As Covid-19 has swept around the globe, there has been lively debate regarding whether authoritarian states are “better” at responding to pandemics. These conversations often highlight the politics of information in centralized states such as China1Matthew Kavanagh, “Authoritarianism, Outbreaks, and Information Politics,” The Lancet Public Health 5, no. 3 (2020): E135–E136. and Singapore versus those in democratic states such as South Korea, Germany, and New Zealand. Yet to speak of “authoritarian” and “democratic” states in this context misses the role that authoritarian and democratic practices play in how populations experience the pandemic.2See, for example, Kanchan Chandra, “Authoritarian Elements in Democracy,” Seminar no. 693 (May 2017).
On paper, conveying factually correct, scientifically informed messages to the public should be the cornerstone of any pandemic response. However, pandemics are political,3→Michiel Hofman and Sokhieng Au, eds., The Politics of Fear: Médecins sans Frontières and the West African Ebola Epidemic (Oxford University Press, 2017).
→Deborah B. Gould, Moving Politics: Emotion and ACT UP’s Fight against AIDS (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2009). and Covid-19 is no different. In the United States, as well as in places such as Iran and Brazil, even basic information regarding Covid-19—particularly its origins, geographic spread, potential prevention measures, and mortality rates—has been highly politicized.
A large part of this politicization increasingly centers on the perceived negative electoral consequences of delayed economic re-openings for President Trump and his allies. Nonpartisan state public health officials have consequently been pressured to falsify infection rates in order to speed re-opening. Vice President Mike Pence has encouraged state governors to blame spiking infections on increased testing and to emphasize the message that “we are safely reopening,” despite evidence that the virus continues to spread and that, in many states, hospitalizations are climbing. Perhaps unsurprisingly, researchers have already begun to demonstrate strong correlations between Americans’ partisan affiliation and outcomes such as adherence to social distancing4→Shana K. Gadarian, Sara W. Goodman, and Tom B. Pepinsky, “Partisanship, Health Behavior, and Policy Attitudes in the Early Stages of the Covid-19 Pandemic,” Social Science Research Network, March 27, 2020.
→Guy Grossman, Soojong Kim, Jonah Rexer, and Harsha Thirumurthy, “Political Partisanship Influences Behavioral Responses to Governors’ Recommendations for Covid-19 Prevention in the United States,” Social Science Research Network, April 22, 2020. and belief in death counts. But, perhaps nowhere have the politics of information and pandemic been most obviously on display as at the White House coronavirus briefings. While observers have (rightly) been quick to criticize these briefings as containing misinformation, they also serve as a barometer of the state of US democracy.
The politics of “as if”
In fact, the theater of expert coronavirus briefings presents a compelling case of a phenomenon that political scientist Lisa Wedeen has named the politics of “as if.” Based on research in Hafiz al-Assad’s Syria, Wedeen’s 1999 book Ambiguities of Domination5Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1999More Info → shows that the al-Assad regime didn’t build and maintain power based on the population’s sincere ideological belief and loyalty. Rather, the politics of authoritarian domination relied on people performing obedience “as if” various authoritarian mythologies were true. In this view, authoritarian systems work, in part, because figures such as Hafiz al-Assad monopolize symbolic and discursive space—in part by making expansive and often outlandish claims. In this analysis, al-Assad was powerful “because his regime [could] compel people to say the ridiculous and to avow the absurd.”6Wedeen, Ambiguities of Domination, 12. For instance, one popular regime myth was that Hafiz al-Assad was the “premier pharmacist”7Wedeen, Ambiguities of Domination, 1, 12, 40. in the country, despite the fact that al-Assad came from a nonmedical military background. Syrians didn’t “believe” this statement but they were compelled to contend with it because it, along with other similar claims about al-Assad and his family, dominated rhetorical and visual space (e.g., on billboards and posters) to the exclusion of other material. In Syria, even in daring public critiques, through art and political cartoons, the focus remained on the regime’s claims and ultimately accomplished the goal of centering al-Assad in everyday life. In addition to other political actions, this strategy mentally exhausts opposition and the larger population.“The White House coronavirus briefings serve as a venue for a more targeted politics of ‘as if’ to be deployed within a broader democratic institutional and normative context.”
What do the politics of “as if” in Syria have to do with White House coronavirus briefings? The US population is not engaged in behaving “as if” to the extent that Wedeen observed among everyday Syrians. US President Trump, unlike al-Assad, is not using mass surveillance, widespread incarceration, and torture of political enemies to police the politics of “as if.” Rather, the White House coronavirus briefings serve as a venue for a more targeted politics of “as if” to be deployed within a broader democratic institutional and normative context. Specifically, the goal of “as if” is to challenge and redefine what the truth is or may be according to President Trump. The point is to compel people to engage the absurd. Seen in this light, Trump’s coronavirus claims are not simply “stupid words” or “things Trump says to rile the libs up.” While they might be deployed with election outcomes in mind, the point is that these words undermine the very democratic systems that the elections are meant to support. The result is that the coronavirus briefings, as a site of authoritarian practice, work to erode both.
Authoritarian affinities of the Trump administration’s rhetoric
There are three ways that the politics of “as if” operate from the White House podium. First, the coronavirus briefings do the work of prompting obedience without belief. This dynamic has emerged among White House officials but is particularly noteworthy among the scientific experts who advise the president. When Trump makes obviously incorrect or outlandish claims regarding the pandemic (e.g., claiming that US officials were going to “test..[a] UV light inside the body,” as well as testing the use of disinfectants in the human body), White House officials and scientific experts are compelled to behave “as if” what Trump is saying could plausibly be true in order to maintain their access and influence. Put differently, the briefings have the effect of degrading what many might label one of the bedrock relationships of democratic societies: That between the government and science.
This dynamic is apparent even when experts actively seek to correct false information or objectively dangerous advice. By engaging respectfully to contradict objectively ridiculous scientific claims, they continue to center President Trump’s voice in medical and scientific discussions. Here, Ambassador Deborah Birx, a trained physician, and Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease (NIAID), have been most visible. Each has handled Trump’s coronavirus claims differently. While Dr. Fauci has at times pushed back and directly contradicted Trump, Ambassador Birx has claimed, on national TV, that Trump “has been so attentive to the scientific literature.” Her public performance of belief in his expertise and engagement, in the context of Trump’s repeated public challenges of the administration’s credentialed medical experts and scientific agencies, provides evidence of authoritarian tendencies at work. Even Dr. Fauci’s contradictions of President Trump’s claims, and the subsequent media coverage of them, still place the rhetorical focus on Trump in discussions of medical science. That is, Dr. Fauci addresses scientifically absurd statements in the media simply because they come from President Trump. Even in the act of correction, his simple involvement in such a conversation as the director of NIAID telegraphs President Trump’s power, ensuring the president more airtime and print columns.
Second, the briefings serve to telegraph “guidelines for acceptable speech and behavior”8Wedeen, Ambiguities of Domination, 6. to administration officials, scientific advisors, everyday civil servants, and those who would ask for the administration’s support (e.g., corporate leaders, state governors). They provide scripts to allies who use them to weaken, question, and oppose scientific narrative by engaging in various symbolic performances. Take the example of face masks: While President Trump noted that the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advised Americans to wear cloth face coverings, he didn’t “think he would be doing it.” Seen through the lens of “as if,” Vice President Mike Pence’s decision to not wear a mask while visiting the Mayo Clinic—even after being informed that masks were required—and his advance team requesting that business leaders remove their own masks during a meeting in West Des Moines, Iowa, is best understood as a public “ritual of obeisance.”9Wedeen, Ambiguities of Domination, 6. In refusing a top-ranked, globally-respected hospital’s safety requirements to follow President Trump’s advice, Vice President Pence was behaving “as if” President Trump’s choice could also be medically sound. Why he actually made this choice for himself does not matter; it is still one influenced by fundamentally authoritarian tendencies.“The power of this discursive technique is that Trump has made himself ‘clever’ and reporters ‘dumb,’ thus feeding the erosion of trust in free press.”
Third, journalistic coverage of the coronavirus briefings saturates print, TV, and social media afterwards. The effect, in Wedeen’s terminology, is to “clutter” public space,10Wedeen, Ambiguities of Domination, 6. crowding out reporting on issues of public concern such as government spending on healthcare or immigration policy. For example, following the now notorious “Lysol” briefing, media from local TV outlets to Healthline all felt compelled to emphasize that drinking bleach is a bad, likely lethal, idea—as if basic life skills and instinct didn’t provide people with that exact information. Twitter publicly invoked its misinformation policy, banning the hashtags #InjectDisinfectant and #InjectingDisinfectant due to the harm they could potentially cause. Googling “Trump bleach” now returns 16.8 million results. By contrast, and despite the fact that meat packing plants have been repeatedly, scientifically linked to Covid-19 hotspots, Googling “covid outbreak meat packing plant” returns less than 6.6 million results. This comparison implies that information that is important for both safety and for democratic debate receives less media space and public consideration. In the meantime, Trump has claimed that he had been making a sarcastic joke, which he accused reporters of misunderstanding. Moves such as this opened space for attacks on media coverage of Trump rather than his policies. The power of this discursive technique is that Trump has made himself “clever” and reporters “dumb,” thus feeding the erosion of trust in free press. This is not part of democratic debate, but rather an authoritarian tactic to saturate the airwaves, to confuse conversations, and to privilege obedience over factual information.
Seen through the lens of “as if,” it does not matter whether the information President Trump provides at briefings is objectively right or wrong. Rather, we should think of Trump’s Covid-19 announcements as a type of call-and-response, where his statements produce easily recognizable public tests of his supporters’ loyalty and obedience. Ongoing coverage of the briefings consequently do not underscore him as “rambling, ranting, casually spitballing about bleach and sunlight,” as some have argued. Rather, it fundamentally appropriates the media into amplifying authoritarian practices, instead of holding the administration to the expectations of a democratic polity.
Banner photo credit: White House/Flickr
→Deborah B. Gould, Moving Politics: Emotion and ACT UP’s Fight against AIDS (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2009).
→Guy Grossman, Soojong Kim, Jonah Rexer, and Harsha Thirumurthy, “Political Partisanship Influences Behavioral Responses to Governors’ Recommendations for Covid-19 Prevention in the United States,” Social Science Research Network, April 22, 2020.