Trump Is Turning Coronavirus Into a Useful Enemy

CHARLOTTE, N.C.— Donald Trump has made a career of turning weaknesses into strengths.

On the eve of Super Tuesday, on a day when Democrats began to coalesce around a suddenly surging Joe Biden and national headlines carried news of four new deaths from the coronavirus, President Trump spent a full six minutes near the start of his hourlong speech at his rally here talking about the good news about what is fast approaching a pandemic.

Some 10,000 people packed Bojangles’ Coliseum to hear him, a sea of red MAGA hats and Keep America Great signs. If experts somewhere in America were worried about the dangers of big crowds, or Trump's own response to the epidemic, it wasn’t in evidence here.

It was clear from the way Trump embraced the subject—his first order of business was to trumpet the stock market’s meteoric one-day rise—that Trump sees the spreading illness not just as threat but as an opportunity. Dinged in recent days for his response to the spread of Covid-19—critics calling it some combination of incompetent, incoherent or dangerously indifferent—Trump answered Monday by stoking the sort of nationalist sentiment that’s been so central to his political identity and ascent. Anxiety continues to mount worldwide as the number of affected countries—and the number of cases—continues to climb. But even on a day when four more deaths were recorded in Washington state, Trump used the crisis to renew a fight on an instinctually comfortable front. Instead of pretending it wasn’t real, a manufactured hoax by Democrats to make him look bad, Trump called it “a problem,” but one that highlighted his administration’s signature policy.

“We have strong borders,” he said.

Supporters sport MAGA tattoos and apparel at Trump's 'Keep America Great Again' rally on Monday in Charlotte, North Carolina.

“We’re doing everything in our power to keep the sick and infected people from coming into our country,” he said.

“There are fringe globalists who would rather keep our borders open,” he said.

“No country,” he said, “is better equipped than America to handle new threats, and no people are more skilled, talented, tough or driven than Americans—Americans—and together we are in the midst of the great American comeback.”

The coronavirus and its contribution to last week’s precipitous stock market tumble underscored the risk it still might pose for Trump as the electioneering of 2020 only intensifies. Who knows how the virus, which experts estimate kills up to 2 percent of the people infected, will affect the country? A widespread death toll or a sputtering economy could hobble the president’s reelection prospects. But Trump, of course, is and always has been a wizard of spin, a devotee of Norman Vincent Peale who believes reality can be bent to one’s will based on the stubborn insistence of assertion. “He knows of no other way,” New York gossip columnist George Rush once told me, “and that is to spin until he’s woven some gossamer fabric out of garbage.”

Yet can he spin his way out of a potential pandemic?

“With his base,” former Trump casino executive Jack O’Donnell posited Monday in a text message exchange, “yes.”

Under a gray, prerally, midafternoon sky, outside the aged minor-league hockey arena in this city in one of the most important swing spots on the Super Tuesday slate, as auxiliary parking lots overflowed and enterprising residents looking to make some extra money waved cars onto their yards, past the shirts, placards and pins saying “NO MORE BULLSHIT” and “FUCK YOUR FEELINGS” and “ALL ABOARD THE TRUMP TRAIN,” I encountered Rod Webber.

“Trump or Jesus?” he asked passersby.

The documentarian and political provocateur from Boston pointed his phone at the people.

Some said, “Jesus.”

Others said, “Trump.”

“It’s 50-50,” he told me.

“It feels like we’re at Jonestown,” Webber continued, looking out at the gathering sea of red hats. “I went to 40 Trump rallies in 2016, and the Kool-Aid was never as strong as it is these days.”

Retired pastor Bob Palisin shows off his hat, while waiting to enter the rally.

The line of those waiting to get in was long. The people in it that I talked to were not worried about the coronavirus, or Trump’s response to the coronavirus, or anything else, really, about his performance as president.

The first man I met, for instance, was Bob Palisin, a retired Presbyterian pastor from Concord who wasn’t wearing a red hat but rather one that was suede and tan and sported a button on the front. “BAN IDIOTS NOT GUNS,” it said.

“I think he’s handled it as best he can,” Palisin said when I asked him about Trump and the virus. He downplayed its severity. “The weakest people,” said Palisin, 81, “are the ones who are most likely to be drastically affected by it.” He referred to the people who died at the nursing facility in Washington state. “People who are, let’s say, sick and have diseases may be more susceptible to demise,” he said, “but that doesn’t mean that healthy people are not going to be able to fight it off.”

Next I spotted Shane and Tiffany Sheppard, 41 and 35, respectively, up from Augusta, Georgia. Both were wearing hooded sweatshirts touting Donald Trump Jr. to be the president starting in 2024.

“And Ivanka after—even Ivanka before,” he said, referring to Trump’s older daughter and White House adviser.

“So,” I asked, “we’ll have a president with the last name Trump until, like, we’re all dead?”

“Yeah,” he said. “Barron in 2056.”

Top: Supporters line up outside the arena. Bottom left: Street vendors sell flags. Bottom right: A supporter holds up a sign promoting the

He and his wife also were unconcerned about the coronavirus.

“Just gotta wash your hands,” she said. “Don’t touch your face.”

“He’s done everything anybody else would do,” he said of Trump. “What are you supposed to do? ‘Let’s get a trillion dollars to help’—help do what? The cold spreads.” Sheppard echoed what Palisin had said about the most vulnerable. “The only people it’s killed so far,” he said, “are the elderly and the people who are already sick.”

He brought up China.

“China,” he said, “China doesn’t like Trump. They’re having to pay a lot more money now than they did before. They’ve been robbin’ us for years …”

“So,” I said, “are you saying that China has manufactured some virus and sent it our way?”

A woman looks at herself in a mirror while trying on a

“No,” he said. “I’m just saying they might be, they might be, they might be making a bigger—you know, who knows? I’m not into conspiracy theories.”

He and his wife told me to Google a video on YouTube of a man in China eating live baby mice.

I wondered what the connection was to the coronavirus.

“You’ve just got a lot of people who don’t have healthy habits,” she said.

Over closer to the porta-potties was Rob Ward from Raleigh. The 44-year-old commercial real estate broker was wearing a MAGA onesie made by a company called American AF.

“From what I’ve read, you’re much more likely to die from the flu than you are from the coronavirus,” said Ward, who actually supported Ted Cruz in the primaries in 2016 and voted third party instead of voting for Trump in the general election but now was … a 44-year-old commercial real estate broker wearing a MAGA onesie.

“I think he’s done a great job,” Ward said, referring to his response to the virus and pretty much everything else. “I think he gets criticized no matter what he does.”

I mentioned his use of the word “hoax” talking about the virus last week at his rally in South Carolina.

“I never heard the word ‘hoax,’” he said.

“You know, H1N1 and swine flu and all these other things, you know what’s funny,” he continued. “I read an article about the years that they came out. They were all election years. I mean, it was, like, our last six viruses that have happened in the past, like, 15 to 20 years have all been in an election year. Not that I’m saying, you know, it’s manufactured or anything like that, but I just saw it and thought it was interesting.”

I asked him where he’d seen that.

“I don’t know,” he said.

“Did it come across Facebook for you?” I said.

“It did,” he said.

Inside the arena, with 8,600 seats and additional standing space on the floor, Apostle D.J. Wiggins opened with an invocation. “God,” he said, “we thank you that we have a president who is about protecting America and not infecting America.”

After the Pledge of Allegiance, after the national anthem, after Lara and Eric Trump and Diamond and Silk elicited standing ovations, Trump took the stage to rapturous applause.

Top: Eric Trump brandishes a

In his speech, the president called Biden “Sleepy Joe” and Bernie Sanders “Crazy Bernie” and Mike Bloomberg “Mini Mike” and “a mess,” and he described Elizabeth Warren with the racist slur he’s been using for years. He said his impeachment was “one of the great hoaxes in the history of the country.” He said he liked to use rallies the night before primaries to “troll” the Democrats. “We are kicking ass,” he concluded. “Winning, winning, winning,” he said.

But he did just about all of that after he dealt with the matter of the coronavirus.

“My administration has also taken the most aggressive action in modern history to protect Americans from the coronavirus,” said Trump, who in the past has described shaking hands as “terrible” and “barbaric” and “one of the curses of American society” and who two years ago asked lawmakers why the United States takes immigrants from “shithole” countries.

“Our tough and early actions have really been proven to be 100 percent right,” he said.

“We’ve really done a great job with it,” he said.

“We’re keeping our borders strong,” he said.

When the rally was over, all the people in their red hats walked back out into the dark, past the vendors hawking the shirts saying “DONALD FUCKIN’ TRUMP” and “MY ASS GOT ACQUITTED.”

Trump had no choice but to talk about the coronavirus because “the media has made a big deal out of it,” Sandy Wooten, 62, from nearby Waxhaw, told me.

She shrugged her shoulders.

“I think as long as you wash your hands and have some brains in between your ears,” she said, smoking a cigarette walking back to her truck, “you’ll be fine.”

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