Trump is ignoring Covid-19 defeat by using War on Terror-era language

A supercut of Trump promising we've "turned the corner" on the coronavirus sounds pretty similar to how the U.S. fared in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Image: Profiles of a healthcare worker with a face shield and a soldier
The president's claim that we've "turned the corner" on Covid-19 sounds very familiar.Anjali Nair / MSNBC; Getty Images

America hates losing. In life, the lies we tell ourselves are among the most effective. In war, the same is true about the lies we tell ourselves as a country to avoid admitting defeat. As yet another surge in Covid-19 cases spreads across the United States, the commander-in-chief has turned to old habits to deflect from that reality.

President Donald Trump's Covid-19 denialism has been well-documented over the last eight months, but lately it has taken on a twist: insisting that the media is the only force interested in, and therefore distorting the threat of, the virus. In other words, it's our fault for wanting to talk about how people are dying, when the country has moved on.

Trump has been using one phrase in particular, "rounding the turn," and slipping it into his coronavirus commentary since all the way back in March. If you want to take a trip down memory lane, "The Daily Show" has you covered:

This pandemic has left politicians around the world struggling to adequately convey the seriousness of Covid-19 to their constituents. Many have landed on comparing the situation to a war or a battle — something violent and brutish that requires noble sacrifice for the virtuous to vanquish it. We've had a raft of commentary as to just why that framing is ineffective, and possibly harmful, given its countervailing tendency to "breed fear, which can in turn drive anxiety and panic," as Yasmeen Serhan wrote in The Atlantic.

In mid-March, stay-at-home orders around the country had just begun to take effect. Trump was asked at his then-daily briefing whether he considered the U.S. "to be on a wartime footing, in terms of fighting this virus." He answered that yes, he absolutely did. And what's more, he said, "I view it as a, in a sense, a wartime president. I mean, that's what we're fighting. I mean, it's — it's a very tough situation. You're — you have to do things."

But today we find ourselves with the government writ large having abandoned that thinking — the rhetoric has turned away from war and into a resignation from the top administration officials that mitigation is a fool's errand. But the president continues to insist that things are going just fine as that promised victory comes ever nearer. Trump's rosy optimism in the face of harsh reality is, in a sense, the logical extension of framing the coronavirus response as a war to be won: America can't allow itself to envision a world in which it has lost, and so it's willing victory into existence by sheer blind faith.

America can’t allow itself to envision a world in which it’s lost, and so it’s willing victory into existence by sheer blind faith.

The beginnings of the so-called War on Terror in the early 2000s were filled with promises of swift military successes. The most technologically advanced country in the world had set itself on a course of action, so what could go wrong? That line of thinking played into the invasions of both Afghanistan and Iraq, as the conventional military engagements were easily won.

Operation Iraqi Freedom launched in March 2003. By that August, after disbanding the Iraqi army and promising to de-Baathify the government, U.S. forces found themselves under attack in what would turn out to be a lengthy insurgency. The guerrilla forces would go on to define the whole of the U.S. experience in Iraq — but right then? Well, things were going to be just fine, Lt. Col. Steve Russell told CNN.

"We're seeing us turn the corner with these Fedayeen-type attacks," Russell said. "Our soldiers here have done fantastic work, in either killing them or capturing them — going after their leadership."

President George W. Bush was eager to highlight the progress the Iraqi army had made against the insurgents two years later, in 2005, when he quoted an "Iraqi first lieutenant named Shoqutt," who describes the transformation of his unit this way: "I really think we've turned the corner here. At first, the whole country didn't take us seriously. Now things are different. Our guys are hungry to demonstrate their skill and to show the world."

Vice President Dick Cheney saw similar cause for optimism when he spoke with a Marine corporal a month later. "I think we've turned the corner, if you will," Cheney said. "I think when we look back from 10 years hence, we'll see that the year '05 was in fact a watershed year here in Iraq."

Fast-forward another two years, to 2007. By then, at least 3,000 U.S. personnel had been killed fighting Iraqi insurgents and Al Qaeda in Iraq, the latter of which formed in response to the American occupation. The "surge" had sent as many as 160,000 U.S. forces to finally achieve security so the Iraqi government could take control. Conservative commentator Charles Krauthammer wrote this about the bountiful achievements that were piling up:

Only last fall, the Marines’ leading intelligence officer there concluded that the U.S. had essentially lost the fight to al-Qaida. Yet, just this week, the Marine commandant, Gen. James Conway, returned from a four-day visit to the province and reported that we “have turned the corner.”

Army Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, admitted to Congress the very next year that "we haven't turned any corners, we haven't seen any lights at the end of the tunnel," despite still having more than 145,000 U.S. forces in Iraq.

Taliban momentum 'reversed'

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It's a line of rhetoric that knows no party, though, and the inertia of the wars has managed to pull along multiple administrations since then. "I think with regards to Iraq and Afghanistan, we've turned a corner," President Barack Obama's second defense secretary, Leon Panetta, told the Senate Armed Services Committee in 2011. "We're in the process of beginning to draw down in Iraq; we're — you know, we're in the process of drawing down, as well, in Afghanistan."

As we know, three years later, the U.S. would be back in Iraq, this time fighting the Islamic State terrorist group, the latest iteration of the insurgents whom we had turned the corner against back in 2003. Even as the never-ending grip of the Forever War continued to drive U.S. policy, the "turned the corner" thinking carried on through the second Obama term and into the Trump administration.

It was apparent to anyone who’d been watching for half as long that no corner had been turned — instead, to paraphrase HBO’s “True Detective,” time was a flat circle when it came to Afghanistan.

Army Gen. John Nicholson was the head of American and NATO forces in 2017 when he said that the U.S. and Afghanistan "have turned the corner" and that "momentum is now with Afghan security forces."

By that point, the war had been going on for 16 years. It was apparent to anyone who'd been watching for half as long that no corner had been turned — instead, to paraphrase HBO's "True Detective," time was a flat circle when it came to Afghanistan.

We've already lost more lives to the coronavirus in this last year — 227,000 as of Tuesday — than in both Iraq and Afghanistan combined. Military families, for better or for worse, have found themselves set apart from the rest of society as the volunteer-only model has limited the number of people who've served in uniform. Even with the war making front-page news, it was possible for many Americans not to know a single person who'd served in active-duty combat.

Today, in contrast, an estimated 1 in 50 Americans has contracted the coronavirus. The latest rise in case numbers across the country means that it has become harder than ever not to know someone who's had Covid-19. The evidence is plain that no corner has been turned, no matter how much the president wishes it were the case. But his refusal to admit defeat — is that not, in its own horrible way, one of the most American things about his time in office?


While you let that settle in your brain, here are links to help you start your morning:

Every time the president ramps up this violent rhetoric, every time he fires up Twitter to launch another broadside against me, my family and I see a surge of vicious attacks sent our way. This is no coincidence, and the president knows it. He is sowing division and putting leaders, especially women leaders, at risk. And all because he thinks it will help his reelection.

  • BuzzFeed News: Speaking of far-right agitators, BuzzFeed News's Jane Lytvynenko got copies of hundreds of messages from members of the Patriot Front that show that its members are training for violence — and preparing to be a problem in a post-Trump world.
  • The New York Times: Here's yet another damning story from The Times about Trump's financials, this time on how he managed to make over $200 million in debt just go away after a 2008 project in Chicago went sideways.
  • NBC News: Hurricane Zeta is expected to make landfall in the U.S. on Wednesday and quite possibly land a direct hit on New Orleans as a Category 1 storm.
  • HuffPost: And finally, Facebook's window in which it would be accepting no new political ads began Tuesday. The Trump campaign was poised to slip through the cracks until HuffPost pointed it out to the social media giant.