From ‘Xi’s doing a great job’ to ‘The WHO really blew it’: Trump’s coronavirus response in tweets
Donald Trump’s political fortunes are tightly linked to his Twitter account. With 77 million followers, the US President has been able to use provocative posts, in a sometimes unrelenting volume, to shape what the public talks about in the realm of politics.
But the coronavirus pandemic is a political issue like few others.
In mere weeks, the virus has killed more than 33,000 Americans, a toll set to rise.
What seemed to be a far-off outbreak in China has been revealed to be an existential threat to Trump’s personal reputation and his electoral prospects.
It challenges the bravado Trump has employed to great effect to win political support.
Trump’s hunt for a way to explain the tens of thousands of American deaths without blaming himself has switched into high gear.
A deadly pandemic requires a strong governmental response, with lots of attention to detail. This is the opposite of Trump’s speciality for headline-grabbing words and actions.
So Trump’s hunt for a way to explain the tens of thousands of American deaths without blaming himself has switched into high gear.
Thanks to Twitter, the public can gain a view of his thinking in real time post by post.
In late January, when this crisis seemed remote, Trump tweeted support for China, including its "transparency".
"China has been working very hard to contain the Coronavirus. The United States greatly appreciates their efforts and transparency. It will all work out well. In particular, on behalf of the American People, I want to thank President Xi!"
He noted only five people in the US had the virus.
In early February, Trump bragged about "a long and very good conversation by phone with President Xi of China", calling him "strong, sharp and powerfully focused on leading the counterattack on the Coronavirus".
Through most of February, as the pandemic spread, he avoided the subject on Twitter.
When Trump returned to the subject, his tone had changed.
"The Coronavirus is very much under control in the USA. We are in contact with everyone and all relevant countries. CDC & World Health have been working hard and very smart. Stock Market starting to look very good to me!"
At the time, there were only 53 confirmed cases in the US, Italy had 445. US intelligence was likely telling Trump that the 77,262 cases in China were an understatement.
The wave of disruption was headed squarely in the United States' direction.
Given the vulnerabilities in America’s open and globalised society — with its social safety net dismantled over decades — there was little to stop COVID-19 once it hit American shores.
It turns out coronavirus could be Trump’s problem. The previously robust US economy was to be a central motivation for his re-election effort.
The remedy for the virus spread, however, has been economy-crushing lockdowns.
The next day on Twitter, Trump’s blame game was on.
He singled out "Cryin’ Chuck Schumer" [the top Democrat in the Senate] for "complaining, for publicity purposes only, that I should be asking for more money than $2.5 Billion to prepare for Coronavirus".
By late February, he settled on two other themes: his decision to block flights from China, which, while helpful, was only one measure needed. As for blame, the origin of the virus in China moved from talking point to preoccupation.
"The Do Nothing Democrats were busy wasting time on the Immigration Hoax, & anything else they could do to make the Republican Party look bad, while I was busy calling early BORDER & FLIGHT closings, putting us way ahead in our battle with Coronavirus. Dems called it VERY wrong!," he wrote.
By mid-March, with the death toll at 118, Trump was attaching the word "China" to the word "virus" – to make the connection in the mind of the public. "I always treated the Chinese Virus very seriously and have done a very good job from the beginning, including my very early decision to close the 'borders' from China …"
The "Chinese virus" was a theme he repeated in public appearances, meant to remind the world that the pandemic had its beginnings in Wuhan.
From there, the blame game between Beijing and Washington flared.
White House propaganda (with a kernel of truth) faced off against Chinese Communist Party propaganda machines.
Once Trump spoke to Xi about the urgent issue of medical supplies, a sort of truce was unofficially declared.
But by April 8, nearly 15,000 had died in the US. With China out of the crosshairs, Trump found a new target: the World Health Organisation.
"The W.H.O. really blew it. For some reason, funded largely by the United States, yet very China centric. We will be giving that a good look. Fortunately I rejected their advice on keeping our borders open to China early on. Why did they give us such a faulty recommendation?"
As Trump moved the crosshairs of blame again, the world reacted.
Democrats, Joe Biden, Republicans loyal to Trump, Chinese government officials, and now the WHO.
Without a doubt, the coronavirus is an unprecedented challenge to the world, the US, Americans and Trump.
Yet what power Trump yields on Twitter is not necessarily to convince disbelievers, or even to wear them down with lies.
Rather, it is to set the agenda with social media regardless of whether the public agrees or not.
The media can choose whether to follow along or to push back and drive the news agenda elsewhere.
As his daily coronavirus press conferences devolved into outright propaganda, some US networks began cutting away.
Trump took them to task on Twitter too.
"First the Fake News Media said that it's not fair for the President of the United States to be giving news conferences, but it is the only way I can reach the American People," he tweeted on April 14, with right-wing poll results attached.
All of which proves, that when it comes to the leading edge of Trump spin and outright lies, Twitter will continue to be the first place to look.
While the media in the US and abroad can choose whether to echo those talking points, they certainly will know where to find them: @realdonaldtrump.
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