The president does not seem to grasp the most basic aspects of the public-health crisis.
But what if Trump isn’t lying? Americans ought to consider an alternative explanation for the president’s many untruths: He does not grasp the most basic aspects of the public-health crisis.
Similarly, why did Trump declare that the virus would disappear when its spread was imminent? Why did he say we’re close to a vaccine when Americans are unlikely to get one before Election Day? Why did he suggest that injecting a disinfectant into the body might cure COVID-19? I used to worry that Trump’s serial mendacity might harm the nation. Now I worry even more that he isn’t lying, but rather lacks the capacity to see errors in the most obvious falsehoods. He appears to be so impulsive and attuned to the time horizon of an individual tweet, television appearance, or news cycle that he cannot strategize over a longer period.
Some Americans are willing to forgive lies from the president, but even they shouldn’t shrug off the possibility that Trump simply doesn’t understand the pandemic clearly enough to respond to it effectively.
“She tested positive out of the blue,” Trump said when a press secretary for the vice president tested positive for COVID-19. “This is why the whole concept of tests aren’t necessarily great. The tests are perfect, but something can happen between a test––where it’s good, and then something happens, and all of a sudden––she was tested very recently and tested negative. And then today, I guess, for some reason, she tested positive.”
Trump’s reputation for lying is well deserved. But many of the most glaring untruths that he has uttered during this crisis could be explained by ignorance and lack of foresight as easily as mendacity.
At 73, Trump is unlikely to stop his decades-long habit of lying. But assuming that all of his pandemic untruths are lies may obscure the degree to which he’s out of his depth. Is he fit to preside over the high-stakes effort to secure and roll out a vaccine? The many failures of understanding implied by his statements suggest that he is not.