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?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.
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...
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."Good job," the president said at roughly this point, as if to give Birx a treat.
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.
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?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."
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.
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: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:
United States: 287
Coronavirus deaths per million, continued: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.
South Korea: 5
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 LyingIs every misstatement a lie? They are if you're simple-minded, or perhaps if you're working from script.
The president does not seem to grasp the most basic aspects of the public-health crisis.
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?