NATIONAL HARBOR, MD—When Vice President Mike Pence strolled onto the stage at CPAC on Thursday, he began by referencing coronavirus.
“President Donald Trump has no higher priority than the health, safety, and well-being of the American people,” Pence said, to cheers, citing what he called the “unprecedented action” Trump has taken to “protect the health of Americans.” This apparently includes the president appointing Pence, a man who believes that “smoking doesn’t kill” and who for months resisted the calls from health officials to allow needle exchanges during an HIV outbreak while he was governor of Indiana, as the man in charge of coordinating the government’s response to what the CDC’s Dr. Nancy Messonnier on Tuesday described as an outbreak that could lead to “significant disruption of our lives.” “It’s not so much a question of if this will happen anymore, but rather more of a question of exactly when this will happen,” Messonnier said on a call with reporters.
The VP naturally neglected to mention during his speech at CPAC that Trump has for years systematically gutted the federal government’s ability to respond to an epidemic, crippling the teams within the CDC, the National Security Council, and the Department of Homeland Security that are tasked with dealing with outbreaks. In the face of a looming public health crisis, we have an incredibly dumb and vain man in charge who sees all challenges as an opportunity to score political points as well as a way to needle his opposition, which at times seems to include the very people, like the CDC, who will play a large role in managing our government’s coronavirus response.
At CPAC, the annual gathering of the worst people in America, the main topic has been the looming threat of socialism (read: free education and a functioning and affordable health care system, which all sounds pretty good to me and a lot of Americans!). But I was curious, given that coronavirus is all over the news and all anyone can seem to talk about in recent days, how CPAC attendees are squaring their love for Donald Trump with the reality of Trump’s bungling of the response to coronavirus so far. So on Thursday and Friday, I asked a few people a simple question: What did they think of the way that Trump has handled the spread of coronavirus?
Unsurprisingly, I found that even a public health crisis was nothing more than an opportunity for Trump’s most devoted fans to complain about the liberal fake news, reference alarmist conspiracy theories, and express complete confidence in their leader. White House Chief of Staff Mike Mulvaney is now promoting those ideas, telling the CPAC crowd on Friday morning of news coverage of the virus, “The reason you’re seeing so much attention to it today is that they think this is what’s going to bring down the president.” The rightwing narrative about coronavirus is curiously contradictory; even as people downplayed to me how serious it may become, conservative blowhards are now loudly using the existence of coronavirus to argue for increasing border security.
Mary Jane Olson, 71, and Karen Witt, 72, were two friends from Las Vegas attending CPAC for the first time. Olson, it should be pointed out, told me she is a retired nurse. “The coronavirus is a flu, and how would you know the difference if someone was having a fever or a slight cough unless you swabbed them? And you put it to a lab and you find out it was coronavirus? Otherwise, it’s just a virus and you treat it like a flu virus,” Olson said. (The coronavirus is not, in fact, a flu virus.) She did have some practical advice—wash your hands, wear a mask if you have an autoimmune disease—and said she believed the CDC is a “great organization.” Given that, I asked if she was worried about CDC officials’ warnings.
She did not seem worried. “I’ve not had a flu shot in 15 years, and I don’t have the flu, okay? That’s just me and my personal feelings,” Olson replied, adding it’s important for other people to get their flu shots.
As for Trump’s handling of a rapidly evolving public health issue, “I think it’s just fine. He’s doing just fine with whatever he needs to do. I don’t have a problem with it,” she said. Olson added, “Just make sure people keep themselves clean.” Witt chimed in. “My thought is, if you’re gonna get it, you’re gonna get it. Just like with God. He decides when you’re gonna die,” she said. Coronavirus, she said, is the “same thing.”
When I approached Jeffrey Johnson, an older man from a group called American Scriptures, dressed in a MAGA hat covered with signatures of luminaries like Kellyanne Conway, he immediately launched into a rant. “It’s not Trump’s fault. It’s not Trump’s fault,” he insisted. “The liberal news, ridiculous! Absurd!” He had watched CNN and MSNBC the night before. “It’s serious,” he said of coronavirus, “but the media’s trying to blow it out of proportion like it’s our fault.” He noted that “more people die of the flu every year,” and that epidemics were “bound to happen sooner or later.” “The Bible says there will be plagues and pestilence,” Johnson noted, possibly suggesting that coronavirus was a sign of the End Times. In a nod to conspiracy theories promoted even by the Washington Times, a sponsor of this year’s CPAC, Johnson also warned of the potential of “biological warfare” and noted that there was a laboratory “right there” in Wuhan. Like other CPAC attendees, Johnson believed that increased border security was necessary. “With all the people crossing the border, you get mobs of people who are sick,” he noted.
Speaking of the border, I found Mike Furey of We Build the Wall Incorporated (the organization started by a hoax-happy man that fundraised tens of millions to build a wall at the border, whose donors even criticized the GoFundMe he set up) standing in the hallway outside the main ballroom. He was hard to miss, wearing a hardhat and a neon green safety vest and sunglasses, even though we were indoors.
“I think that the president and everything he’s touching, he’s doing a magnificent job for the American people,” Furey told me. He found the likely spread of coronavirus “very concerning,” but he believed in prepping, not panicking. “Don’t go into panic mode, you just have to be aware of your surroundings and be prepared,” he said, adding, “I’m a big believer in taking your vitamins and taking your medicine and stay clean and healthy.”
Like Johnson, Furey clearly had been reading some of the most alarmist and conspiracy-minded corners of the internet. “I think this coronavirus, uh, is a man-made virus, but that’s my personal opinion. I could be wrong, facts are reflecting differently now, but it’s spreading around the globe,” Furey told me. I asked him where he had read this. “There’s a lot of discussion across the internet that the Wuhan biological chemical center is less than 277 meters away from where they said that the open market was,” he replied. “You have to study and make your own decision, okay? But that market’s been there for 400 years, and nothing’s happened. And how did it happen now? And why did it get hidden? We knew about this in December and everybody kept their mouth shut. Big problem.”
Shane Shuma, an 18-year-old Dickinson College student and College Republican was the only one I spoke with who sounded even a small note of criticism of the president’s response. “I think it could be better because the tone was a little bit dismissal like it wasn’t a big problem,” Shuma said of Trump’s Wednesday press conference. But Shuma trusted Trump: “I feel like President Trump has a very good team around him, and I think a strategy is in place. Maybe we don’t know all the details yet, but I know there’s a plan.” I asked Shuma if he felt that it was weird for our president to contradict the CDC in the midst of a situation where people are looking for clarity and transparency and assurance. “It’s a common Trump thing to do. Like the Fed or the CDC, if they say something that’s kind of negative, he’ll go out and spin,” Shuma told me. “But I think that’s one reason why a lot of people like Trump, he’ll take a bad situation and spin it to be good.”
For Trump, a man for whom everything is ripe to be exploited for gain, including a potential outbreak, spin is the only way to address a potential crisis, particularly when it is a crisis that primarily threatens his self-image. If this is absurd, which it is, it also may spin out of his control.