The Mark Meadows Test Fiasco Is a Look at Authoritarian Rhetoric in Action

The timeline is absurd, but it doesn’t have to make sense.

From Esquire, by Jack Holmes:

It’s tempting to ignore Donald Trump and his pathetic minions outside the ongoing investigations into the events of January 6. But that won’t make them go away, and besides, we are continually treated to fascinating X-rays into an authoritarian movement on the march.

The Guardian reports that it obtained a copy of a new book from Mark Meadows, Trump’s last White House chief of staff, in which he let slip that the big guy tested positive for COVID-19 three days before his debate with Joe Biden on September 29, 2020. The traditional response to testing positive for pandemic disease is to stay away from other people until your system clears it, but that presupposes some regard for the health and well-being of others—not a problem for our most recent national leader. “Nothing was going to stop [Trump] from going out there,” Meadows reportedly writes. He claims Trump subsequently tested negative before attending the debate and spewing aerosols in the direction of a 77-year-old man. And before that, over the subsequent few days, holding a campaign rally and an event for Gold Star families at the White House. And before being helicoptered to Walter Reed National Medical Military Center on Friday, October 2—three days after the debate—because he was seriously ill with COVID-19.

Meadows has been in damage-control mode since this all dropped, retweeting a statement from Trump claiming that “the story of me having COVID prior to, or during, the first debate is Fake News. In fact, a test revealed that I did not have COVID prior to the debate.” This is not actually a denial of Meadows’ claim that Trump tested positive. It’s only a suggestion that, in another instance, he tested negative. I guess you could parse this new position as, “Trump tested positive before the debate but didn’t have COVID during the debate, even though he was hospitalized with COVID a few days later.” If you’re a moron, that is. Or if you are an apparatchik in an authoritarian movement, where serving The Leader is your highest calling. Which is Meadows’s whole deal. He demonstrated as much in the friendly confines of Newsmax on Wednesday night.

It’s genuinely unclear whether Meadows even understood the implications of this story when he reportedly included it in his book. (He does not actually deny any specifics in the Guardian account.) He certainly does now, because we’ve got an update that there were two (2) negative tests after the positive test. We are supposed to take this on faith, I guess, from a guy who sat in on Trump’s call to the Georgia secretary of state asking him to “find” the exact number of votes Trump needed to win Georgia. (How is this not a crime? The guy asked an election administrator to, in essence, stuff the ballot box for him.) Maybe the people who lie all the time about everything are, in this instance, telling the truth. Just for reference, check out Trump’s answer to a question from NBC News’ Savannah Guthrie along these lines soon after the event:

Convincing!

But the really fun part was when the Newsmax brain genius did the absolute bare minimum and asked how the hell this story comports with the fact that we all watched on national television as the same guy was helicoptered to a hospital a few days later because he had COVID-19. Meadows’s response is worth transcribing in full:

Yeah, listen, anytime we look at things, and we look at tests, and we look at what happened, it’s certainly—that’s what I outline in the book, and talk about that Walter Reed visit. But there’s a lot of great stories in the book that candidly talk about the miraculous work, the historic work, that Donald Trump did. I think most of your viewers will find it a very enjoyable read and I would encourage them to read it for themselves.

So we’re just not going to engage with the timeline at all, then. (Most severe COVID cases hit in earnest between five and 10 days in. Just something to keep in mind.) But the usefulness of all this is as a look into the absurd logic of authoritarian rhetoric, in which reality itself swirls around the central figure of the strongman. Meadows is now hard at work muddying the waters regarding something he himself claimed in order to please The Leader. There is not even an expectation that their story will make sense in aggregate. It’s enough to say the media is lying, see for yourself, the truth is just around the corner.

But you’ll notice Meadows does not dispute that he wrote in the book that Trump tested positive for COVID-19 a few days before the debate. Less than a week later, he was being rushed to the hospital. But in those magical days in between, our big, beautiful boy was the picture of health. This is the kind of thing you pull when you know it doesn’t matter, that your folks will still support you regardless, and that everyone involved will backfill and retrofit everything—or just say, Fake News, Joe Biden’s a Communist. Inflation. This is someone who is beyond accountability. As Aaron Blake pointed out in a Washington Post timeline, Trump at one point tried to blame the families of American soldiers killed in combat for his diagnosis when he knew he’d already tested positive the day before he met with them! He said they wouldn’t stop trying to kiss him! There were no consequences for this of any kind!

At root, this is about the concept of truth itself, and whether it simply boils down to whatever you can get enough people to believe. “Lying is the message,” Masha Gessen once wrote. “It’s not just that both Putin and Trump lie, it is that they lie in the same way and for the same purpose: blatantly, to assert power over truth itself.” Don’t believe your eyes and ears. 

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