A version of this article first appeared in the “Reliable Sources” newsletter. You can sign up for free right here.
President Trump’s response to the coronavirus crisis can be likened to a Potemkin Village. He tries to look impressive and sound positive, but his rah-rah rhetoric is a facade, disguising the ugly reality beneath.
He says things like the virus is “disappearing,” when in fact tens of thousands of Americans are getting sick every day. On Sunday, the United States surpassed the five million confirmed cases mark, and the true total is even higher, but unknown due to testing delays.
Sunday’s Washington Post had disturbing new evidence of the Trump administration’s Covid-19 shortcomings, including a quote from a government source who invoked the Potemkin Village concept. So, first, let’s define it correctly: Dictionary.com says it is “a pretentiously showy or imposing façade intended to mask or divert attention from an embarrassing or shabby fact or condition.”
Sounds like Trump’s press conferences, right?
This CNN.com story from 2018 says “the original term ‘Potemkin Village’ derives from a story dating back to 18th-century Russia, suggesting that an artificial place can be built to disguise or conceal the true — and often less desirable — identity of the original.” The story featured works by Gregor Sailer, who photographed perfect examples of this deceit:
So that’s what brings us to Trump and the coronavirus. Sunday’s top-of-the-front-page story in the Washington Post, about the federal government’s “lost summer,” quoted a “senior administration official involved in the pandemic response” who said this:
“Everyone is busy trying to create a Potemkin village for him every day. You’re not supposed to see this behavior in liberal democracies that are founded on principles of rule of law. Everyone bends over backwards to create this Potemkin village for him and for his inner circle.”
That’s a frightening assessment. It’s even more troubling when you consider the sourcing and the context: A senior official “involved in the pandemic response” was so concerned that he or she decided to confide in a reporter.
The Post’s team — Philip Rucker, Yasmeen Abutaleb, Josh Dawsey and Robert Costa — went into detail about how, exactly, Trump’s aides help him create this fake facade of success. Essentially White House staff mislead him to make him feel good: “With polls showing Trump’s popularity on the decline and widespread disapproval of his management of the viral outbreak, staffers have concocted a positive feedback loop for the boss,” the Post reporters wrote. “They present him with fawning media commentary and craft charts with statistics that back up the president’s claim that the administration has done a great — even historically excellent — job fighting the virus.”
Even historically excellent.
So Trump steps out before the cameras and he brags about America’s handling of the pandemic and he says other countries are struggling. Some people see him speak live and believe his lies. Meantime, reporters keep exposing the deficiencies in America’s response. On Sunday The Associated Press wrote: “With confirmed coronavirus cases in the U.S. hitting 5 million Sunday, by far the highest of any country, the failure of the most powerful nation in the world to contain the scourge has been met with astonishment and alarm in Europe.”
Then the president’s boosters bash news outlets like The AP for tearing down the facade of his Potemkin Village. And this cycle repeats every day.
More Trump briefings soon…
Per CNN’s Kevin Bohn, a White House official told reporters on Sunday that the president is expected to continue conducting some coronavirus briefings, but would not say how many might be expected this week. The official said to “expect the president to continue his rhythm of regular press briefings to provide COVID updates. No week ahead to provide at this time.”
“There’s no there, there”
This Potemkin Village concept extends to Trump’s Saturday presser at Bedminster. He generated big headlines for announcing much-needed economic help, but once reporters got ahold of the “executive orders,” the details were underwhelming.
On Sunday’s “Reliable Sources,” Nicole Hemmer told me “we’ve seen this again and again from the president… he makes these big, bold pronouncements and either doesn’t follow through or you scratch the surface and you see there’s no there, there — and it really comes down to how journalists report on this.”
The result is that mobile alerts and headlines can wind up misleading the public about what’s really happening. Another example of the Potemkin Village phenomenon.