The Rise (and Fall?) of Trump's Viral Death CultNews at Home
tags: Donald Trump, 2020 Election, cults, COVID-19
Brian Glyn Williams is Professor of History at University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth and author of seven field research based books including Counter Jihad. The American Military Experience in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, and he previously worked for the CIA’s Counter Terrorism Center. His website can be found at: brianglynwilliams.com
Editor's note: an update to this story has been added to reflect developing news as of November 20, 2020.
In 1978 cult leader Jim Jones convinced 909 of his brainwashed followers in Jonestown, Guyana to drink cyanide-laced Kool Aid and kill themselves. Since that shocking collective suicide, the term “drinking the Kool Aid” has become a metaphor for anyone who has been seduced by someone else to do something irrational or self-injurious.
Flash forward to 2020, when former Republican Senator Bob Corker fretted of Trump’s takeover of the Republican Party: “It’s becoming a cultish thing, isn’t it? It’s not a good place for any party to end up with a cultlike situation.” It is widely accepted even by many Republicans that Trump launched a cult-like movement, one that in this case called on his followers not to drink Kool Aid, but to inject disinfectant to “knock it [Coronavirus] out” and to seek medically unproven and potentially lethal treatments with hydroxychloroquine. As the head of an anti-science cult, Trump openly mocked and attacked medical scientists and encouraged his followers to avoid the advice of his own CDC (Centers for Disease Control) and frontline doctors and nurses. These medical professionals, it should be recalled, pleaded with the public to help them in their desperate fight to save lives by simply wearing masks and practicing social distancing.
In leading the resistance against the CDC guidelines designed to protect the American public, Trump convinced millions of his devoted followers to potentially die for his cult of personality in what history may record as a metaphorical “drinking of the hydroxychloroquine.” While Trump--in a reversal of President Harry Truman’s bold acceptance of presidential responsibility “the buck stops here”--weakly proclaimed “I don’t take responsibility at all” for the fact that America lost approximately a quarter of a million lives to the ravages of this pandemic on his watch, history will record that much of the death stemmed from his far reaching, cult leader-like decisions.
Trump’s War on the CDC and the Truth
Trump’s litany of lethally misguided decisions began in January when his economic adviser Peter Navarro presciently warned him in a memo that COVID-19 could take more than half a million American lives and cause nearly $6 trillion in economic damage. The somber threat assessment of up to half a million lives lost, which tracks with current trajectories for the pandemic, seems to have sunk in. In February Trump was recorded in an interview with legendary author Bob Woodward acknowledging the unprecedented threat the virus posed to both the population he was sworn to protect...and the economy. In the unprecedentedly frank interview Trump did something he has still not done publicly: he honestly acknowledged the real threat to millions of Americans the lethal virus posed stating "this is deadly stuff," adding that the coronavirus was maybe five times "more deadly" than the flu.
Soon thereafter the consensus among medical professionals came to be that wearing masks was the best means for preventing the spread of this “deadly stuff” (i.e. airborne viral droplets). Using high-speed video one study found that hundreds of droplets were generated when saying a simple phrase, but that nearly all these droplets were blocked when the speaker’s mouth was covered by a damp washcloth. Surgeons and other medical professionals had been wearing medical masks to stop the spread of germs for decades, so it was no-brainer to call for them to be worn in the COVID-19 crisis, just as they had been by doctors fighting Ebola in Africa.
As the head of a cult of personality that his son in law Jared Kushner openly admitted launched a “hostile takeover” of the Republican Party, Trump could have, in February, donned a MAGA mask or an American flag mask and channeled John F. Kennedy’s bold call for patriotic sacrifice by proclaiming to his diehard followers “Ask not what your mask can do for you, but what your mask can do for your nation!” Trump’s devoted followers openly proclaimed in interviews that if he told them to don a mask they would. Trump could have also done as South Korea’s president did and boldly launched a federal, unified, top down, nationwide emergency response that involved a government-enforced mandatory use of face masks, a strict ban on social gatherings, and a highly effective national Coronavirus tracing program that led to the strictly enforced quarantining of South Koreans who tested positive for the virus. In systematically implementing these central government policies on a nationwide basis, South Korea, with a population of almost 52 million, was able to limit its COVID 19 deaths to a remarkable 464 deaths as of October 31 (that translates to fewer than 3,000 deaths in America with a population of 330,000,000 instead of the current toll of 250,000 deaths and climbing).
History will show that the above commonsensical steps are exactly what Trump did not do. Instead he chose to divide the nation with an “us” versus “them” approach to masks and social distancing. Trump clearly saw the pandemic as political rather than a health crisis. The calculated tack he pursued played a major role in the fact that America began to lose over 1,300 to the virus in a single day (more than twice the entire number of nationwide COVID 19 deaths in South Korea in 9 months) and to see over 170,000 new cases in a single day. By mid November America was experiencing the daily equivalent of a Jonestown mass suicide or a 9/11-scale mass casualty terror attack three times a week. Under the president’s leadership America would see the most Coronavirus cases of any nation in the world and become the global epicenter, even as the unemployment rate ultimately soared to 14.7%, the highest since the Great Depression. In the epidemiological sense the USA came to resemble the “hot zone” of Congo during the Ebola outbreak and European nations banned their citizens from flying to America.
The president’s self serving calculus in deliberately not following the highly effective South Korean model or advice of the medical community and instead undermining his own government’s CDC’s safety measures was as cold, calculating and cynical as it was immoral. It is patently obvious that Trump saw the virus as a threat to the economy and recent history clearly shows that incumbent presidents who preside over a strong economy get reelected. Anything that would enable the American people to continue to work and keep the economy going, even as morgues and Intensive Care Units were overwhelmed with the dead and dying, was, in Trump’s self-interested Machiavellian perspective, legitimate. Trump was cynically prepared to sacrifice the health and lives of millions of Americans on the altar of his ambition to be reelected via a sound economy.
What were the president’s subsequent fateful, strictly economy-based decisions that helped lead the USA, which Fox News reported has just four percent of the world’s population, to suffer twenty five percent of the world’s deaths to the virus that other countries like New Zealand controlled? First, instead of being truthful and urgently warning the American people that COVID 19 was “five times more deadly than the flu,” as he acknowledged in his interview with Bob Woodward, Trump deliberately and repeatedly lied about and downplayed its threat. In February, for example, he tried to convince the American people not to be afraid of the deadly virus that would by mid November infect almost 11 million and kill almost 250,000. The president would mislead his nation by describing the deadly pandemic as nothing more than the “common flu” and falsely stating “This is a flu. This is like a flu.” Trump repeatedly lied to the American people about the lethality of the contagious virus he had previously been warned about and offered false information such as “You know, a lot of people think that goes away in April with the heat — as the heat comes in. Typically, that will go away in April.” Trump would also prevaricate and say of Coronavirus, "it's going to disappear. One day it's like a miracle, it will disappear” as well as “Coronavirus numbers are looking MUCH better, going down almost everywhere,” and cases are “coming way down.”
Trump’s Policies That Aided the Spread of the Coronavirus
But Trump’s ultimately self-defeating policies went further than simply deceiving the American people and lulling his blind cult followers into a false sense of security as hundreds of thousands of their fellow countrymen died. As America’s governors responsibly moved on an ad hoc basis to fill the federal level national leadership void and, in a patchwork fashion, implement CDC guidelines to protect their populations due to the absence of a top-down, nationwide government policy, Trump calculatingly encouraged armed anti-mask and anti-social distancing protestors in Michigan. He cynically called on them to “liberate!” their state from its Democratic governor and openly fight against his own CDC’s health guidelines. Taking cues from the president, one group of 13 militiamen who were opposed to the Michigan governor’s spring lockdown hatched a plot to kidnap, try and execute her before they were arrested by the FBI.
To compound matters, Trump then irresponsibly carried out a series of cringe-inducing mass rallies in the fall that were later found to have been “super spreader” events where throngs of packed and maskless devotees risked their lives. Fox news would report that after a largely maskless Trump rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma there was a record high surge in Coronavirus cases. Trump’s true believers in the rallies blindly showed their devotion to the cult of Trump by proudly ignoring the very social distancing and mask guidelines meant to protect them and their loved ones. Among those who appear to have become infected (and later died) at one of Trump’s irresponsibly lethal rallies was former Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain who proudly had his maskless picture taken with fans at the Tulsa, Oklahoma rally.
As the high priest of a cult that replaced the Republican Party’s self-proclaimed pro-life stance with what could be considered a pro-death stance, Trump’s lethal policies of rejecting masks and social distancing and lulling Americans with such recent falsehoods as “we are rounding the corner [on the pandemic]” beautifully” enabled the deadly virus to spread closer and closer to us all. Among the false tenets of Trump’s cult was the “nothing is happening here” mantra that there was no skyrocketing death toll just “more testing for the virus.”
In addition to unquestioned truths, cults often need an “apostate,” “heretic” or “ungodly” enemy to focus their true believers’ wrath against. Reverend Jim Jones’ cult in Guyana focused its followers fury on the “sinful” American government. Trump soon found a sinister enemy for his followers to focus on, the very American medical professionals who were risking their lives in overwhelmed Intensive Care Units to save patients infected with COVID 19. Far from depicting the previously widely respected medical professionals as frontline heroes in the war on the deadly pathogen, Trump spread a falsehood among his followers that doctors were financially incentivized to lie and exaggerate Coronavirus deaths in order to receive financial bonuses from his government. This easily disproved lie served to undermine his followers’ belief in the skyrocketing death toll from the Coronavirus and further incentivize them to ignore the health guidelines of the now distrusted medical professionals. Not since Typhoid Mary, a 19th century cook who consciously infected dozens with the deadly disease, had an American done so much to infect other Americans.
If this were not damaging enough to the American people’s health, Trump actively worked to undermine and discredit America’s top infectious disease expert, his widely respected Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Dr. Anthony Fauci. Trump described Fauci, who polls showed had more support than Trump, as a “disaster” and health care professionals as “idiots.” Outdoing the president, his former advisor Steve Bannon had his online show banned from Twitter after he called for Dr. Fauci to be decapitated and his head put on a pike in front of the White House. Fauci, who became the focus of intense and widespread anti-masking sentiment among Trump followers, received so many death threats that he was given FBI bodyguards for his protection. Meanwhile, at his packed maskless campaign rallies Trump mocked his opponent Joe Biden to boos from the audience proclaiming that Biden would do something terrible, “listen to Dr. Fauci” and “listen to scientists.”
Blindly accepting the president’s anti-medical science preaching was not a huge leap for his cult followers. It will be recalled their party had a history of denialism towards science traceable back to the 1970s when many Republicans rejected the medical community’s findings that cigarettes caused cancer (not to mention their more recent rejection of the science behind global warming). But the million-vote question remained; Would the president’s falsehoods and anti-Fauci and anti-science approach to the pandemic resonate with those beyond his diehard base who had not drunk the Hydroxychloroquine?
The High Political Cost of Trump’s Efforts to Play Down the Virus and Sabotage the CDC.
The signs that Trump’s approach was not resonating with those beyond the reach of the Fox evening news echo chamber or his ecstatic rallies began to appear almost as soon as Joe Biden became the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate and began to contrast himself to Trump by wearing a mask in public and practicing social distancing. One candidate wore his mask as a symbol of his belief in science while the other chose not to and instead promised his followers the Coronavirus would go away any day now. Trump openly mocked Biden for wearing a mask in the first debate and mocked him for “staying in his basement” during the lockdown.
As Trump, his spokeswoman, his former spokeswoman, his head of Housing and Urban Development, his chief of staff, his wife and son, as well as Vice President Pence’s staff, several Republican Senate allies, one governor and 130 of his Secret Service bodyguards tested positive for COVID (even as Biden and his staff remained negative), the differences between the contenders’ policies and understanding of the real threat the pandemic posed became increasingly glaring. Polls began to show that increasing majorities felt Biden was better suited to deal with the pandemic than Trump who defined himself as an anti-Coronavirus “cheerleader.” While Trump created an alternative universe for his denialist followers where he claimed the virus was “disappearing,” fifty-five percent of voters listened to the prognostications of the health experts and felt the worst was yet to come. And far from turning on Dr. Fauci, a poll by the Independentreported that he was the only person associated with the Trump administration who saw their approval rating rise.
Sensing that his denialist approach was not reaching the un-converted who were worried about the mounting death toll and spread of the virus as the election approached, a self pitying Trump griped at a rally “With the fake news, everything is COVID, COVID, COVID, COVID. I had it. Here I am, right?” His message that COVID was not a real threat because he had survived it with the support of the best doctors in the world was cold comfort to the hundreds of thousands of American families burying loved ones killed in the pandemic or those who had become infected and suffered terrible “long haul” effects from the virus. As the election loomed Trump’s final message remained one of defiance and imperviousness to the facts. At a rally he encouraged Coronavirus fatigue among his followers saying of Americans“They’re getting tired of the pandemic — aren’t they? You turn on CNN. That’s all they cover: ‘COVID, COVID, pandemic. COVID, COVID, COVID. They’re trying to talk people out of voting. People aren’t buying it, CNN, you dumb bastards.”
But even if Americans were tired of the pandemic they were not willing to do as White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows did when he threw in the towel and surrendered to Coronavirus saying “we are not going to control the pandemic.” As the election fast approached, a worried Republican pollster captured the unease in the Trump camp stating “I think the polling is picking up everything, which is that the pandemic is overwhelmingly the most important issue facing the country. And right now, that’s not helpful to the president.” Democratic advisor James Carville captured the mood of voters in 1992 with the phrase “it’s the economy stupid” and the key takeaway from numerous polls on the eve of the election seemed to be “it’s the Coronavirus stupid.” Whether Trump liked it or not the election was going to be a referendum on his handling of the greatest health emergency the nation had seen since the 1918 Influenza pandemic.
Even as Trump held his final rallies, Midwestern states like Wisconsin that had voted for him in 2016 became the global epicenter of the deadly virus that many Trump supporters had previously thought would be limited to New York and other coastal Democrat-governed states. Millions of Americans (including many of the vulnerable elderly who were written off as expendable by Trump followers who were focused on getting young people to reopen the economy at all cost) came to blame Trump for the spread of the virus that he had systematically downplayed. While polls showed Trump was trusted on the economy, a Gallup poll taken less than a month before the election showed that by a margin of 52% to 39%Americans trusted Biden more than the president when it came to the spreading pandemic. To compound matters, in a rejection of his anti-mask campaign that should have served warning to Trump, 90 percent of those polled in October said they wore masks. This boded ill for a president who had made anti-maskism a central tenet of his reelection campaign and boded well for Biden, who wore a mask proudly.
Far from being a rallying point to gain new voters, Trump’s instinct to politicize what should have been a unifying medical issue hurt him among the majority of voters who trusted Dr. Fauci over the president. A clear majority believed in the science behind wearing masks and social distancing and an October poll showed that six in ten Americans were favorable to those wearing masks despite Trump mocking them. Despite his best efforts to turn the nation against masks, Trump was going against the majority. Tellingly, by turning such widely approved, commonsensical health measures as wearing masks into a sign of disloyalty to his cult, Trump lost the support of many non-cult voters in highly infected states that had voted for him in 2016, such as Arizona and Wisconsin (these two states flipped to Biden in the November 2020 elections and helped give him the presidency). In Georgia, where the Republican governor emulated Trump by suing the mayor of Atlanta to prevent her from having mandatory wearing of masks, voters similarly flipped the state from Trump to Biden in the November election.
Ironically, governors such as Ohio Republican governor Mike Dewine who moved quickly and decisively to enact strict measures to enforce lockdowns, social distancing, and mask wearing, instead of downplaying the pandemic with falsehoods and sabotaging the CDC, saw their approval ratings go up. Trump, it seemed, had gambled the lives of millions of Americans on what turned out to be a losing bet that they would in essence not listen to their lying eyes and ears and instead trust his promise that “we are rounding the bend.” In retrospect the president should have followed Mike Dewine’s path to widespread popularity among undecideds, Democrats and Republicans by being honest with the American people and working to save American lives…instead of his job.
In the end, the Washington Post was to report 82 percent of voters who said the Coronavirus was their most important issue in choosing a president supported Biden, according to preliminary national exit polls. This was all Biden needed to secure an exact repeat of Trump’s 2016 electoral college victory over Hilary Clinton (which he repeatedly described as a “landslide”), by a count of 306 to 232 votes. While Trump had needlessly alienated many voting constituencies before the election, including Mexican Americans (describing Mexicans in blanket terms as “rapists”) and Arizonians (launching a campaign to degrade the state’s beloved senator and Vietnam hero John McCain), it was his unpopular Coronavirus policies that cost him the most support in the tight 2020 presidential election. Simply put, tens of millions refused to drink his cult of death Kool Aid and subscribe to his alternative universe, where the virus would just “go away” and wearing masks to protect themselves and fellow citizens was somehow disloyal to the president, unpatriotic and un-American. For a clear majority of Americans masks remained a sign of collective and personal responsibility, not a sign of being un-American.
There is no way of knowing how many Americans’ lives were lost as a result of the president’s anti-CDC campaign to stir such fervor among his true believers. A new study, however, shows that universal wearing of masks, if belatedly mandated (as South Korea did), could save 130,000 lives by the end of February 2021. As grieving Americans bury more of their Coronavirus-infected loved ones than were lost in the Korean War, Vietnam War, Gulf War, War on Terror and Operation Iraqi Freedom combined, it remains to be seen whether Trump and his loyal cult followers will belatedly assist the CDC in trying to save those 130,000 lives during the remainder of his one term presidency… or whether his self-serving calls for mass suicide by the blind faithful are unquestioningly obeyed as they were in Jonestown. There are, however, worrying signs that Trump will hold more of his super spreader rallies where he has promised to fight to delegitimize the election results and make his claim that the election was “stolen” from him. In fact this process has already begun. On November 14, thousands of maskless Trump supporters organized by the openly racist Proud Boys gathered in Washington for a “Stop The Steal” rally to protest against the supposed stealing of Trump’s presidency.
Regardless of whether or not Trump concedes defeat or goes on a pandemic spreading tour to once again rally his true believer base, one thing is abundantly clear. In January 2021 America will have a new president. On November 9thpresident elect Biden channeled President John F. Kennedy by reaching out to the nation with a plea for all Americans, regardless of their political orientation, to wear masks stating “It doesn’t matter who you voted for, where you stood before Election Day. It doesn’t matter your party or your point of view. We can save tens of thousands of lives if everyone would just wear a mask for the next few months. Please, I implore you, wear a mask. Do it for yourself. Do it for your neighbor. A mask is not a political statement, but it is a good way to start pulling the country together.” Biden has proposed a plan (available on his website) to follow in South Korea’s footsteps and for the first time launch a federal, nationwide, top down program designed to increase tracing, provide more funds for efforts to assist medical facilities and governors in battling the pandemic, and encourage more mask wearing and social distancing (despite Trump’s claims Biden has not called for a nationwide lockdown). Biden has also promised to listen to the medical experts and that is perhaps something that the families of almost a quarter of a million families who buried loved ones lost to the pandemic under Trump can take some solace from.
Update November 20. On November 19, Dr. Anthony Fauci announced during the first Coronavirus task force briefing held by the Trump administration in four months that vaccines had been produced by the very medical scientists the president had derided to his followers as “idiots.” As the daily death toll in America approaches 2,000 and daily infection rates surpassed 187,000 this came as welcome news to a traumatized nation that lost more to the pandemic than any other country. Dr. Fauci, the target of so much hatred from Trump’s cult followers, announced in the widely covered briefing that New York city-based Pfizer and Boston-based Moderna had created vaccines that he assured the American people were safe (here he was pushing back on New York governor Andrew Cuomo’s criticism that they might not be safe). Fauci and Vice President Pence, who was far more visible than Trump who showed his utter lack of interest in the pandemic by not attending a Coronavirus Task Force meeting in five months, then announced plans to distribute the vaccine as early as late December, first to health workers who are at far greater risk as they treat infected patients. There is thus cause for hope that the virus that has taken the lives of over a quarter of a million Americans in less than nine months can be treated.
Sadly, the rollout of the vaccine in the largest medical distribution in American history will certainly come too late for tens of thousands of Americans who will continue to die in the pandemic’s greatest and deadliest spike yet over the next few months. The global epicenter of the raging virus as of late November is in the Dakotas where Republican governors proudly refused to issue mask mandates and skepticism of the Coronavirus “hoax” (as Trump labelled it) is rife. As a result of a widespread culture of Coronavirus denialism and anger at masks, North Dakota has the highest mortality rate of any state or any country in the world according to Fox News. In the Dakotas Trump’s cult of death is taking its highest toll and one frustrated South Dakota nurse wrote that many of her patients dying of the virus were still engaged in denialism about it. She recorded the sad reality of Trump’s continuing impact on those who believe their cult leader, not the distrusted medical scientists, as follows:
"I have a night off from the hospital. As I’m on my couch with my dog I can’t help but think of the Covid patients the last few days. The ones that stick out are those who still don’t believe the virus is real. They tell you there must be another reason they are sick. They call you names and ask why you have to wear all that 'stuff' because they don’t have COViD because it’s not real. Yes. This really happens."
It it not surprising, given his influence among Republicans which is amplified by Fox News pundits such as Laura Ingraham who has attacked governors who issues mask mandates as “Coronavirus crazed tyrants,” that counties that voted for Trump have higher infection rates than those that did not.
To compound matters, as the incoming Biden administration---which has proclaimed “there is nothing macho about not wearing as mask. Wearing a mask is a sign of being patriotic”---prepares to take the White House and control of the campaign to defeat the pandemic on January 20, 2021, the Trump administration has refused to assist it out of spite. More than two weeks since his decisive election loss, Trump remains dug in at the White House, refusing to concede and to help his successor deal with the pandemic. Since becoming a lame-duck president, Trump has not only blocked cooperation with the incoming Biden administration, he has remained largely silent on the Coronavirus and instead focused on undermining the integrity of the election results.
A concerned Biden has fretted that, if his administration has no cooperation in preparing to take over the distribution of the vaccine and other health measures before January 20, 2021, “more people could die.” But for all the fact that Trump is proactively trying to prevent cooperation between his health officials and the incoming Biden administration, cracks are appearing in his cult. As thousands of Midwesterners see their communities ravaged by what they were told was a hoax and see loved ones die, there is a new sense of skepticism towards Trump’s war on the science of defeating the pandemic among many disillusioned former cult members.
Among the disillusioned is North Dakota governor Doug Burgum who broke with his former anti-mask policies as North Dakotans began to become infected by the thousands. On November 13, Burgum parted ways with Trump and announced that “the era of individualistic responsibility” for wearing masks and social distancing had ended and he as governor was mandating masks and other social distancing measures designed to protect North Dakotans. It remains to be seen whether this major break with a cult that has been responsible for so many deaths across the nation in 2020 signals a growing rejection of Trump’s influence over his followers…or whether it remains an anomaly in a movement that still has the unquestioned loyalty of millions of citizens in the most pandemic-wracked nation on the earth.
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