In Trump’s own case of COVID-19, narrative matters more than truth

Seven doctors in white lab coats talking at a podium in front of a hospital building

President Donald Trump’s physician Sean Conley, joined by members of the President’s medical team, delivered remarks to reporters. Trump’s doctors have acknowledged withholding information about his health after contracting COVID-19, something other administrations have done in the past. (White House photo by Tia Dufour)

President Donald Trump’s administration has long been a “baffling phenomenon” for political historians like UC Berkeley’s Martin Jay, a professor emeritus of history, who has studied political untruth for more than 50 years.

The information swirling as Trump and his allies communicate strength, health and resolve in the face of the president’s COVID-19 diagnosis and weekend-long hospital stay makes clear just how polarized the truth has become, he said.

Jay Martin

Martin Jay is UC Berkeley’s Sidney Hellman Ehrman Professor of History Emeritus. (UC Berkeley photo)

“It’s no longer about whether someone is telling the truth or lying, but rather, who that person is and what our characterological assumptions are of them that makes them a truthteller or a hypocrite,” said Jay. “That’s a real problem — when you can’t fully trust anybody anymore.”

Jay is the author of The Virtues of Mendacity: On Lying in Politics, a book that explores the historical role that lies and hypocrisy have played in American politics and presidencies. He  spoke with Berkeley News recently about how the Trump administration’s use of lies and misinformation has sowed doubt in what the public believes.


Berkeley News: There are people who don’t believe Trump has COVID-19. Where does that doubt come from?

Martin Jay: We have developed a very complicated attitude toward people who have traditionally given us information, with many people no longer confident that they are telling the truth. This applies to both camps in our current polarized political culture.

This president and his people have bent the truth so often that people don’t believe what they say. They take all of it with an immense grain of salt. Trump squandered away the ability to come off as sincere, because for most of us, he lacks the fundamental capacity for sincerity.

In American politics, it’s always been the case that politicians are seen as people who spin the truth, and so we never expect that what they’re saying is what they would be compelled to say in a court of law.

On the other hand, we normally maintain a basic sense that at least most of the time they are saying what is close enough to the truth that we can avoid total cynicism.

Toward Trump, most people have become extraordinarily suspicious, which has encouraged a pervasive cynicism about public life in general.

But ironically, the people who support this president think of him as a truthteller. They think of him as authentic, someone who courageously cuts through the b.s. of ‘political correctness.’

So, while some people damn him for telling 20,000 lies, his supporters think he’s the only guy on the block who is, in fact, telling it like it really is.

In other words, with Trump, there is a complex relationship with truth-telling, because there is a mirroring effect and cynicism that goes in both directions.

For both sides, it’s no longer about whether someone is telling the truth or lying in a specific assertion, but rather who that person is and what our characterological assumptions are of them that makes them a truthteller or a hypocrite.

Then, do facts still matter in politics?

Whenever one deals with politics, you have to understand the relationship of discrete ‘facts’ to larger narratives or explanations.

Trump is ill, he has COVID-19. That’s a simple fact.

But the facts themselves are never isolated, they’re always embedded in prior and ongoing narratives. In this case, the narrative is very clearly constructed by his previous denial on the importance of wearing masks and his downplaying of COVID-19, in general.

We may all agree that, yes, he went to the hospital. But is he in the hospital out of precaution? Or is he in the hospital suffering from a life-threatening disease and is, in fact, leaving for political purposes?

Political discourse is always a mixture of discrete facts, including the historical facts we choose to remember or forget, and the narratives which imbue them with hope, despair, anxiety, caution or God knows what else.

That makes it very, very problematic, from the point of view of absolute versions of the truth.

Donald Trump sits at a desk with an American flag behind him

President Donald Trump posed for photos days after testing positive for COVID-19. Berkeley professor Martin Jay said photo ops like this are the president’s way of framing a narrative that he is not in real medical danger. (White House Photo by Tia Dufour)

Politics is precisely a space where our interests, our opinions, our values, our prejudices, our hopes for the future play an extraordinarily important role. When it comes to the truth, we’re not simply disinterested scientists looking at it from afar far: We’re in the middle of it all.

That’s why, inevitably, I think there’ll always be a kind of spin or attempt to reframe the narrative. What’s made it more problematic now is the exacerbation of the lack of trust that some people have with this administration, or the so-called ‘lamestream media.’

We have a politics where people don’t just distrust their adversaries, but despise them. They are seen as enemies, and not just as competitors who can still be honored, even if we disagree with them.

While there are people on the left who are, alas, gleeful about Trump’s illness, there’d certainly be people on Trump’s side who would be jumping for joy if Joe Biden had a stroke in the middle of that last debate. I don’t think this is new in politics, but those tendencies have dangerously increased.

The capacity for people to truly listen to each other has diminished, because you’re not listening to be persuaded, you’re not listening to learn, you’re not listening to compromise: You’re listening to find ways to defeat or manipulate the enemy.

Donald Trump wearing a black mask in a black car giving a thumbs up

President Trump greets supporters during a drive outside of Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. Trump was scrutinized for putting Secret Service agents and others in danger of contracting COVID-19. (White House Photo by Tia Dufour)

In the instance of Trump and his COVID-19 diagnosis, there are competing narratives coming from his own administration on the reality of his health. Have you seen anything like this in American politics?

Putting this into perspective, as far as American political history goes, this whole Trump phenomenon is baffling.

The inclination of presidential doctors being protective and duplicitous, or withholding information when it comes to the health of our leaders, is not new. There are many other examples throughout history where the health of presidents was kept secret, from Woodrow Wilson to Franklin Roosevelt and beyond.

John F. Kennedy had several diseases and used a lot of medicines which impacted his performance. Dwight Eisenhower had a heart attack and a stroke, and his physicians tried to minimize what the public knew.

It’s understandable that leaders want to reassure the public to avoid a panic or a sense of impending crisis.

So, what Trump’s doctors did in omitting some things and giving a positive spin to others is pretty much par for the course.

But when his Chief of Staff Mark Meadows spilled the beans about the more serious nature of the situation, he created a discrepancy between the narratives we were being fed, exacerbating the distrust in this administration’s ability to tell the truth, which was already extraordinarily high.

The sound you could hear in the background was that of chickens coming home to roost.

Does Trump have pressure to continue the political narrative he has created around COVID-19, even now, as someone who has the disease?

Most of us understand that he is more a showman, a conman, and a grifter, than a statesman or true leader.

His exorbitant narcissism, self-interested ploys and endless lies are mercilessly mocked in the media and television. Yet somehow, despite all that, he exercises an extraordinary hold on the still large number of people who support him.

How he managed to work this magic will not be easy to explain.

But Trump has always tried to embody an ideal of strength and health, and contrast his vitality to the alleged weakness of his opponents. We saw that in his mocking of Hillary Clinton during the 2016 election, when she had pneumonia and was not looking well on the campaign trail.

And we saw him trying to bolster that narrative recently in the joy ride he took to greet his supporters outside of the hospital. I think almost everybody who’s against him saw it as a transparent ploy to reassure his base, while jeopardizing the health of the Secret Service riding with him in the car.

But his supporters saw it as evidence of his miraculous recovery.

I think we all have our own political opinions about Trump, but it is becoming increasingly clear to people on both sides that we are witnessing the ‘death agony’ of this particular presidency. There are just too many fiascos to recover from, and the time is too short for a reversal of public opinion.