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Fever dreams and magical thinking: The pandemic diaries

Part One

From the first days of his administration it became clear that Trump and company were grounded in magical thinking, which is the belief that one’s ideas, thoughts, and wishes can construct a reality apart from causation. It’s a form of irrationality that, when practiced by those in positions of great influence or power, can be at best unsettling and at worst disastrous.

And if conspiracies and denial are the handmaidens of magical thinking, then Trump and his ilk have been practitioners long before entering the White House, reaching back to his unequivocal support of the Birther Movement. Consider the conviction by Trump of the existence of the “deep state,” meaning that imagined cabal of government bureaucrats, conspiring to bring down his presidency. It was the deep state that carried out the Mueller investigation into Russian interference of the 2016 election, frequently referred to by Trump as a “hoax” or “witch hunt,” and perpetrated by evil people and “never Trumpers.” Ditto the extortive “perfect phone call,” followed by the House investigation and the Senate impeachment trial. Hoaxes all.

There was a time when Trump spoke openly about global warming as a conspiracy orchestrated by China to undermine western economies. But then, climate change has long been denied by the Republicans and Trump, and the withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement by the U.S. is but one example.

However, what has brought Trump’s proclivities for magical thinking into stark relief has been the Covid-19 pandemic wherein his responses to this lethal virus, from the outset, have been revealing, disturbing, even breathtaking. Recall in the first weeks his refusal to acknowledge the possibility that anything had occurred in Wuhan, China, that could have global implications. As well, he fulsomely accepted President Xi Jinping’s reassurance not to worry. And when those first few cases did appear in America, Trump was quick to deny the virus’ contagiousness or lethality, saying, on Feb. 26, “the number of cases (in the U.S.) is going substantially down, not up,” heading to zero. And then in early March he said, “It will go away, just stay calm. It will go away,” followed by, “It’s going to disappear. One day, like a miracle, it will disappear.” In other words, his thoughts would mold a reality wherein the virus would simply vanish.

And when it didn’t, a cascade of victims began to overwhelm our health care system. But because this was a novel virus, there were no efficacious treatments or available medical interventions. This was not the flu, as Trump opined early on. The only responses were hand washing, social distancing and, initially, avoidance of large gatherings such as sporting events and concerts. A national lockdown would come later as the number of cases, hospitalizations and deaths began to climb.

But during those first weeks — from January through the month of February, though Trump had ordered a ban on travel from China, he played for time, refusing to fully address what was confronting the nation. This denial of what was quickly becoming a pandemic would prove to be catastrophic (more about that later).

It was then that Trump took charge of what would become a daily White House briefing in the long unused press room. Soon his sense of confusion and desperation became palpable as he tried to align his reality with that of science, data, and the analyses of the governmental experts/scientists (e.g. the CDC) who were part of his organized task force. In the media, a spectrum of epidemiologists and doctors stepped forward, creating a perpetual tension between Trump’s message and their own.

His resistance, on display during these briefings, was tortured and painful to watch. As a result he began his quest for a magic bullet — something, anything that could, if not cure this leveling virus would aid victims as they fought breathlessly to survive.

Chris Honoré is an Ashland Tidings columnist.