We all remember the old saw. Your mom asks you why you did something and you respond that your friend or cousin thought it was a good idea. To which Mom gamely replies, "Would you jump off a bridge if Michael told you to do it? Okay then, don't shoot BB guns at Neighbor Dick's window. It doesn't matter if he's on vacation."
Mom, as usual, was right. Which brings me to some words that I never thought I would end up typing, not even under this administration: Donald J. Trump, the president of the United States, did not in fact implore the American people to drink bleach during a press conference last Friday. He made a stupid comment, something he is wont to do in the best of circumstances and from which he has not refrained during the current pandemic.
Instead of treating Trump's remark as the off-hand, unserious musing that it was — or better yet, ignoring it altogether — journalists and a handful of self-aggrandizing politicians and bureaucrats have responded by going into fact checking mode: "Why It's Important Not to Drink Bleach." "Trump coronavirus misinformation bleach is poisoning America." (Literally America, the whole country!) "Trump Disinfectant Remarks Echo Claims by Miracle-Cure Quacks."
These examples could be multiplied infinitely, as could absurd stories, like this one about an increase in calls to an Illinois poison control center that predated Trump's infamous non-suggestion, and like this one about men in Georgia drinking bleach — you know, guys with histories of psychotic episodes, guys who, it goes without saying no doubt, are dedicated readers of The Atlantic and The New York Times and would never have engaged in this toxic behavior if only the above articles had appeared in time. Meanwhile the notion, chronologically and in every other sense absurd, that there is a correlation between Trump's remarks and some non-existent national uptick in bleach guzzling has been thoroughly debunked.
What some of the world's most insufferable people are already calling "Bleachgate" is a perfect reductio ad absurdum of the relationship between the president and the media. Trump makes a crude joke or says something nonsensical, and what he says is quoted out of context or, more likely, paraphrased until it's turned into something, anything that can vindicate the absurd premise that the president's remarks (which the media have now done more than he ever could to amplify) are responsible for some horrific outcome. What this means is that the president is then emboldened in his criticism of the press, armed with clear examples of their bad faith. His attacks are shown to be credible, and any further attempts to criticize or even to question his policies and utterances can be reasonably dismissed by his supporters on the grounds that the media would criticize him for anything, or even non-things.
The symbiotic association between Trump and his critics in the press has been well understood for some time. I am more concerned now with what the latest non-controversy tells us about the relationship between the media and the people on whose behalf they pompously insist they are exercising some kind of sacred constitutional duty.
So I ask: Do CNN reporters really believe that the average Trump supporter is someone who needs to be told not to drink bleach? Or are they just willing to pretend as much in order to score points against the bad orange man and score pageviews and television ratings? I am not even sure which of these possibilities is more despicable. With friends like this, half the American people don't need enemies.
At the risk of sounding absolutely heartless, I would like to confess that I would not find myself overly moved even if it were to be discovered that a lone MAGA crazy had swallowed half a gallon of Clorox because he believed it was the divine will of the Jacinth Emperor Donald I. How exactly he might arrive at this impression, whether it was the result of actual words spoken by His Imperial Majesty or a misrepresentation in various media outlets, would be largely irrelevant to my response. This does not mean that I have no sympathy for this hypothetical (but in the opinion of most major media outlets absolutely plausible sounding) poor soul. It's just that I am more concerned about all the other serious quandaries at the intersection of politics and public health with which he or she might have to contend in the course of daily life — really hard issues, like not walking into traffic or knowing whether it's safe to lick fire.
When in doubt, trust your mom.
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