Philosophers have long recognized language as a powerful but limited medium for communication. Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” illustrates the challenges inherent in assuming language can “mirror” reality, imagining a community of individuals chained in a cave facing a blank wall, where their “reality” consists of the shadows cast upon the wall. Plato imagined philosophers as those wise few (for Plato undoubtedly men) who, unshackled from their bonds, see the shadows for what they are. For Plato, knowing the truth imposed a duty on philosophers to bring reality to the members of their community, but also recognized people’s often-hostile reaction to the news their reality was a tissue of lies and pretenses.
Many subsequent philosophers criticized Plato’s conceit that philosophers can escape the bonds of language, and see in the Forms the essence of unmediated reality. For those critics, we all remain trapped within the confines of language, constrained by both limited vocabulary and imagination, and subject to manipulation, both through self-deception and deceit.
That language creates abundant potential for manipulation creates a further complication, as illustrated in President Trump’s statements on the coronavirus outbreak. Since March 3, when Trump announced that Vice President Mike Pence would head up a Coronavirus Task Force, he has taken every opportunity at task force press conferences to sell a rosy COVID-19 near-term future.
In the abstract, Trump’s use of the “bully pulpit” is hardly noteworthy. Contemporary presidents routinely use press conferences for decades in the service of promoting their approach to high-profile issues. All contemporary presidents have significant incentives to present an appearance of the president as “controlling and in control” of high-profile events. How President Trump participates reveals motivations at odds with his apparent determination to appear “presidential.”
Historically, presidents have worked to avoid the impression of overt partisanship in press conferences on matters of similar gravity. In contrast, President Trump’s deliberate choice to describe COVID-19 as “Chinese virus” at one of last week’s press conference echoes his consistent nativist xenophobia. In this instance, the Chinese government’s smear of the U.S. military as the origin point of COVID-19 may account for Trump’s change in language.
During a March 21 press conference, NBC’s Peter Alexander asked, “What do you say to Americans who are watching right now who are scared.” Most journalists viewed the question as a “softball,” easily parried, and actually offering the president an opportunity to reassure the public. President Trump impulsive and bizarrely inapt response -- “I say you’re a terrible reporter” – followed by a rant against “Concast” (NBC’s owner) betrays his instinctive rejection of any check or oversight of his actions, and to appeal specifically to his base rather than the public.
The most persistent themes of Trump’s role in these press conferences focus on a series of questionable economic assertions and predictions. First, President Trump consistently asserts, “every resource is being mobilized” to combat COVID-19.” His March 20 included his very public invocation of the Defense Production Act, or DPA, which authorizes the federal requisition of private industry to expand production capacity of scarce goods and services in times of war or national emergency.
Unfortunately, the president has not followed up and ordered private industries to mass-produce more ventilators, N95 respirator and surgical-grade masks, or “Level 3” surgical gowns, preferring to hold the authority to “leverage” private industry to produce the needed personal protection equipment, or PPE. Likewise, at the March 19 press conference, responding to governors begging for greater federal help, Trump replied that the federal government was “not a shipping clerk,” insisting on state responsibility to procure more ventilators and PPE. With such direction, a great deal of America’s industrial capacity remains uncommitted to responding to the multiple crises looming on the horizon.
The failure on the part of the Trump administration to act as “procurer of last resort” has perpetuated PPE shortages, exposing healthcare personnel to heightened risk of exposure. More importantly, the lack of federal coordination compels heavily impacted states to compete with one another for those scarce medical resources.
The shortage of PPE precludes aggressive testing to better track the spread of COVID-19. For example, here in Oklahoma, the number of cases rose from 29 on March 17 to 106 on March 24, galvanizing OK Governor Stitt to ban groups of more than 10 people and issue his “safer at home” policy. Oklahoma healthcare professionals’ complaints of the insufficiency of these policies appear strengthened by the governors’ estimate that existing cases in the state might be five times higher than confirmed cases.
Second, in recent press conferences President Trump has touted the promise of anti-malarial drugs like hydroxychloroquine and Remdesivir in slowing the rate of fatalities until a vaccine can be sufficiently tested and brought into production. To be sure, these are well-known drugs; however, without extensive clinical trials, medical scientists cannot be certain of such drug’s efficacy and proper dosage for COVID-19 treatment. Moreover, shifting existing supply of antiviral drugs to COVID-19 patients may also create shortages and hardships for millions of Americans with autoimmune diseases like Lupus.
Third, President Trump recently declared America would soon be “open for business.” At a March 24 briefing, the president complained, “We can’t have the cure be worse than the problem.” Advocating the country be reopened by Easter Sunday, the president stated, “it would be great to have “packed churches all over the country.” Like Texas Lt. Governor Dan Patrick’s recent statement that elderly Americans should be prepared to sacrifice their lives by returning to work in order to prevent an economic collapse, the president’s ‘early return’ arguments ignore healthcare experts, who argue easing mitigation would likely accelerate transmission, and compel even more drastic, economy-damaging measures.
Trump declared at the March 23 press conference, “We are not a country based on nationalizing our business.” A cynical interpretation of that statement might attribute ideological motivations the president’s reluctance. If the intended narrative of the 2020 elections is to smear Democrats as “socialists,” then the president’s use of the DPA to marshal an all-out, top-down mobilization of the American economy undermines that message. Is keeping up appearances more important than responding to this threat?
I am not overly prone to cynicism, but I offer a couple of predictions. By Easter Sunday, several major U.S. metropolitan areas will be overwhelmed. Oklahoma and much of the rest of the country will be under “shelter in place” orders, and Oklahoma will be confronting closer to two thousand than the current one hundred confirmed COVID-19 cases.
The reality of this pandemic will strip away the president or his supporter’s attempts to project the appearance of a rapid return to normalcy. I hope I am wrong. I fear I am not.
Dr. Ken Hicks is a political scientist and department head of History and Political Science at Rogers State University. The opinions, beliefs, and viewpoints expressed in this column are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of Rogers State University.