disease, we seem to be uniquely susceptible to scams.”

“Sellers depend on information asymmetry, wherein it’s hard for consumers to know if a product is effective, but very easy to believe that it is. If someone tries to sell you a car that doesn’t have wheels, you know it. If someone tries to sell you a secret vitamin that’s going to prolong your life, you just have to trust him (or not).

The same holds if someone tells you that an invisible virus is going to disappear. Trump’s primary approach to the pandemic has been to tell people what they would like to be true. He has promised, repeatedly: Everything will go back to normal; everyone will have amazing treatments; there will be a vaccine very soon; the disease isn’t that serious, anyway. The fact that these are conflicting claims—not to mention patently false—can only partly detract from their allure. To avoid scrutiny, quacks use misdirection. In textbook form, Trump consistently pointed to another threat that, by comparison, made the actual threat (the virus) seem smaller: Stopping the coronavirus would kill jobs. This is a false dichotomy. The two issues are conjoined. Economies collapse when going outside is dangerous; they thrive when people not only feel safe, but actually are safe.

Like any competent quack, Trump focuses on a winning vibe, not a factual case. He positions himself as an alternative to “the scientists” and “the doctors” such that followers have to choose between trusting them or him. This process, in extreme forms, leads to what some psychologists refer to as identity fusion. William Swann, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, coined the term in 2009 while studying theories of individual identity. Once fused with a group or leader, he noticed, followers seem tied to them in such a way that things are true because the leader said them. Dystopian as that may seem, it can be a coping mechanism: Orienting your sense of truth around a person can be more comforting than doing so around a nebulous, uncertain, or otherwise threatening reality. Fusion is not appealing because it makes sense; it is appealing because it alleviates the cognitive and emotional burden of thinking.”

“The freedom from scrutiny Trump now enjoys from many of his followers is reflected in an ignorance even of where he stands on the pandemic. In the survey of 4,000 Americans, 81 percent of Trump voters who believed that masks should be required also believed that Trump agrees. He has not supported a mask mandate, and has barely even endorsed their voluntary use.” 

“There are ways to serve as a confident, optimistic leader without making up nonsensical promises.”

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