[This essay was also crossposted to Facebook on October 2, 2020.]
If your response to the news that President Trump has COVID-19 was “it’s a hoax,” then this essay is directed to you. Given all the gaslighting and lying from the president, skepticism is understandable, but there are good reasons why this turn of events should have been in no way unexpected. There are some deeper issues at play.
So I’m going to do two things. First, I’m going to lay out exactly how I came to believe, instantly and utterly, that the President had COVID-19 (even slightly before it was announced). Second, I want to talk about social media, influences, and frameworks. On this latter point, I’m going to respectfully suggest that a lot of you might be well-served by some self-reflection and change.
Before that, however, I want to make it clear that I’m wading into uncomfortable waters. I’m loathe to tell people they’re wrong or to criticize, even constructively, the thoughts of people I respect. I believe very much in individual freedom, and, as I never tire of saying, I will defend anyone’s right to believe the most ludicrous nonsense there is, especially my own. But I think some of this might be useful, so I’m writing with the preemptive apology that if you’re personally offended, that was not my intent. If you’re a friend or family member, trust me when I say that whether I think you’re right or wrong in your beliefs, I still also think you’re spiffy.
Former GOP presidential candidate and multimillionaire Herman Cain died from COVID-19. He got the coronavirus at a Trump rally. That should have been an enormous warning sign to the entire GOP that Trump’s rallies, many held indoors and mask-less, were very likely super spreader events. If they had simply followed the science, they should not even have needed Cain’s demise as an alarm, but they ignored it anyway.
Trump and his inner circle frequently work in close proximity without masks. Yes, they all get tested daily, but tests are both somewhat faulty and a lagging indicator of infection. As one can be pre-symptomatic and spread the virus, one can also test negative and still be contagious. So having a single layer defense—daily testing only—was and is a stupid idea.
When news came of Hope Hicks’ positive test, it was a matter of seeing when she tested positive and when she went symptomatic. Answer: Negative Wednesday morning (probably a rapid test with high error rate), symptomatic Wednesday afternoon, then positive Wednesday night. Trump, now well-and-truly exposed to the virus through his time with Hicks on the ground, Air Force One, and Marine One, did what one might expect: He told no one (including the Biden campaign), refused to quarantine, exposed donors and staff, and generally did everything wrong. This is fully consistent with both his intellect and character.
When Hicks’ news came and Trump said he was waiting on his own test results, we knew immediately that he’d tested positive on a rapid test. There would be no reason to wait for results otherwise. So I knew right then that Trump had at least one positive result.
Further, I follow a lot of different people on Twitter, and at least one of them noted that the US military had made visible to the world certain aircraft that we typically do not. To untrained observers, this might seem innocuous. What it told him—and given his experience and background I fully believed his assessment—was that the military saw a threat to the nation and was taking a more active than normal posture as a warning to those who might want to exploit any perceived US weakness. The military doesn’t do this sort of thing on a whim.
So for me: Science + knowing Trump and his character + believable, trustworthy sources.
I want to emphasize that I’m not a “science guy,” which is to say that I’ve no specialized science training. The percentage of people I know whose scientific expertise is greater than mine would be very high. I can speak to many areas or fields of science in a cursory manner with a paper-thin degree of depth because I’m well-read. But the volumes of Covid-related posts and blog articles I’ve written are really just a regurgitation of scientists I trust. I’ve no personal expertise or training to bring to the table. My understanding of Covid is now better than your average joe, but it’s an understanding available to anyone. Just listen to the scientists.
Of course this also means that when they get it wrong, so do I. When the ex-head of the CDC said early on that masks were only useful in protecting others, that was the commentary I parroted. That he was wrong and that I was therefore wrong are instructive: First, it highlights how science is self-correcting. We know now that masks protect everyone, and there’s a strong scientific consensus around this. Second, it caused me to lower my reliance on this source’s advice and commentary. Could I or should I have known better? I don’t think so. The guy’s the ex-head of the CDC for goodness sake. It was reasonable to consider his an expert opinion. But he was wrong, so I’m more skeptical now of what he has to say. I will return to this theme.
Many folks, even now, think the idea of Trump having Covid must be some kind of Machiavellian plot. If Trump were half so smart, we’d be in a lot more trouble than we are. Bill Barr is Machiavellian; Trump is not. Most of his sycophants and cronies are not either. In totality, it’s a profoundly stupid group that he’s surrounded himself with, and I would hope that everyone, regardless of political persuasion, could see that.
In an earlier age, it was perhaps more fashionable to formally take stock of a person’s character. We still do this, I think, but probably in a less rigorous and more informal fashion. For me, I know what qualities I look for in friends: trustworthiness, dependability, loyalty, good humor, intelligence, kindness, happiness, and so forth. These are not Trump’s qualities. By and large his character is the reverse.
But we can’t worry about that. In fact, there’s no point in worrying about things we can’t change. Trump, after all, is who he is, and neither you nor I can do anything about it. (That said, Vote!) But we can change ourselves, and therein lies a power we can claim. So that’s what I want to talk about.
There is a psychological theory that says who we are in character, personality, and temperament is in many ways a composite of the five people we spend the most time with. I would argue that the Internet and social media in particular changes this equation, and frequently not for the better. (I do get the irony of saying this on Facebook.)
If you think or thought that Trump’s Covid announcement was a hoax, you have been given a gift: The news that you have a deficiency in the way you perceive the world, because you either are or were very wrong. Now maybe this is a part of your character. But I think it much more likely that your worldview is being influenced by external sources that have their own agendas. In the same way that a company wants to sell you goods, political movements and actors want you to adopt their framework for seeing the world. If you do, you are significantly more likely to reach the conclusions they want you to reach (which gives them power and/or money, in case you’re wondering about the “why”).
In this Internet age, we are all bombarded by information. It has never been more important to determine what and who is trustworthy and reliable and who or what is not. Trump is, for example, utterly unreliable. We all—even his supporters I hope—know this. So I have seen exactly zero of his press conferences and speeches. I will read or view excerpts and commentary from trusted sources, but I refuse to subject myself directly to whatever it is he has to say. I actively avoid Fox News on similar grounds, and for those of us who’ve examined Fox News and its content we understand why: Viewers there are actually less informed about the world than those who consume no TV news at all.
Fox News is the easy example because it’s a highly effective propaganda channel. Most other sources are not as blatant in their bias, making that bias harder to discern. A test: Does what I learn from this source comport with reality over time? Your belief that Trump’s Covid is a hoax means that somewhere in your information-gathering matrix, there is a problem. It’s likely not derived from a single source like Fox News, but a collection of sources that have come together in you. Are these sources reliable? Do they, to take Marie Kondo out of context, bring you joy? Are you a better person, intellectually and emotionally, having read or viewed them? Do these sources have an agenda? If there is an agenda, what is the end result if it succeeds? In this Internet age, these questions are a lot more important than most people think.
So I would suggest that this is an opportunity for self-reflection, a chance to examine how and where you receive the information you do. Today it’s news of little personal impact, but tomorrow it could be something that directly changes your life or the lives of those around you. Your worldview is being shaped and to some extent your character being molded. You have the power to decide for yourself how this happens. We’re social beings, so it will happen. All I’m saying is that you have the power to choose for you, and if you don’t, others will.