News that President Trump has COVID-19 and must be hospitalized highlights Richard Feynman’s famous observation that, whether you’re dealing with technology or science or medicine, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled. Many Republicans have been proud to act carelessly, refusing to wear masks or even claiming the virus is a hoax. Trump, for example, enjoyed making fun of Joe Biden and his propensity for mask-wearing; he further claimed the virus would simply disappear.
Trump’s illness is a sobering reminder — and we shouldn’t have needed one — to take medical warnings seriously.
Here’s what I wrote back in March:
The Coronavirus Is Immune to Lies
Investigating the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion, physicist Richard Feynman reached a famous conclusion: “For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled.”
The COVID-19 virus is not going to be fooled with lies. It’s not going to be fooled by a denial of medical science. You can’t “spin” the virus away with false information and happy talk. And this is precisely why President Trump (and indeed many other politicians) is uniquely unqualified to handle this crisis.
Trump is the man who sold us a fake university. Trump is the man who’s lied roughly 13 times a day since becoming president. Trump is a fantasist, a fabulist, a con man, a used car salesman, a huckster, an entertainer, take your pick. And he’s good at it. It’s a skill that got him to the White House. But it’s not a skill that works against the coronavirus.
The other day, I was listening to an interview with Noam Chomsky, and he made the point that Trump is a master propagandist. His skill is his shamelessness and sheer extent of his lying. Trump floods the market with lies, so much so that many people, and especially those sympathetic to him, lose the ability to tell truth from lies, fact from fiction. Politically, this helps Trump; but in meeting this medical crisis, it’s a skill that may cost America tens of thousands of lives, and, in worst-case scenarios, perhaps a million or more.
Living by the light of lies is a surefire way to get burned. Last night, I was reading Norman Mailer and came across this invaluable insight:
“Fascism is not a way of life but a murderous mode of deadening reality by smothering it with lies.”
The more lies we tell, the more we open ourselves to fascism. Mailer uses the word meretricious, which combines vulgarity with falseness and insincerity, and he proceeds to denounce our culture, our art, as sickening us because of its ugly dishonesty. (And Mailer was saying this in the early 1960s!)
Again, lies will not defeat COVID-19; they will only speed its spread through America. Lies will only kill us while smothering democracy.
Feynman was right: “Nature cannot be fooled.” So too was Mailer: As a leader, if you think you can deaden the reality of a pandemic with lies, you’re not thinking at all. You’re acting murderously instead.
Update (3/25): Our Dear Leader has decreed America will be open for business again by Easter. Don’t worry: the final decision will be based “on facts.”
They really felt they needed to add that coda: based on facts. And they did, because most of the Trump presidency has been based on lies.
Maybe my title should have been “The Coronavirus Feeds on Lies.” And we are giving it plenty to feed on.