INTELLECTUAL INFRASTRUCTURE: What if President Trump isn't lying?

THURSDAY, MAY 21, 2020

Friedersdorf's willing to ask:
Yesterday afternoon, President Donald J. Trump was at it again.

As always, it wasn't entirely clear what the commander was saying. According to the official White House transcript, the bafflegab started like this:
REPORTER (5/20/20): Mr. President, with 4 percent of the world’s population and 30 percent of the—of the outbreak, what would you have done differently facing this crisis?

TRUMP: Well, nothing. If you take New York and New Jersey—which were very hard hit—we were very, very low. And in terms of morbidity and in terms of—if you look at the death, relatively speaking, we’re at the lowest level along with Germany. Germany, us. There could have been some smaller countries too, perhaps.

I’d like to ask you maybe about that, if I could, Deborah. We’ve done, you know, amazingly well...
As he continued, Trump seemed to say that Birx and Fauci had been "big supporters" of the China travel ban. If that's actually what he meant, that would seem to contradict the earlier, repeated statements in which he routinely said that he'd been "the only one in the room" who favored the brilliant ban.

At any rate, Trump seemed to be crazily wrong concerning the United States and Germany "if you look at the death, relatively speaking."

As usual, his jumbled syntax was hard to parse. But he possibly seemed to be saying that the United States and Germany had the lowest death rates, adjusted for size of population, of any nation in the world.

That, of course, would be crazily wrong, if that's what he actually meant. But as is now the unmistakable norm, Birx then provided the mumbled-mouthed folderol which covered for Trump's apparent groaner:
BIRX: Yeah, I think it’s always confusing—and particularly confusing to the American people when we don’t emphasize the size of our country. We’re the third largest country in the world. But every country has a different experience with this virus. And so you have to adjust everything to population size.

And so when you look at Spain and Italy, our attack rates to this virus are identical to other countries that have experienced the type of epidemic that we have experienced. And so every country is different. That’s why you really need to always report data normalized for population. And then you look at the mortality by population, and it’s true: We have, compared to our European colleagues, some of the lowest mortality—about half of Italy and Spain.
"Good job," the president said at roughly this point, as if to give Birx a treat.

In her thoroughly Birxian comments, Birx disappeared the comparison to Germany, citing Italy and Spain instead. She threw in some typically arcane terms—does anyone know what "attack rate" means?—and she probably changed the subject, though if she did no one could tell.

Welcome to Babel, modern American-style! Consider:

First, a journalist murkily said the United States has "30 percent of the outbreak."

In response, a barely coherent commander in chief suggested that we "talk about the death, relatively speaking."

At that point, along came Birx; she discussed "the mortality by population." By that, she may have meant the percentage of people diagnosed with the infection who actually die (deaths per reported cases).

As she droned on, the likelihood grew that Birx was referring to that marginally useful statistic. In that way, Birx was covering, once again, for her bumbling boss.

That said, none of the journalists in the room knew what Birx meant. Of that you can feel quite certain. Also, none of them bothered to ask.

Sadly, this is the way our discourse works in upper-end modern America. Let's return to President Trump, the most important figure in the room during this pseudo-discussion.

Last night, Brian Williams assumed, not unreasonably, that Trump had been referring to our nation's death rate in his remarks—to our number of coronavirus deaths adjusted for size of population. Cruelly, Williams played videotape of these later remarks by Trump, making our analysts scream:
TRUMP: And, you know, when you say “per capita,” there’s many per capitas [sic]. It’s like, per capita relative to what?

But you can look at just about any category, and we’re really at the top, meaning positive on a per capita basis too. They’ve done a great job.
By that point, Birx had been discussing number of tests per capita. Trump jumped in to say that we're "really at the top" in "just about any category" "on a per capita basis."

Sad! The United States isn't "really at the top" in "just about any category" "on a per capita basis!" With respect to deaths from coronavirus per capita, here are the figures for the four countries mentioned by Trump and Birx:
Coronavirus deaths per million population, as of May 21:
Spain: 596
Italy: 535
United States: 287
Germany: 99
Truth to tell, our per capita death rate is almost three times that of Germany. Nor do we and Germany stand alone as the best among roughly similar nations. As of today, some other numbers look like this:
Coronavirus deaths per million, continued:
Canada: 160
Denmark: 97
Norway: 43
South Korea: 5
Australia: 4
Taiwan: 0.3
We're sorry, but no. The United States isn't aligned with Germany at all, let alone as the best in the world, on this extremely basic measure.

By any dimly rational standard, yesterday's press event was a gruesome disgrace. There's no excuse for what Birx is now doing, or for the press corps' endless tolerance for her appalling conduct.

With respect to the press corps itself, the watchdogs just bungle along.

With respect to President Trump, his statements are frequently so imprecise that it isn't especially clear what he's even talking about. But it's also obvious that his flat misstatements are endless.

Long ago, it became the norm to refer to these misstatements as "lies." Last week, the Atlantic's Conor Friedersdorf had a different idea.

Friedersdorf is one of the least scripted journalists in our upper-end press corps. He works from older intellectual norms and traditions, those which preceded our current Age of the Script and the Tribe.

Friedersdorf's column appeared under the headlines shown below. Greedily, we clicked to see what he'd said:
Maybe Trump Isn’t Lying
The president does not seem to grasp the most basic aspects of the public-health crisis.
Is every misstatement a lie? They are if you're simple-minded, or perhaps if you're working from script.

That said, our tribe began wiping this ancient distinction away during the reign of George W. Bush. To cite one dramatic example, David Corn explicitly redefined the ancient term "lie" in the preface to his best-selling 2004 book, The Lies of George W. Bush.

In his recent column, Friedersdorf raised an intriguing possibility. What if Donald J. Trump actually doesn't understand the unbelievably basic topics he's constantly discussing?

We think that question is strong. Tomorrow, we'll briefly discuss the merits of Friedersdorf's musing, and we'll then consider a more significant recent column—a column in which Friedersdorf discusses Tara Reade.

Our president seems to be out on his feet. Our upper-end mainstream press doesn't always seem a lot better.

In that sense, our basic intellectual infrastructure is remarkably soft. Friedersdorf types from within an older tradition. Still, in each of these recent columns, he didn't go far enough.

Tomorrow: Could Trump be cognitively impaired in some way? Should people believe Tara Reade?

28 comments:

  1. "With respect to President Trump, his statements are frequently so imprecise that it isn't especially clear what he's even talking about."

    Perhaps, dear Bob, you have a problem, not being able to understand the common language.

    You're tuned, it seems, to the robotic zombie-speak, focus-group tested and approved by a team of lawyers.


    ...incidentally, for countries as large, geographically, as the US, China, and Russia, not only "adjusted for size of population" is necessary, but also - quite obviously - one should look differently at different regions.

    In China, it's Wuhan vs. everything else, in Russia, it looks like Moscow vs everything else.

    And in the US it's the greater NYC area vs everything else.

    Which is what Our Beloved Commander was saying in your quote; one of the things you refuse to understand, dear Bob.

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    Replies
    1. "And in the US it's the greater NYC area vs everything else."

      This isn't entirely true. There was also a hotspot in the San Francisco area, which Gov Newsom quickly brought under control by initiating a shutdown affecting the entire state. That's why you think there was only one focal point for outbreaks.

      Now, there is an additional hotspot in New Orleans because people attended Mardi Gras, and another in Detroit. From these areas and the states that are letting people go about freely without masks, virus cases are rapidly spreading across the South. It is now probably a lost cause, beyond the kind of containment China achieved in Wuhan.

      So, if that is what Trump was saying, he didn't seem to understand where the virus is, and why, in our own nation -- and it is his job to know such things.

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    2. At the top federal level it is entirely true, dear dembot.

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    3. Only in Trump's feeble brain.

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  2. Somerby's expectations for the press are unreasonable. They are not tolerating the lying and mistakes made by Trump and Birx. They are asking about death rates. They are not persisting, not wading into the weeds about arcane "attack rates" that they know will never be part of any story they wind up printing or airing. They are pursuing the information that will be relevant to readers and important to their reporting. It isn't their job to debate with Birx and it is impossible to educate Trump, so they would be talking to air if they continued to let him mumble by trying to "pin him down" as Somerby seems to want.

    I keep wondering why Somerby persists in his demand that the press treat Trump as if he were competent and Birx as if she were an honest broker, when it is clear that neither of these folks is capable of responding properly.

    My conclusion is that he is still trying to make the press look incompetent by somehow blaming them for Trump and Birx's deficiencies. I am sure that many, if not most, of the reporters in that room understand statistics as well as Somerby does (which isn't a high bar) and that they see the same mistakes being made, but there is nothing they can do about it in that context. Asking questions isn't going to turn Trump or Birx into different people.

    But there is damage done when Somerby attacks the press, echoing Trump's "fake news" complaints and undermining public faith in what they read. The press is getting this right. Somerby is wrong to help out the Republicans with an election coming up. He is wrong to confuse people and give the impression that the press is misbehaving, because that only benefits the forces of evil in this dangerous time.

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    1. They are not persisting, not wading into the weeds about arcane "attack rates" that they know will never be part of any story they wind up printing or airing.

      Thank you for that concise indictment. The press is not doing its job.

      I keep wondering why Somerby persists in his demand that the press treat Trump as if he were competent and Birx as if she were an honest broker,….

      And I keep wondering why you give the press a pass for their fumbling incompetence. TDH doesn’t demand that the press treat Trump as competent and Birx as an honest broker. He wants them to understand the issues and press public officials for answers, if only to throw a light on the incompetence and dishonesty.

      My conclusion is that he is still trying to make the press look incompetent by somehow blaming them for Trump and Birx's deficiencies.

      Of course that’s your conclusion, but that’s because you’re an egregious ignoramus. TDH doesn’t have to make the press look incompetent. They demonstrate their incompetence every time they simply give up.

      This is all it takes:

      Q: Dr Birx, thanks for making it clear that data must be normalized for population. Could you please explain why our testing program lags so far behind other countries when we look at the number of tests per capita?

      Q: If I understand you correctly, when you say attack rate, you’re referring to the transmission rate, what epidemiologists call r-nought, which measures how likely an uninfected person is to get the disease. That doesn’t have anything to do with the mortality rate, does it? That measures the chance of dying once a person is infected.

      Q: Italy and Spain do have higher mortality rates than we do. Could that because Italy waited so long to lock down and thus had their health-care system overwhelmed? They locked down on March 9, when they already had 5800 cases. Adjusting for population size, that would be the equivalent of 30,000 cases in the US. We started our lock downs in the middle of March, when we had about 3,000 reported cases. What do your experts say?

      Q We don’t have a lower mortality rate than all our European colleagues. Germany’s is about a third of ours, when you look at it, as you say,”by population.” Why is that?

      But there is damage done when Somerby attacks the press, echoing Trump's "fake news" complaints….

      He doesn’t. Fake news is making things up. That’s not TDH’s charge.

      He is wrong to confuse people and give the impression that the press is misbehaving, because that only benefits the forces of evil in this dangerous time.

      There’s no confusion because the the press’ “misbehavior” is real. And your argument from consequences is dismissed with contempt.

      In dangerous times, it’s all the more important for the press to step up and confront “the forces of evil.” Instead, they fold.

      And you applaud.

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    2. "And I keep wondering why you give the press a pass for their fumbling incompetence. "

      The press asks exactly the kinds of questions Somerby calls for, and no one answers. Trump, Birx and all others evade or just flatly refuse to answer. That is not the press's fault.

      Why is it that you only ever defend Somerby? I'm not the only one to notice that you (1) rarely make a substantive comment, (2) generally attack those who are critical of Somerby, buttressing his critiques, (3) never seem to find fault with anything Somerby says despite his being nearly as confused and bumbling as Trump, (4) have a hostile tone that tends to discourage commenting here.

      The press misbehavior isn't as "real" as Trump's misbehavior. You cannot force Trump to play nice. His base isn't willing to punish him for his blatant failure to inform the public, so the press cannot do anything to hold him accountable with supporters who just do not care what he does wrong. Much like you, with respect to Somerby.

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    3. "Fake news is making things up."

      Fake news is saying anything Trump doesn't like.

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    4. The press asks exactly the kinds of questions Somerby calls for, and no one answers.

      But they don’t press (pun intended) and they don’t do the research to report on the stonewalling.

      Why is it that you only ever defend Somerby?

      This isn’t true, as I’ll demonstrate below for each of your four items. But what difference does this make, true or false? My criticisms of the Anonymi Ignorami stand or fall or the evidence I present and the logic with which I present it. How does my attitude toward the blogger make the slightest difference?

      But let’s go over each of your faulty claims:

      1. I rarely make substantive comments. In fact, my comments include explanations of federal criminal law (otherwise known as United States Code Title 18), federal election law, the nature of judicial interpretation of statutes, relevant Supreme Court decisions, and just recently, the funding basis for nursing home residents. I’m sorry you missed these substantive contributions.

      2. I attack TDH’s critics. For values of attack equal to demonstrating their arguments as faulty. And, to be fair, employing the apt epithets ignoramus and numpty.

      3. I never find fault with TDH. Wrong. I criticize his refusal to learn enough math and science to make sensible comments on the subjects. In fact, on these topics I call him The Slowest Boy in the Class. He can’t quote Aristotle correctly, which I pointed out by finding the original Greek (substantive enough for ya, Sparky?) And I think he’s been hoodwinked by the charlatanry of Harari.

      4. I have a hostile tone that discourages commenting. Anyone who is discouraged from commenting because of something posted by a commenter with the nym deadrat on a blog nobody reads is a damn fool. Hmm, I guess that is pretty hostile, but I haven’t noticed a letup from the gaggle of Anonymi Ignorami. Their name, which is yours too, is still legion, as far as I can tell.

      Everything you say about Trump is as irrelevant as it is true.That doesn’t excuse the press from doing a competent job.

      Delete
  3. "Friedersdorf raised an intriguing possibility. What if Donald J. Trump actually doesn't understand the unbelievably basic topics he's constantly discussing?"

    Of course Trump doesn't understand these topics. I wouldn't call this "unbelievably basic" after just saying that people don't understand normalizing data. You can't have this both ways. There are a lot of complexities to the virus that most people are probably not following, by choice. It is understandable that some of them are even denying the whole situation and insisting on returning to their normal lives, with the magical thinking that this will make the virus go away. I think Trump is in that category, as well as being too stupid to understand the basics of the pandemic.

    Why is Somerby pretending that the idea of Trump being a stupid, ignorant man is an interesting new possibility? Why does he equate the press with Trump in terms of stupidity? That is clearly wrong and unfair to the press.

    At least we know that Somerby tomorrow will be ringing the same bell as today, in support of Trump's reelection campaign, because if the press is as stupid as our President, then there are no smart people and Trump isn't actually a dunce after all. Or so Somerby would have us think as he says:

    "Our president seems to be out on his feet. Our upper-end mainstream press doesn't always seem a lot better."

    And then he concludes with his pro forma accusation against the rest of us, saying:

    "In that sense, our basic intellectual infrastructure is remarkably soft."

    Sorry, Somerby, but I have been following details of the pandemic closely and I do understand statistics, and I am smart enough to see through what you keep doing here, day after day. I call bullshit on your lamentations about the state of intellectual thinking in the US. Trump was never an intellectual and he is no yardstick to measure by. The press is doing fine and our society is smarter than you think, which is why models are predicting that Trump is going to lose in a landslide, cementing his legacy as our nation's most incompetent president ever.

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  4. As he continued, Trump seemed to say that Birx and Fauci had been "big supporters" of the China travel ban. If that's actually what he meant, that would seem to contradict the earlier, repeated statements in which he routinely said that he'd been "the only one in the room" who favored the brilliant ban.

    Perhaps Trump meant that he was the only one in the room who favored the China ban at the time, but Birx and Fauci agree in retrospect that the ban saved lives.

    ReplyDelete
  5. “Maybe Trump Isn’t Lying”

    Friedersdorf isn’t a psychologist.

    John Gartner, touted previously by TDH, is. Gartner had this to say about Trump:

    “He lies and makes things up. His fantasies all serve his malignant narcissism and the world he has created in his own mind about his greatness.”

    According to the professional psychologist, Trump does indeed lie. It’s an essential part of Gartner’s diagnosis in fact.

    Gartner had this to say about Trump’s response to the pandemic:

    “Trump is not just deflecting blame onto the governors, he is actively interfering with the governors' ability to do their job. Trump is not just incompetent. He is actively engaging in sabotage.”

    (https://www.salon.com/2020/04/25/psychologist-john-gartner-trump-is-a-sexual-sadist-who-is-actively-engaging-in-sabotage/)

    Friedersdorf, the non-psychologist, suggests Trump is just stupid.

    What’s a TDH reader to think, except that TDH doesn’t blame Trump and pities him in any case?

    ReplyDelete
  6. Gartner may be an expert in psychology, but he's not an expert in public relations. He's right that many of Trump's false statements build himself up and make him look greater than he is. What Gartner misses is that Trump's false statements are expertly chosen to help Trump achieve his goals. Making effective false statements helped him become an international icon, a best-selling author, and President of the US.

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    1. "effective false statement" = self serving lie

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    2. It doesn't matter if white people aren't even close to superior than blacks. Making effective false statements helped Trump become President of the US.

      David,
      Congratulations for figuring out "The Apprentice" is a TV show. I thought it would take you at least 2-3 decades.

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    3. "a best-selling author"

      You do realize that Trump didn't write his own books?

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    4. expertly chosen

      Bullshit. I wouldn't buy a used car from that flimflam con artist, David. I don't click my heals for Der Fuhrer. If his father didn't give him millions and he didn't have an army of lawyers abusing the legal system he couldn't get a job walking the floor at Walmart.

      achieve his goals a failed presidency, a national depression, 100000 dead Americans, and a new record for being impeached before completing his first time.

      yeah, david, you fascist prick, he's a fucking genius.

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    5. @5:04 You do realize that Trump didn't write his own books?

      Yes, that's my point. It wasn't his writing genius that made the books best-sellers. It was his PR genius.

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    6. David,
      Which of Trump's six bankruptcies is your favorite, and why?

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    7. People think that reading Trump's books will help them get rich. Sadly that doesn't work for the average Trump supporter, just for his rich cronies and grifters who are busily looting our country.

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    8. There a method to Trump acting like a petulant 4-year old, with half the vocabulary..

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    9. Who wants Trump talking about what he really thinks? Some old fuck repeating the words, "I wish I could fuck my daughter", over and over again?
      Nah. We're all better off with Trump just speaking gibberish.

      Delete
  7. From Rawstory:

    "President Donald Trump appeared to trip over his words Thursday when speaking to the press about his coronavirus status.

    “I tested very positively in another sense. So, this morning, yeah, I tested positively toward negative, right? No, I tested perfectly this morning. Meaning I tested negative,” Trump fumbled. “But that’s the way it’s taken, positively toward the negative.”

    Anyone with an ounce of intelligence could say what he means in a much clearer and more succinct way. A clear thinker would avoid using the word "positive" in its other sense, to denote a good thing, in a context where it means something else -- that a test result shows you have the virus (or whatever it is testing for).

    This is only jumbled when Trump says it because Trump is so incredibly stupid.

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    1. Anyone with an ounce of intelligence could say what he means in a much clearer and more succinct way.

      Trump didn't want to be clear and succinct. He wanted his comments to lead the news reports. He wanted to be the center of public attention. His unclear, non-succinct phrasing helped to accomplish this goal.

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    2. David nailed it.
      While you talk about this, you're not talking about Trump's criminal negligence.

      And when you are talking about Trump, you're not talking about how the entire Right-wing ideological movement is an amoral dumpster fire.

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  8. In three short years, Trump has made the USA into the greatest country on Earth again, so of course, we must have the lowest death rate because, thanks to Trump, we’re the best at everything. Birx is now a TrumpLicker, which means she’s incapable of talking about the data without using TrumpLickerese, the language of deception, and confusion. A language perfected by the master himself,it is the official language of the GOP.

    ReplyDelete