For many weeks as the novel coronavirus spread President Trump called it “the flu,” claimed it could be treated in the same way as the flu and that it would take no greater a toll than the flu. He also assured the nation that the virus would simply go away on its own, as on Feb. 28 when he looked forward to the upcoming day when “like a miracle, it will disappear.” On March 31, the same President Trump told the same nation that the same coronavirus was “not like the flu,” that it could kill more than 200,000 Americans, and that he had rejected the advice of unspecified individuals who had compared the virus to the flu and who had recommended taking no action. This statement was offered without explanation, regret for the confusion, or the merest asterisk.
The following day, Vice President Pence, usually not as given to boastful disregard of facts as his boss, stated that “I don’t believe the president has ever belittled the threat of the coronavirus.” This was a straightforward proclamation of belief in the opposite of reality. Can he truly believe his own words? Are we to believe them?
Authoritarian regimes often go through the motions of elections that are duly won by the ruler with eye-popping margins and turnout at or near 100%. Some more extreme autocracies make extraordinary claims about their leaders — that they were born at the summit of a holy mountain, for example, or that they are world-class poets and scholars. Such shows of make-believe are so over the top that they might appear to be self-defeating.
Shouldn’t lies of such magnitude only scream that the regime is an illegitimate fraud, undermining the regime’s power?
In fact, the lies are the point. Authoritarians often use such nonsense to cement their rule. No one is supposed to believe the lies, really, but only act as if they believe them. The regime broadcasts its power by making ridiculous claims and watching everyone submit to their lies. These rulers have demonstrated the power to create a fantasy world and oblige others to adopt the fantasy. They have shown the power to make reality irrelevant.
When the president says that he knew all along that the coronavirus would be a pandemic, or that anyone who wants to be tested can be tested, we are not supposed to believe it. When the vice president says that he believes those things, we are not supposed to believe that he believes those things. We are simply supposed to play along.
Many do and are offended by the reporting of the lies rather than by the lies themselves.
We often comfort ourselves with the notion that reality is stubborn and that the “marketplace of ideas” will ensure that the truth emerges when compared to bad ideas.
It turns out that reality is far more malleable than we might have imagined. It turns out that if we just play along, like a miracle, it will disappear.