“The first casualty of war is truth.”
Donald Trump, in an effort to marshal the specter of war to support his increasingly unlikely bid for a second term in office, has begun to call himself a “war president,” based on the evidence of a war he seems disinclined to fight. While scientists are warning us of that the coronavirus is a siege that will be survived only by pulling up the drawbridges and “sheltering in place,” Trump is waxing sentimental about his “love for Easter,” the “light at the end of the tunnel" and a battle he intends to desert long before epidemiologists say it can be won.
M. Scott Peck called this a false rhetoric exhibited by “People of the Lie.” It isn’t just that Trump and so many of his associates lie or publish “alternate facts” as a conscious strategy. It is that lying has become so normalized that they seem not to recognize (nor allow themselves to admit) that what they are saying is false or misleading and, in this case, extremely dangerous.
Trump is not so much a war president as a war propagandist. He will say anything to hide or cover an inconvenient truth. In his book, “War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning,” Chris Hedges argues that the myths of war are lies that hide the deeper truths of war that are neither heroic nor hopeful. The poet Henry Reed identifies as the “old lies” the ones people like Trump use to seduce us into going to war, hoping we will not stop to remember how many bone spurs Trump invented to keep himself from the patriotic duty of actually going to war.
Like almost all wars, the war against truth “usually ends with the mythmakers working to silence the witnesses of war.” This has been starkly evident as Trump has ignored the advice of doctors and pandemic specialists in his eagerness to resuscitate the economy. At times he has had to be corrected in his medical advice by Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force.
Meanwhile, our economist in chief weighs the options:
• Dollars vs. deaths?
• A rising stock market vs. a rising pandemic?
• A face scarf vs. a face mask?
• A corporate CEO vs. a waitress?
• Leadership in the face of calamity vs. re-election?
This pandemic is forcing, and will continue to force, us all to confront choices. And, hopefully, our conclusions will be at once better informed and less venial than those of our president. We could hope that Trump — who claimed, “The Bible means very much to me” — might be guided by the ethics of Matthew 25: that the needs of “the least” among us should inform both our politics and our practice of choosing people over apparent economic practicality of the moment.
The translation of the 25th chapter of Matthew into Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke, is even more pointed:
“I say to you, as much as you have done to one of these my little brothers or sisters, you have done that to me.”
In Greek tragedy, the prideful person always meets his nemesis. COVID-19 is Trump’s nemesis. Viruses are immune to lies, to deception, to falsehoods, to the exercise of power, to almost everything Trump represents. However, the coronavirus is not immune to common sense, to courage, to compassion, all virtues we need but currently don’t have in our president.
Robert A. Rees, Ph.D., is visiting professor and director of Mormon studies at the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, Calif.