The powerlessness of positive thinking: Coronavirus optimism has hurt Trump


Veteran journalist Bob Woodward’s forthcoming book Rage has triggered a debate over how President Trump publicly talks about the coronavirus — which, aside from his descriptions of China’s role in the pandemic, has often been characterized more by optimistic pronouncements than rage.

Trump regularly predicts that the worst is over and the virus will soon disappear, even as the U.S. death toll climbs. But interviews with Woodward suggest the president understood its severity even as he issued these public reassurances, prompting reporters to pepper the White House with questions about whether this was dishonest. Joe Biden said that Trump lied and people died. "He knew and purposely played it down. Worse, he lied to the American people. He knowingly and willingly lied about the threat posed to the country for months," the Democratic nominee argued in Michigan.

“The president has never lied to the American public on COVID,” countered White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany at a briefing on Wednesday. “The president was expressing calm, and his actions reflect that.” Trump went a step further. “As the British government advised the British people in the face of World War II, keep calm and carry on,” he said at a campaign rally in Michigan on Thursday. “That's what I did.”

“I don’t want to jump up and down and start screaming, ‘Death! Death!’ because that’s not what it’s all about. We have to lead a country,” Trump told reporters. “There has to be a calmness.” Although Woodward has amplified it closer to the election, this debate is nothing new. Back in April, challenged on why he said, “Within a couple of days, the cases will be down to zero,” Trump replied, “You have to understand, I'm a cheerleader for this country.”

“But at the same time I'm cheerleading, I'm also closing down a very highly infected place, specifically the location, as you know, in China that had the problems,” Trump added. “And we're closing it down, but we closed it down to all of China, then we closed it down to all of Europe. Those were big moves, and it was right about that time.”

“Communicating at that time was a difficult task,” said Republican consultant Matt Mackowiak.

“The virus was not well understood, and public officials faced dual objectives: prepare the public and protect public health while not creating a panic and threatening supply chains and PPE availability.”

Critics respond by saying that usually when Trump is truly concerned about something, or wants his supporters to be, he warns of “American carnage,” rather than invoking the “light at the end of the tunnel.” “Throughout his five years on the national political stage, Trump has used fear to acquire and keep power,” opined Washington Post reporter Philip Rucker. “Scare tactics are the hammer and screwdriver of his toolkit.”

But Trump has also clearly been influenced by motivational speakers, especially the sermons of Norman Vincent Peale, who wrote the book The Power of Positive Thinking. Trump has talked about using such a mentality to persevere and lead organizations through past hardships.

“In the early ‘90s I was in a ton of debt. I had gone from the smartest guy in town to a complete zero,” Trump recalled in his 2008 book Think Big. He walked into a meeting and started talking about making investments he could not then afford. “I went into detail about them, painting a vivid picture of success,” he continued. “My accountants all acknowledged later that they thought I had actually flipped out.”

Many voters have responded the same way as his accountants to Trump taking a similar approach to the coronavirus. Polls show much of the electorate has held both the slowness with which he began speaking soberly about it and the speed with which he attempted to turn the page to economic reopening against him. It has hurt his reelection bid. Call it the perils of positive thinking.

“I would have shown him the iconic picture of President George W. Bush, megaphone in hand, standing misty-eyed but strong among first responders in the Manhattan rubble,” said Patrick Hynes, a communications consultant who advised the presidential campaigns of Mitt Romney and John McCain. “Then, I would have shown him video of President Obama’s weak blathering and dispassionate doddering during the Deepwater oil spill. Then I would have said, ‘These are your two options. There is no third way. Take your pick.’”

Trump’s coronavirus management will be on trial through November.

“In the early days, Trump spoke too much at the press conferences and did not let the public health officials speak for him,” Mackowiak said. “But the Woodward 'bombshell' is weak. The WHO did not even declare a global pandemic until March 11. Dr. Fauci has said that President Trump's message was consistent with what they knew.”