An interesting thing happened during the course of the 2016 election. Donald Trump could say and do outrageous, outlandish things – criticise Senator John McCain for getting captured during the Vietnam War, for example, or allege that a judge was unfair because he was of Mexican descent, or dismiss multiple allegations of sexual assault – and the media would report on it, and maybe the public would react, and two days later we’d move on. Trump would say or do some new, terrible thing, and we would whip our heads around and react to that instead.
When his opponent in that election, Hillary Clinton, was still answering questions about the content of speeches she had given to Goldman Sachs, Trump was frolicking along, tweeting out ludicrous claims and insulting a Gold Star family who had lost their son in the military, and we’d move on. That isn’t to say Clinton shouldn’t have been asked, again and again, about her speeches. And it isn’t to say that Trump wasn’t being covered by the media; he was. It’s to suggest that Trump was being exhaustively covered, but that his words and deeds were covered with less focus or sustained attention.
Trump, in this way, has made some of us more like himself. The president’s attention span is so limited that Nato reportedly changed a meeting to avoid testing it. His intelligence officials allegedly have difficulty briefing him for the same reason. He flits from subject to subject, issue to issue. The one topic that appears to be able to hold his attention is himself. As a result, the rest of the country – or those in the country covering or following its political stories – are like that, too. There are exceptions, of course. But for the most part one heinous event after another rises and falls in the headlines and in our minds, and the constant is that Trump is a part of the story.
The coronavirus pandemic has challenged this cycle. How can you move away from the things Trump has said about the virus: that it would simply go away; that the states were responsible for obtaining ventilators and testing; that the country should go back to work; that the issue was just about the number of tests? How can you move away from what he’s done: insisting that he won’t wear a mask, and encouraging governors to “reopen” their states earlier and more quickly than experts said was advisable?
Still, Trump has tried. He’s done what he always does, which is to usher us along from one disaster to the next, tweeting about how he’s vowing to protect statues, and making unsubstantiated claims about voter fraud. He’s gone back to trying to hold rallies. He’s gone golfing. If you did not know there was a global pandemic, you would not learn it from watching him. He’s moved on – or thinks he has.
The issue, or one of them, is that it is very tempting to adopt Trump’s attention span during this pandemic. Not for everyone, of course. There have been reporters who have stayed on the story, and scientists and experts who have worked tirelessly to inform the public. To keep us focused. To keep us as safe as possible.
But there are others who have given in to temptation. Some have done it because, for them, Trump is – as he is for himself – the one thing worth spending attention on. Trump praised Greg Abbott, the governor of Texas, when he rolled back coronavirus-related restrictions: Abbott now says that the state has taken “a swift and dangerous turn”. In April, Ron DeSantis, the governor of Florida, and Trump shared congratulations as they spoke about the state reopening: cases are now spiking there, too. Trump had the governors’ attention; so why stay focused on a virus?
It isn’t only government officials who choose to focus on Trump and his latest whims instead of keeping a watch on reality. A man who risked exposure to the disease in order to attend Trump’s rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, told MSNBC: “We had a friend who died from Covid, and his son was on a ventilator, he almost died. So we know it’s real, but then at the same time you don’t know what the facts are… you feel like maybe one side plays it one way and the other side plays it another.” His attention was held, still, by Trump.
And some others are guided by Trump’s attention – not out of admiration for the president, but because it is boring to stay at home, and lonely to stay separated from friends, and scary to stay focused on the reality that we are in the midst of a pandemic that has killed some 128,000 people in the US so far. It is easier, if infinitely more deadly, to pretend that if Trump can move on then you can too. Go to a friend’s house, then visit a cousin. Go eat inside. Take off that mask.
We have, repeatedly, let Trump change the plot but remain the story. The problem is that, this time, it is not a matter of letting Trump wriggle off the hook yet again. It is not as simple as Trump saying something incendiary and not being held accountable for it. It is not that there weren’t consequences for his behaviour before – there were – but that this time the consequences are immediate. If we do not figure out how to keep our attention on the matter at hand – not the president and his larks, but the virus that he continues to mishandle – then more and more people will die.
The expression is “dying of boredom”. But many people are not dying of boredom, but because their boredom, their fixation on the president, or some combination of the two, has led them to take their minds off reality and pretend that we are not living through a global pandemic. But we are. This isn’t the 2016 election. There’s no other scandalous story coming. Or, if there is, it will happen against the backdrop of the pandemic. This is it. Trump may not want it to be. But it’s not his attention span that’s of concern. It’s ours.
This article appears in the 01 Jul 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Anatomy of a crisis