Skip to main content

Three years ago on this site, I wrote a piece entitled “Donald Trump and the Braindead Megaphone.” It reflected on a 2007 George Saunders’ essay that presaged the presidency of Donald Trump. From it, I quoted the following lines:

Did Donald Disinfectant Trump Finally Go Too Far

Imagine a party. The guests, from all walks of life, are not negligible. They’ve been around: they’ve lived, suffered, own businesses, have real areas of expertise. . . . They’re talking about things that interest them, giving and taking subtle correction. . . .

Then a guy walks in with a megaphone. He’s not the smartest person at the party, or the most experienced, or the most articulate.

But he’s got that megaphone.

Saunders then indicates that people start listening to him. They start talking

about the validity of Megaphone Guy’s ideas . . . . Some are agreeing with him, some disagreeing—but because he’s so loud, their conversations will begin to react to what he’s saying. As he changes topics, so do they.

These responses are predicated not on his intelligence, his unique experience of the world, his powers of contemplation, or his ability with language, but on the volume and omnipresence of his narrating voice. His main characteristic is his dominance. He crowds the other voices out. His rhetoric becomes the central rhetoric because of its unavoidability.

In time, Megaphone Guy will ruin the party. The guests will stop believing in their value as guests, and come to see their main role as reactors-to-the-Guy.

My essay also quoted an article in The Nation, “All TV Will Be Trump TV,” that predicted, “Come the next presidency, Trump TV will, in effect, be on all channels all the time. . . . Nearly all news will revolve around Trump, more even than it already does. Syria and immigration, police violence and school vouchers, hate crimes, sex crimes, terrorism, gossip, Social Security—all will reflect aspects of Trump’s brain. His personality will saturate the fabric of the media.”

How true, just a few months into the Trump presidency, that foreshadowing was! And the reporting of coronavirus cases in the USA beginning in February 2020 just made Trump’s appearances more ubiquitous, for beginning in March he appeared day after day at almost 50 daily press briefings of the coronavirus taskforce.

These televised briefings provided Trump a daily forum to bloviate as only he can. And at first they seemed to aid him. On 19 March, for example, he hyped two antimalarial drugs as possible treatments against the coronavirus. “I think it could be something really incredible,” he said, the two drugs had shown “very, very encouraging results.”

The New York Times reported that “by that evening, first-time prescriptions of the drugs—chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine—poured into retail pharmacies at more than 46 times the rate of the average weekday…And the nearly 32,000 prescriptions came from across the spectrum — rheumatologists, cardiologists, dermatologists, psychiatrists and even podiatrists.” Despite some warnings from medical experts, the drugs “were still being prescribed at more than six times the normal rate during the second week of April,” and Trump continued to hype them, as he did at the briefing on the 13th of April, as “having some very good results.”

Scroll to Continue

Recommended Articles

Trump’s behavior was especially dangerous because in general his followers are less educated and more anti-intellectual and anti-scientific than the average voter.

As the Times noted, “the extraordinary change in prescribing patterns reflects, at least in part, the outsize reach of the Trump megaphone, even when his pronouncements distort scientific evidence or run counter to the recommendations of experts in his own administration. It also offers the clearest evidence yet of the perils of a president willing to push unproven and potentially dangerous remedies to a public desperate for relief from the pandemic."

Trump’s behavior was especially dangerous because in general his followers are less educated and more anti-intellectual and anti-scientific than the average voter—this generalization is not based on any ivory-towered contempt of “the masses,” but on polling data and Trump’s support from evolution and human-caused-global-warming deniers.

But as Hannah Arendt pointed out in “Truth and Politics” (1967), truth possesses a stubborn staying power that lies lack. “This is the reason that consistent lying, metaphorically speaking, pulls the ground from under our feet and provides no other ground on which to stand.”

And Trump faced an obstacle that leaders in more authoritarian regimes often did not—a free press. Time after time reporters at the task-force briefings asked questions that left Trump fumbling and responding with such words as “you’re a terrible reporter” or your paper covers “me very inaccurately…I think it’s a disgrace.”

Finally, at a briefing on Thursday, 23rd of April, Trump went too far for even some of his most ardent supporters. Referring to the coronavirus, he stated: “I see the disinfectant that knocks it out in a minute, one minute. And is there a way we can do something like that by injection inside, or almost a cleaning?”

Following Trump’s query, “so many callers flooded a [Maryland] health hotline with questions that the state’s Emergency Management Agency had to issue a warning that ‘under no circumstances’ should any disinfectant be taken to treat the coronavirus.”

On Fox News, Trump’s favorite news show, even Steve Doocy, a co-host of “Fox & Friends” and frequent defender of Trump, warned that injecting disinfectants “is poisonous,” and Fox Business anchor Stuart Varney, another Trump favorite, added “Please don’t try this at home.” A few of the other Fox anchors, like Chris Wallace and Bret Baier, were even more critical of Trump’s suggestion that some type of disinfectant injection might kill the virus.

Of course, other Trump apologists like Rush Limbaugh criticized not Trump but unfriendly media: “The drive-by media is attempting to persuade and convince people that Donald Trump told people to drink Drano at the White House press briefing.” New White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany complained , “Leave it to the media to irresponsibly take President Trump out of context and run with negative headlines.” But, following much negative press, Trump himself tried to spin his suggestion by saying “I was asking a question sarcastically to reporters like you just to see what would happen.” But no credible sources were gullible enough to believe another lie by a president who in his first three years in office “spoke or tweeted a staggering 16,241 false or misleading claims.”

Angry at the press response, a miffed Trump tweeted , “What is the purpose of having White House News Conferences when the lamestream Media asks nothing but hostile questions, & then refuses to report the truth or facts accurately. They get record ratings, & the American people get nothing but Fake News. Not worth the time & effort!”

But Trump has a difficult time passing up any chance at free publicity. Whether he will long refrain from bloviating during coronavirus task-force briefings remains an open question. Nevertheless, perhaps an overwhelming majority of our fellow citizens have finally had enough from a man whose narcissism and nonsense are of epic proportions.

According to the 23rd of April poll by the Associated Press and NORC at the University of Chicago, “just 23 percent of Americans consider Trump a trustworthy source of information on the virus, while 52 percent trust their state and local leaders. (Contrast these percentages with the 84 percent of New Zealanders who approve of their government’s response to the pandemic.)

Yet, I still remain wary. A little over decade ago the former editor of the History News Network, Rick Shenkman, wrote, Just How Stupid Are We?: Facing the Truth About the American Voter. That, along with his more recent, Political Animals: How Our Stone-Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics, should keep us from becoming overconfident. Moreover, Trump has an unquenchable lust for power and a special talent for appealing not to “our better angels,” as Lincoln said, but to our collective worse demons--our anti-intellectualism, envy, intolerance, and distrust.

One can only hope that by early 2021 two of our new century’s worst plagues will be over--the coronavirus pandemic and the Trump presidency. But to ensure either result we still have much work to do.

walter moss

Walter Moss