The Noise continues. As the number of people in the United States confirmed to be infected with the novel coronavirus approached 3 million this past weekend, Donald Trump held two snarling white nationalist rallies to celebrate the Fourth of July.
At Mount Rushmore on Friday and the White House on Saturday, Trump continued his George-Wallace-meets-Joe-McCarthy rhetorical rampage, claiming that “left-wing mobs,” Marxists, anarchists, and run-of-the-mill criminals were out to destroy our American heritage. He promised to create, in response, a “National Garden of American Heroes,” with sculptures honoring such American giants as the late Antonin Scalia and Billy Graham. The executive order to create this garden even determines the artistic style of the offerings: Each statue must be a “lifelike or realistic representation of that person, not an abstract or modernist representation.” This builds on a previous order that the Trump administration drafted earlier this year, which would have dictated the architectural style used for federal buildings.
In other countries, at other times, national leaders have got into the business of determining what makes for good art and what makes for bad. The results are not pretty. Recall Joseph Stalin’s bans on the music of composer Dmitri Shostakovich and the writings of Vasily Grossman, or Nikita Khrushchev’s censorship of Boris Pasternak’s epic book Doctor Zhivago. Most pertinently, recall Hitler’s infamous 1937 exhibition of “degenerate art,” which included paintings by artists such as Wassily Kandinsky and Oskar Kokoschka. Their work was deemed too abstract, too modernist, to meet the realist, heroic needs of Nazi art.
Trump has already been called out by much of the media for his choice of American “heroes.” But his strawman attack on the concept of abstract art should also be called out, for its similarities to the Nazi culture wars. As I have written before, this isn’t the first time Trump has echoed Hitlerian language while stoking nationalist sentiments.
At the end of the day, though, if it is built, the Garden of Heroes would merely be one more garish, hubristic monument to Trump’s ego. It wouldn’t actually kill anyone. Where the Noise blended into the Signal this holiday weekend was when Trump shamelessly claimed that 99 percent of coronavirus cases were “totally harmless.” This entirely misleading commentary on the spread of a deadly virus could—and indeed, almost certainly will—have devastating public health implications.
The CDC estimates that as many as 10 times more people in the United States may have contracted the coronavirus than have currently tested positive. That means the mortality rate for the disease could be lower than the numbers currently being bandied about, but that’s very different from saying that non-fatal cases are “totally harmless.” Anyone who reads the news should know that many sufferers have needed to be hospitalized, often in ICUs and sometimes on ventilators; that many face long-term diminution of lung function and other serious health complications; that many experience brain damage from oxygen deprivation and strokes; and that some children experience inflammatory flare-ups that can prove fatal. Anyone who reads the news should also know that even if an individual has a “totally harmless,” asymptomatic case, they are still capable of spreading it to more vulnerable individuals who might well end up dying from it.
The president’s attempt to score cheap political points by downplaying these risks, and encouraging his followers to ignore the spread of the virus, is a textbook example of a sociopathic lust for power. And it is made worse by the inability of the government’s scientific advisers to hold the line against his mendacity. When CNN asked FDA commissioner Dr. Stephen Hahn about Trump’s claim on Sunday, Hahn would only say that cases were surging, but that he wasn’t going to get into the business of saying who was right and who was wrong about numbers.
No disrespect, Dr. Hahn, but your refusal to respond to Trump’s claims is a dereliction of duty—an act of horrifying cowardice, at a moment when the country is crying out for accurate, usable public health information.
Totalitarianism is, at least in part, about using the might of government to bend people and institutions to a leader’s will. It is about shaping not just how people behave but even how they perceive reality. In 1984, George Orwell writes, “In the end the Party would announce that two and two made five, and you would have to believe it. It was inevitable that they should make that claim sooner or later: the logic of their position demanded it. Not merely the validity of experience, but the very existence of external reality was tacitly denied by their philosophy.”
Trump, the art critic cum epidemiologist cum pulmonary specialist, doesn’t just want everyone to listen to his claptrap. He demands that all of society genuinely believe it.
Don’t fall for this ugly nonsense. No matter how much Noise Trump makes, how many Nuremberg-styled rallies he holds, or how much McCarthyite bait-and-switch rhetoric he throws into the ether, two and two still makes four.