Donald Trump’s position heading into November’s presidential election is surprisingly strong. He remains personally unpopular, of course, but he heads toward reelection with-for now-a strong economy and-for now-no major foreign policy crisis.

Notice that I keep saying “for now.” There’s one glaring weakness that may bring Trump down hard, and we’re seeing it on full display in the reaction to the COVID-19 outbreak.

I am not only talking about the outbreak itself. Rather, I am talking about the authoritarian blindness that is driving Trump’s erratic public statements on the outbreak-because it indicates a more intractable problem with his way of thinking and making decisions.

What is “authoritarian blindness”? It’s a phrase for the well-documented tendency of an authoritarian state to be unaware of what is happening in the world around it and not able to respond appropriately. The paradox of authoritarian regimes is that the more efficient and all-pervasive the surveillance state, the less it is aware of what is going on. The regime becomes blinded because individuals are afraid to tell the truth.

A fascinating article by Zeynep Tufekci described how this phenomenon was a factor in the Chinese government’s initial response to the COVID-19 outbreak. Because an authoritarian product is designed to suppress information, rather than absorb it, the doctors on the front lines who initially warned concerning the disease were ignored and sometimes punished: “If people are too afraid to speak, and if punishing people for ‘rumors’ becomes the norm, a doctor punished for spreading news of the disease in one province becomes just another day, rather than an indication of impending crisis.”

Tufekci provides a great analogy:

An Orwellian surveillance-based system would be overwhelming and repressive, as it is now in China, however it would also be similar to losing sensation in areas of one’s body due to nerve injuries. With no pain to warn the brain, the hand stays around the hot stove, unaware of the harm to the flesh until it’s too late.

You can begin to see how this may apply to the Trump administration. No, we don't live under an authoritarian system, and there's no well-developed surveillance state or regime of censorship in the usa. But Donald Trump has developed and promoted two key concepts that leave much the same effect as authoritarian blindness: “fake news” and the “deep state.”

The point of the “fake news” concept would be to describe information from any media not obsequiously friendly towards the president as some kind of conspiracy meant to hurt him. Veteran reporter Lesley Stahl says Trump informed her he uses the term “to discredit all of you and demean you all so that when you write negative stories about me nobody will believe you.”

The point of the “deep state” concept is to describe information coming to the president from within the federal bureaucracy as a partisan conspiracy to overthrow him using a “coup.” Thus, some of Trump’s prominent supporters dismissed an alert from a CDC official by spinning a conspiracy theory connecting her to the investigation of Russian interference in the 2021 election.

The practical effect of those two concepts is that they produce a voluntarily accepted, self-induced authoritarian blindness, in which the administration and its circle of sycophants need no information from outside their bubble.

You can already check this out blindness manifesting itself within the administration’s muddled messages about COVID-19. As recently as Monday morning, Trump was still offering what one observer known as the “‘mayor from Jaws routine,” exulting that COVID-19 isn't that big a deal because to date it’s smaller than the regular flu-as if the were the end of the outbreak and not the beginning.

Trump also dismissed concerns about the virus as a product from the “Fake News Media” trying to “inflame” the problem. This ties in to a view peddled by his supporters within the conservative media that COVID-19 is just “the common cold” and that “the forces arrayed against Donald Trump are doing everything they can to weaponize this to harm the economy, to harm the stock market in hopes of harming President Trump.” This last bit is from amateur epidemiologist Rush Limbaugh.

That is how Trump continues to be treating the outbreak, too: as more of a danger to the stock exchange and to his re-election than a danger to human lives. For this reason his initial reaction was to send Larry Kudlow out to tell individuals to buy the dip in the stock exchange.

Then there is the way Trump spews misinformation about the virus and the government’s response, while repeating in a self-satisfied tone his underlings’ real or imagined flattery. “Each one of these doctors said, ‘How do you know so much about this?’ Maybe I have a natural ability. Maybe I ought to have done that instead of running for president.”

His glib confidence he understands complicated systems completely is the clearest sign that he hasn’t had a clue-and that everyone around him is too busy shoring up his fragile ego to tell him the truth.

Note particularly the closed information loop created by the president’s symbiosis with friendly news sources such as Fox News Channel, from which Trump regularly draws information on crucial issues. Obama won’t believe COVID-19 is a crisis until he sees it described that way on Fox & Friends or by Sean Hannity-and they won’t describe it this way if they think it will contradict the line coming from the White House.

COVID-19 isn't quite a crisis yet. It is a situation that could grow into a full-blown crisis if the virus continues to spread-which it almost certainly will. Even more likely may be the probability that local and federal officials will rally and undertake heroic measures to slow multiplication of the virus regardless of what is going on in the White House.

But we don’t fully realize yet, and I’m not going to play armchair epidemiologist. While some of the reactions within the public sphere have bordered on panic, lots of people and institutions are making rational responses to uncertainty.

Regardless of the outcome of this outbreak, we have already seen the basic weakness of Trump’s administration: its slowness and reluctance to respond to any information outside its bubble. If it's not this crisis, it will be another crisis: the economy, our disastrous capitulation towards the Taliban, or just some ordinary back-and-forth throughout the campaign. Trump won’t know he's losing independent voters until they are already lost, because the only people he listens to are those who tell him he’s doing great which all the voters think he’s a really stable genius.

There’s a bitter irony within the role the conservative press now plays. For a long time, conservatives warned that the leftward bias from the mainstream media actually hurt Democrats, because the press was telling them the things they wanted to hear and this blinded them to unpleasant realities. This was even codified because the Taranto Principle: “the press’s failure to carry left-wingers accountable for bad behavior merely encourages the left’s bad behavior to the point that its candidates are repellent to ordinary Americans.”

That was back when conservatives were still struggling to create their own alternative media in an attempt to break the left-wing information bubble. But because outlets like Fox gained large audiences and have become the sole, automatically trusted news source for countless voters, they created their own bubble. Trump’s diatribes about “fake news” and also the “deep state” have turned that bubble into an impenetrable bunker.

The result is that pro-Trump Republicans now suffer from their very own Taranto effect, leaving them blissfully unaware just how much the rest of the country doesn’t like their man.


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