"Try not to cringe."
We've all had those moments — times when we said or did something that causes us, perhaps even years later, to wince inwardly or take a sharp breath at the thought of it: An email sent to the wrong person. A not-so-white lie exposed. An embarrassing party video. A mistake so dumb, the memory of it still makes you ... cringe.
Sometimes we cringe for other people, especially for someone who might be making a fool of themselves — usually because of their cluelessness — but is totally unaware of it. Bless their heart, you think. Better him than me.
- Axios reporter Jonathan Swan
If you haven't seen Axios reporter Jonathan Swan's interview with President Trump on HBO, please check it out. I haven't cringed so much in years, mostly in a kind of weirdly sympathetic way for Trump, who is clearly suffering from some sort of mental disability that renders him incapable of hearing a factual statement or question and responding to it in kind.
Swan points out the high death numbers from COVID-19 in the United States. Trump responds: "Our death rate is one of the lowest in the world!" and pulls out some simple-looking bar graphs to prove it. Swan looks at the graphs and says, in effect, "Oh, I see. You're pointing out that the rate of death per case in the United States is fairly low. I'm talking about the fact that the United States has by far the highest number of deaths in the world per person."
"No we don't," says Trump.
Swan points out that South Korea, with 51 million people, has 300 deaths.
"How do you know that?" says Trump.
By this point, Swan is trying to swim through the murk of Trump's brain. "The United States is losing 1,000 people a day," he points out. "The number of deaths per capita is the highest in the world, by far."
"No. That number's going way down," says Trump.
"No, it's not. It's going up."
"You're wrong," Trump says. "Look at the manuals. Look at the books."
"What manuals? What books?"
At this point, Trump is in so far over his head, so cringey and dense, I could barely watch. I imagine, for a brief moment, being a member of his staff charged with showing him "proof" of his magical thinking. He doesn't want facts. He wants "evidence," no matter how absurd, that backs up his point of view.
It's frightening that the president of the United States thinks this way — that facts and statistics and scientific research are all considered nothing but malleable fodder, subject to debate and ideological manipulation. "Don't think, just listen to me" is Trump's real message.
Trump says "open the schools," and all across the country, cities and counties are striving to make that happen, despite the obvious dangers. But Trump's child's private school and his grandchildren's private schools will be closed. Trump says we should have fewer COVID tests, yet he and his staff and everyone who comes near him is tested every day. Trump says voting by mail is corrupt, yet he and his family vote by mail. His echo chamber on Fox News says wearing masks is silly and we need to get back to normal, yet all of them are still broadcasting from their homes.
Don't think, just listen to me. And millions do just that: The fools who gathered at a Missouri county fair by the hundreds this week to sing along to country music. The morons who hang out in clubs on Broadway in Nashville and on Beale Street in Memphis, partying like nothing has changed. The 77 seniors who posed close together and maskless for a class picture on the first day of school at Etowah High School in Georgia. Magical thinking. The disease only happens in cities or to old people. Masks are for scaredy-cats. The flu is worse.
Tell that to Herman Cain. Or John Prine. Or 160,000 other dead Americans, and counting.
The pandemic has made one thing quite clear: There is a lot of ignorance — proud and belligerent ignorance — in this country. And I'm afraid Trump is as much a symptom as a cause.
It's enough to make you cringe.