Letters From an American

Trump’s Strange Twitter Narrative

Trump's Strange Twitter Narrative

What do we make of Trump's tweetstorm over the weekend? A distraction from a distraction? Or worse? (Photo by Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

July 6, 2020

It is becoming clearer that there are currently two different versions of America. The White House and Trump supporters are trying to pretend that the world Trump continually tweets about is real, while the rest of the country is proving that reality doesn’t much care about the fictions Trump is peddling.

Today began with Trump frantic-tweeting, and those tweets were an impressionistic picture of how he hopes to win voters. He defended his performance in combatting what he called “new China Virus” cases, touted the strong stock market, and warned that “if you want your 401k’s and Stocks, which are getting close to an all time high…, to disintegrate and disappear, vote for the Radical Left Do Nothing Democrats and Corrupt Joe Biden. Massive Tax Hikes—They will make you very poor, FAST!”

He tweeted “China has caused great damage to the United States and the rest of the world,” then attacked Black race car driver Bubba Wallace for the discovery of a noose in his garage (it was not Wallace who discovered it) and NASCAR’s decision to ban the Confederate flag. He complained that “the Washington Redskins & Cleveland Indians, two fabled sports franchises, look like they are going to be changing their names in order to be politically correct. Indians, like Elizabeth Warren, must be very angry right now.”

Then he defended his handling of the coronavirus, and once again insisted that hydroxychloroquine was an effective treatment for Covid-19. He tweeted “SCHOOLS MUST OPEN IN THE FALL!!!” and said that Democrats opposed reopening the schools “for political reasons, not for health reasons! They think it will help them in November. Wrong, the people get it!” Finally, he boasted that his border wall “is moving fast in Texas, Arizona, New Mexico and California. Great numbers at the Southern Border. Dems want people to just flow in. They want very dangerous open Borders!”

This frantic tweeting offered racism, attacks on Democrats, hopeful economic news, and Trump’s signature border wall (which has cost more than $3.6 billion already, for about 120 miles of wall, most of it replacing older fencing). It was a narrative tailor-made for Trump’s base.

Looming over Trump’s portrayal of his version of America, though, was the coronavirus. While other advanced countries have gotten the virus under control and are cautiously beginning to reopen, we are moving the opposite direction. As of today, we have almost 3 million confirmed cases and more than 130,000 deaths. In a number of states, especially in the South, cases are hitting new highs. Europe has banned American visitors, and Mexico and Canada have both closed their border with the US. Rather than trying to stop the crisis, the White House is launching new messaging about the coronavirus: “Learn to live with it.”

Trump is doubling down on the idea that the United States must simply reopen, and take the resulting deaths as a cost of doing business. Three people who have been privy to administration thinking about the issue told reporters for the Washington Post that officials are hoping “Americans will go numb to the escalating death toll and learn to accept tens of thousands of new cases a day.” Advisors have urged Trump to try to avoid responsibility for the administration’s disastrous response to the pandemic by simply blaming China for it. Their goal is to try to repair the economy before the election, recognizing that economic recovery is the only way to make up the gap between Trump’s poll numbers and those of presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden.

Meanwhile, governors who reopened their states before cases had begun to decline significantly are now backpedaling. Texas governor Greg Abbott issued an executive order last Thursday requiring masks in more than half of the state’s hardest hit counties; Georgia Governor Brian Kemp asked Georgians to wear masks; Florida’s Miami-Dade County closed gyms, party venues, and ballrooms; and California closed beaches in Orange County over the holiday weekend. Washington state has stopped its reopening process for at least two weeks and is requiring face masks; Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut have issued travel advisories requiring people coming from fifteen states experiencing Covid-19 spikes to self-quarantine for fourteen days.

But Trump is barreling ahead as if fears of the coronavirus are illegitimate. He is insisting that public schools must reopen for the fall on schedule, with no plan for doing so safely: “SCHOOLS MUST OPEN IN THE FALL!!!” Today, Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran called for this plan exactly, issuing an executive order for all Florida K-12 schools to reopen in August. Florida set the national record for the most new coronavirus cases in a single day—11,458—two days ago.

Today, just as colleges and universities are trying to figure out how to manage their fall classes, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced that foreign students have to leave the country if their universities go to on-line instruction in the fall. The decision appears to be designed to pressure schools to resume face-to-face instruction or lose their foreign students, who pay the full tuition that most American students do not.

Urging Americans to plow headfirst into a deadly crisis that is racking up horrific numbers of dead is an unprecedented abdication of presidential leadership. It is hard to imagine what the endgame is, because it seems unlikely that Americans will, in fact, become numb to rising numbers of dead. Trump has suggested that there will be a vaccine sooner than we think, and perhaps he hopes such a miracle will win him goodwill to overcome our horror at the national death toll (there is even some speculation that he will announce one falsely as part of his “October surprise” before the election).

But the observations of his briefers that he cannot hear anything that does not conform to his worldview have stuck with me as I thought about this today. Perhaps he doesn’t have an endgame at all; he is simply making a gamble that the virus will magically go away, as he has suggested. It strikes me that, until now, he has always been able to get away with ignoring reality in favor of his worldview. The coronavirus, though, can’t be bullied or flattered, and it certainly cannot be ignored.

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Heather Cox Richardson

Heather Cox Richardson teaches American history at Boston College. She is the author of a number of books, most recently, How the South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy, and the Continuing Fight for the Soul of America. She writes the popular nightly newsletter Letters from an American. Follow her on Twitter: @HC_Richardson.