The president’s populist roots make him incapable of leaving the realm of “better” or “worse” and making a real argument that adapts to new information.
The president cannot stand to be contradicted. This is made abundantly clear in Trump’s interview with Axios’ Jonathan Swan.
This is, of course, not something unique to Trump: politicians of all partisan stripes routinely “spin” and reframe facts into a light that more favorably reflects their actions and worldviews. It is the reason press secretaries exist.
However, a greater portion of the president’s rhetoric seems to be driven by reflexive naysaying to his adversaries than does any other politicians. Trump rarely speaks in the affirmative: one gets the impression that much of his dogged defense of certain position are not about his personal belief but about refusing to yield an inch to his adversaries, Republican or Democrat, and concede they might have a point.
One clip, which has already been much circulated around the media, from the Axios interview seems to drive this point home particularly strongly.
In it, Trump and Swan quibble over whether fatality rates as a percentage of the number of cases paints a better picture of how effective the U.S.’s response to the coronavirus has been as opposed to fatality rates as a percentage of the country’s total population.
Trump, arguing for the former, hands Swan a chart that undermines his own argument. Yet, he refuses to budge against the evidence that better supports Swan’s argument for the latter position.
Of course, neither metric is perfect. The most useful metric would be a combination of both these numbers. On their own, both lack context. The fatality rate as a percentage of cases doesn’t fully explain how widespread the virus has been, a key fact which politicians have used to shutter local economies. And the fatality rate as a percentage of population doesn’t really provide enough context to understand the likelihood that anyone who contracts the disease will die.
A better metric would include both numbers: percentage of the population that has been infected (number of cases divided by population) and the percentage of those who have died (number of deaths divided by number of cases). As with all the best statistics, these numbers give enough context to allow the average person to go more in depth and figure out for themselves the fatality rate among the general population.
But all this is really beside the point, at least from the perspective of the president, because this metric is emblematic of something different. And that is the president’s seemingly monomaniacal obsession with superlatives.
Why does whether or not the fatality rate in the U.S. is higher or lower than other areas of the world matter so much? It is just one metric that does not paint the entire narrative of the virus and of the nation’s response, much of which came from state governors and for which Trump bears no culpability.
Surely, it would be a much better argument to point out that the mortality rate would be lower if certain governors hadn’t done things like force nursing homes, whose populations included those most vulnerable to the virus, to accept infected patients.
From a certain perspective, Trump’s defensiveness is perhaps understandable. Daily reports of death counts in the morning news evoke the grim atmosphere of war time. They are upsetting. And, from a certain perspective, a responsibility of the presidential bully pulpit is to soothe the nation in times of trial. From a more mercenary perspective, the fatality rate is an election vulnerability. It doesn’t speak well for the efficacy of the president’s policies and makes a poor case for re-election, especially when one of the most common voting rationales hinges on the question: Am I better off than I was four years ago?
But the president is not so much defending his handling of the virus as he is arguing that everyone else’s has been worse. His sticking point on the fatality rate as a proportion of cases is merely about arguing that fewer Americans have died than have residents of other countries. That’s an incredibly low bar.
And just as his own political statements rarely are an affirmative expression of his beliefs, this is not an affirmative defense of his own actions. It’s: I’m better by default because everyone has done worse.
This dichotomy — of better and worse — is one that runs rampant through the president’s rather bombastic style of rhetoric. Everything the president does must be the best: he’s put up the best jobs numbers in history, marshaled in the greatest economy in history, done the most for minority groups in history. His entire view of his success, and, indeed, the view of success his supporters have, hinges not on evidentiary records but on superlatives.
There’s a close relationship between populism, which eschews policy efficacy for rhetorical efficacy, and this kind of language. (See a more in depth look at this here.)
Populism’s roots are in the idea that government only functions for the people when members of the group that views itself as the legitimate inheritor and representative of traditional values are in charge. It is a fundamentally statist orthodoxy: it elects a champion to look out for and advance the interests of the common man, who otherwise is victimized by the system. It is a style of belief that does not admit room for failure. Hence, the emphasis on superlatives, why everything the champion has done must be painted as the greatest and most successful effort ever undertaken.
And this is evident in Trump’s Axios interview. The president is so consumed with the notion that he has done the best job — even if only in comparison with the poor job everyone else has done — that he can’t think straight. He can’t admit to the obvious on-paper-data which he’s provided. He can’t concede that his interpretation of the data might not include all the available facts. He must be right, by sheer force of will. For that, after all, is the root of populism.