Testing Trump

To Donald, reality is something that happens to other people.

Trump yesterday had his to say about coronavirus testing:

It seems a lot of people interpreted that as him saying that he doesn’t want to test because he doesn’t want us to know how bad it is, and a lot of people immediately chimed in that he was talking about other countries that aren’t testing as much as we are and why he thinks they’re not doing so.

Once again, we’ve got a situation where neither side of a debate is wrong.

Yes, he was talking about how much we were testing in comparison to other countries, but he is still talking about the reasons he doesn’t want there to be more testing over here. He may be attempting to attribute it to other countries, but that’s his own rational that he has been very open and candid about from the moment he refused to let a cruise ship disembark and increase our case count “when it’s not our fault”.

Even if what prompted it was a comparison of US testing levels to other countries, he went on so long and complained so much that it’s hard to see how, in context, he’s not saying he wished we wouldn’t test so much.

Here he complains about how he only increased the testing because other people wanted him to and he’s not being given proper credit:

But I also want to point out the “What we want is to get rid of this thing,” in juxtaposition with “We have more cases than anybody in the world. But why? Because we do more testing.”

The other day in a conversation with my friend Sumana Harihareswara, she brought up Trump’s comments on Katie Miller:

Reading this now, I have to mention something that jumps out at me, which is “she tested very good”. Not that she tested negative. She tested very good. Like it was a test where she would pass or fail by her own actions.

My friend and frequent correspondent Sunny Moraine pointed out to me a while back that his vocabulary of superlatives is collapsing to the point where he’s using the words “strong” and “strongly” more than ever, using them to describe most things, even when it doesn’t quite ring right. I think his use of “good” here falls into the same kind of pattern. Beset by stress and strife, chaos and confusion, he has fallen back to the most positive and most simple words he knows, the words that are unassailable. Good and strong. Strong and good. Nothing wrong with being good and nothing wrong with being strong.

We’ve been testing very strongly, and Katie, she tested good.

Now, Sumana was telling me about is how much it broke her brain to hear Trump discard the idea of a changing state over time and effectively say he’s against tests because he doesn’t want to know that there is any empirical underlying reality and that this reality is mutable.

And I really think that’s the proper reading. In Trump’s world, the only reason to take a test is to say you passed it, you got the good result, they tested you very strongly and you tested very good.

Once you’ve done that (or didn’t, and said you did), why on earth would you tempt fate by testing over and over again? Why give anyone the chance to say you got the bad result? Why give yourself the chance to fail?

When Trump said “what we want is to get rid of this thing” in conjunction with complaining about how testing creates cases, I think we have to understand that what he means by “get rid of” is “get the case count down to zero” and not “eliminte the threat of COVID-19”.

We all mock how he said there were 15 cases and it would soon be 0, but that wasn’t a prediction he made, it was an order he gave that to his annoyance was ignored.

At the time he said it? There were more than 15 cases in the US. I don’t mean invisible community spread, I mean there were more cases from other sources that we knew about.

He chose an arbitrary counting method that focused only on a specific subset of cases, and his intention was that we continue to only consider those 15 cases, and as each of those 15 cases resolved themselves, the count would go down, and when the last one had recovered or died it would be 0, and we’d be done.

That’s what he meant. He didn’t spell it out because he doesn’t like spelling things out and doesn’t feel like he should have to. His insistence that there were only 15 cases, only these 15 cases, should have been enough and if the coronavirus response had been run entirely by his West Wing regulars it would have been enough.

It’s really only because we still have federal agencies that deal with health emergencies and because states and towns were running their own responses that his plan didn’t “work” at least for a while, that we didn’t have a period where the White House reporting 14 cases, then 12, then 7, etc., until one day it’s mission accomplished, and the media’s reporting this with the most emphasis even as they note “some experts disagree”.

Talking about what Donald Trump believes, whether he really believes any part of the pandemic is a hoax or whether he really believes that if he can get everyone to report lower numbers it’ll mean the virus has gone away… that always seems like a mug’s game, to me.

Belief isn’t binary, I don’t think, especially when it comes to the question of believing one’s own hype. Sometimes he means what he says, sometimes he knows he’s lying and thinks so much less of everyone listening because of it, and either or both could be true even when he’s saying the same exact things.

So I don’t care if Trump actually thinks he can make the virus go away by “getting the numbers down” through false reporting and accounting tricks and lack of testing. He will proceed as if this is true, just as he has proceeded as if it’s true from the beginning.