Dr Owain Williams By: Dr Owain Williams
Lecturer in IR and Human Security
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30 Apr 2020 : Lying and the Politics of COVID

One of my personal battles in lockdown is trying not to watch Trump’s daily briefings, which I have about a 50% success rate with. A first world problem I know. It is a bit like watching an episode of Faulty Towers between your fingers, cringing as Basil spirals out of control after starting out with some petty lie or misunderstanding, a nose-diving victim off his own hubris and pomposity. Hard to watch, but utterly compelling. The difference with the Trump experience is that the lies are multiple and very public, and he is simply blame shifting and costing lives, and it has passed the comic long ago.

Again, I am thinking of the many responses and statements to COVID being examples of the post-truth shift in politics. I have never really taken a deep dive into that literature, and therefore post on Twitter a simple question to a former colleague and long-time friend who has worked in the post-truth space, the Critical Realist, Colin Wight. Colin pings me back an article he wrote in The Conversation in 2017 (https://theconversation.com/amp/a-robert-de-niro-theory-of-post-truth-are-you-talking-to-me-87606). The question I asked is what is the difference between post-truth and simple lying? The article is very illuminative for what is unfolding in the USA and other countries, especially the UK. The upshot is lying has always been part of the knowledge production of politics, and what has changed in the post-truth era is how these lies are received by the population and are routinely used to gain or preserve political power. I think that might have been the case for Trump for quite some time, and many people simply believed his statements because they had resonance with their own world views, or because it was easier to believe him than change their public or at home stances taken in supporting him. Or people were too lazy to question his lies. Post-truth is best summed up by Colin:

‘This is why so many are sceptical that the concept of post-truth represents anything new. Not all haystacks contain needles. So where is post-truth located, and how did we get here? Post-truth resides not in the realm of the production, but in the realm of reception. If lies, dissembling, spinning, propaganda and the creation of bullshit have always been part and parcel of politics, then what has changed is how publics respond to them.’

I think his post-truth holiday may be well and truly over, and something has shifted in public opinion and in the GOP. COVID has completely exposed him, a case of the Emperor’s new clothes, with his statements and reckless lying just too obvious and dangerous not to have produced a shift in how the lies are received, and an erosion of his power that was built on them. We have gone beyond Kellyanne Conway’s infamous defence of the administration viewing matters in terms of ‘alternative facts’. There are no alternative facts to 61,000 deaths, a litany of public statements that set out his fundamental lack of care, and months long rejection regarding the much warned of implications of the virus. All of it very, very public.

Last night’s briefing and press conference of the 29th April is a masterclass in how the crisis has exposed him and his lies. As Trump meets with industry leaders in a televised press conference for the third day in a row, Aaron Rupar (the Vox journalist worth following on Twitter) gives his excellent minute by minute breakdown of the lies. Trump is quoted and fact checked:

"We had old-fashioned tests that didn't work... they were broken" -- this is complete nonsense from Trump. The novel coronavirus didn't exist until late 2019, so there were no tests for him to inherit.

“We've tested more than all countries put together" - this is a lie. Not even close to true.

"You shouldn't be hearing about testing, but that's the last thing [the media] can complain about I guess ... I don't know that all that [testing] is even necessary" -- Trump downplays importance of testing, which he suggests is a luxury (experts say more testing is necessary).

"I've been at the White House now for many months, and I would like to get out." (Trump had a weekend-long golf vacation at Mar-a-Lago just last month and has travelled to 8 political rallies since the first US coronavirus case was reported in late January). For the second time today alone, Trump falsely claims that the 1918 flu pandemic happened in 1917.

"I don't see helping cities and states if they're going to be sanctuary, because all sanctuary means to me is protecting a lot of criminals" - Trump indicates he will use federal coronavirus relief to get blue states to change their sanctuary city policies.

REPORTER: Without a vaccine, why do you think the virus will just be gone?

TRUMP: "It's gonna go. It's gonna leave. It's gonna be gone. It's gonna be eradicated." "This is going away. I think we're gonna come up with vaccines & all, but this is going away." (He doesn't seem to understand that infectious disease don't just magically vanish).

#If we lose 65,000 people" - Trump has moved the goalposts from no deaths to fewer deaths than the Swine Flu to 60,000 deaths & now to 65,000 or 70,000 deaths. He's positioned himself to proclaim any death toll smaller than 2 million Americans as a reflection of his good work.

My own viewing tunes into his statements and lies about testing, all evolving in the same day and contradicting the start of the day by the end of it. Sheer chaos. He claims he never said testing would reach 5 million a day after stating earlier exactly that. He never said it, it was a Harvard report. This part is true and  a Harvard study set the target for 5 million US tests per day, but the POTUS had seized on it used it a statement on what threshold of testing his administration would imminently reach. On the same day the US Admiral now in charge of the national testing strategy (go figure) claims that they simply don’t have the capacity to reach 5 million tests a day. Added to this, it emerges on multiple channels that what tests there are not being steered to hospitals in many states, but are with the commercial testing laboratories, which have plenty of them. Hospitals are exactly where you want them, both for staff and new cases presenting.

So how is all of this daily lying being received, and what is the post-truth side of the lies? CNN carries a report from Jeremy Diamon who details a recent poll in Texas, a key swing state. Trump is now polling 1 percentage point below Biden in that state. This is significant for two reasons. First, Texas has not voted for a Democrat president since Carter in 1976. Second, Texas is now one of a range of swing states where Trump is tanking against Biden. These are coupled with polls where his handling of the crisis is on downward trajectory in public ratings. Moreover, Trump is apparently spooked by this, but clearly unable to change his briefings or his lies, it is too ingrained. Over the weekend he fell out with his election campaign manager, the odious Brad Parcale, who he berated for poor polling and poor strategy. Trump threatens to sue him. The GOP must be head in hands over his continued refusal to stop talking and publicly lying himself into an election loss. This is the man who yesterday when asked about his February claim that the then 15 infected would ‘go down to zero in a couple of days’, then said he never said that, and it would be months and it would happen ‘when appropriate’.

He is not the only post-truther being exposed. The UK government is facing a hostile press, in all but a few of the most doggedly pro-Conservative papers. The Guardian carries a fantastic piece of journalism on the missing 38 days. One of the key things to emerge is that, despite now claiming that the government were never going for herd immunity, they most clearly were. Boris Johnson’s ‘we might have to take it on the chin’ was a reflection on what Vallance (the Chief Scientific Advisor) in particular alluded to in a number of interviews on March 13. He tells Radio 4 and Sky News saying he expected 60% of the population to become infected, and this would engender herd immunity. This at the stage the Downing Street was resisting lockdown measures. The lies are now routine on this, especially from Matt Hancock, but there are multiple sources from around a very leaky government that know the truth. In fact, we all do or should. We have the lies around PPE, preparations,  ventilator orders, and gloves being counted not in pairs but as single items. It should be game over as it is with Trump, with the UK on 21,000 deaths.

In China they are now peddling their own post-truths. One Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson tweets that the virus came from the USA, the same story carried by the China Daily Post. They imagine that they can re-write history for external or internal audiences? It is absurd and just a lie, with no possibility of post-truth reception in all but the dimmest.

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