Jodi Doering, an emergency room nurse in South Dakota, tweeted this description of COVID-19 patients she’s been treating: “The ones that stick out are those who still don’t believe the virus is real. The ones who scream at you for a magic medicine, and that Joe Biden is going to ruin the USA. All while gasping for breath ... They tell you there must be another reason they are sick. Yes. This really happens.”
Appearing on CNN, Doering added, “Even after positive results come back, some people just don’t believe it. Their last, dying words are, ‘This can’t be happening to me. It’s not real.’”
This is the tragic but entirely predictable result of what President Trump and his enablers in the right-wing media have been doing for years: lying to the American people.
“It is a core operating principle of Trumpism,” Timothy O’Brien, a Trump biographer, told the Washington Post. “If you constantly attack objective reality, you are left as the only trustworthy source of information, which is one of his goals for his relationship with his supporters – that they should believe no one else but him.”
In the saddest, starkest cases, people who have believed Trump’s falsehoods about the pandemic have died as a result. But the damage caused by Trumpism goes far beyond those individual victims. His war on facts, his rejection of reality, has stained and shredded the very fabric that binds our nation together.
In a series of interviews promoting the publication of his new memoir, Barack Obama focuses on that damage. “I come out of this book very worried about the degree to which we do not have a common baseline of fact and a common story,” the former president told Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic. “We don’t have a Walter Cronkite describing the tragedy of Kennedy’s assassination, but also saying to supporters and detractors alike of the Vietnam War that this is not going the way the generals and the White House are telling us. Without this common narrative, democracy becomes very rough.”
This lack of a shared reality “is the biggest threat to our democracy,” Obama continued. “I think Donald Trump is a creature of this, but he did not create it. He may be an accelerant of it, but it preceded him and will outlast him. I am deeply troubled by how we address it.”
This new media ecosystem can also aid democracy, by opening the public square to new voices, perspectives and identities. When I joined The New York Times in 1964, two years after Cronkite began anchoring the evening news on CBS, most reporters at the major media outlets looked like me: an East Coast-born, Ivy League-educated, straight white guy. We never represented all of America – not even close – and the digital revolution has broken the chokehold of the “pale male” establishment and the mainstream journalistic gatekeepers.
But as the barriers to entry into the media marketplace fell away, so did the standards and filters that once ensured a certain level of veracity in the information consumed by the public. Misinformation has flourished in a climate where anyone with a laptop or a cellphone can say anything they want, to anybody, at any time.
The threat to democracy that Obama describes is perfectly illustrated by the public response to COVID-19. Trump’s repeated fabrications about the seriousness of the virus – “like a miracle, it will disappear” – have drastically inhibited the country’s response and helped lead to more than 11 million cases and 250,000 deaths.
Trump’s attacks on our political system have been as devastating as his assaults on our health system. Take one small example. This email from the Trump campaign, a fundraising appeal from Newt Gingrich, popped into my inbox as I was writing this column: “This Election is unlike any we have ever witnessed. The systemic corruption is breathtaking. The mainstream media, the Left-wing academics, and the entrenched Democrats will all ask us to roll over right now. There is voter fraud in this Election that MUST be reported and uncovered.”
Nothing in that email is true, but millions of people will read it, believe it, and send money. This is the nation Joe Biden will inherit: a nation where a large segment of the population remains convinced that he stole the election and is not a legitimate leader.
This is the lasting legacy of Donald Trump. His presidency will be forever defined by those patients in the emergency room, crying out with their last breaths, “This can’t be happening to me. It’s not real.”
Steven Roberts teaches politics and journalism at George Washington University. He can be contacted by email at [email protected]