Aug 09, 2021
Given the horrific toll of the Iraq War, that disastrous misadventure hardly seems like a good template for combating COVID-19. Yet in key ways, recent pronouncements from Florida Governor Ron DeSantis--whose state is experiencing an overwhelming surge in cases and hospitalizations amid his prohibition on mask requirements--should remind us of the propaganda we once heard from Donald Rumsfeld, the late former Secretary of Defense. The deadly consequences are reminiscent too.
Thousands upon thousands of lives have been and will be diminished or destroyed by their manipulative, self-serving mind games.
In particular, three "political mind games" stand out. Each takes advantage of a core psychological concern that influences how we make sense of the world. First, "It's a False Alarm": when others raise doubts about your plan, offer overconfident assurances of success. Second, "Don't Blame Us": when your rosy predictions are proven wrong, deny that anything could have been done to prevent the setbacks. And third, "They're Misguided and Misinformed": when you're questioned about falling short, attack the media for purportedly misrepresenting events. Tragically, this trio of manipulative appeals has spanned time and space, from Iraq almost twenty years ago to the Sunshine State today. Let's briefly examine each component in turn.
The "It's a False Alarm" mind game targets our psychological concerns about vulnerability. It's regularly used by officials to argue that the dangers others have identified are either imaginary or greatly exaggerated. This is a message that fits well with the public's preference to see the world as a predominantly safe place. When we're told that our worries are overblown and there's no cause for alarm, we're eager to embrace the good news--especially when the "all clear" signal comes from an authoritative source. Unfortunately, such unwarranted guarantees provide opportunities for the continuation of foolhardy and destructive policies.
Consider that in 2002, just months before the invasion of Iraq, Rumsfeld confidently assured a radio audience, "I can't tell you if the use of force in Iraq today would last five days or five weeks or five months, but it certainly isn't going to last any longer than that." He also boasted, "I don't do quagmires." And three weeks into the war, Rumsfeld triumphantly declared, "the Iraqi people are well on their way to freedom." As for concerns raised about lawlessness in Baghdad, he responded, "Stuff happens...freedom's untidy."
So too, DeSantis has taken to promoting a deceptive and dangerous upbeat message, one that ignores dire warnings from public health experts. For instance, at a news conference this past February he explained, "I don't get bent out of shape about these positive tests because if you test 200,000 people, you're gonna get a lot of positive tests, so that's never been the barometer we've used." More recently, he offered this unfounded assurance about the school year ahead: "I think kids are very low risk...I'm confident that things will go well." The governor is even selling campaign merchandise with mottos like "How the hell am I going to be able to drink a beer with a mask on?"
Turning to the "Don't Blame Us" mind game, this appeal exploits our psychological concerns about issues of helplessness. It's routinely used by officials who want to cover their tracks when anything with their fingerprints on it blows up--literally or figuratively. In these situations, they claim that the responsibility lies elsewhere, or the bad outcomes couldn't possibly have been anticipated, or the resulting harm could never have been prevented anyway. Convincing evidence to support their innocence is rarely provided, but these excuses can still lead the public to underestimate their culpability.
For example, as the U.S death toll in Iraq mounted and the war effort stalled, Rumsfeld refused to admit to any mistakes. During a town hall meeting with troops in late 2004, he dismissed their concerns about inadequate protective equipment this way: "You go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time." He then added, "You can have all the armor in the world on a tank and a tank can be blown up." Six months later, when questioned about his possible strategic errors, Rumsfeld offered this exculpatory analysis: "You have to remember that in every war, a battle plan doesn't survive first contact with the enemy. This is in history. Why? Because the enemy has a brain and they're constantly adapting...It isn't a mistake. It's just reality."
Rejecting any personal responsibility for the ravages of COVID-19 in Florida, DeSantis has once again found his muse in Rumsfeld. Last week, for instance, the governor dismissed the idea that imposing restrictions could have reduced or prevented the current spike in cases. He insisted, against evidence, that "These interventions have failed time and time again throughout this pandemic...They have not stopped the spread." At the same time, DeSantis downplayed the worrisome trajectory of COVID variants, writing it off as a temporary and inescapable phenomenon: "It's a seasonal virus and this is the seasonal pattern it follows in the Sun Belt states."
Finally, the third mind game--"They're Misguided and Misinformed"--preys upon our psychological concerns about who should and shouldn't be trusted. It's frequently used by officials to undermine the credibility of those who raise serious but unwelcome questions. Asking such questions, of course, is precisely the role that a free press is meant to play. Yet rather than responding directly to these inquiries, those in positions of power often try to cast doubt on the honesty or the expertise of their critics, portraying them as unfairly biased or insufficiently knowledgeable. When this ploy works, it leaves the public confused as to who and what to believe.
During the Iraq War, Rumsfeld repeatedly insisted that press coverage was slanted against him and was misleading the American people. Amid early reports of detainee abuse at Guantanamo, he offered this disingenuous response at a news briefing: "I haven't found a single scrap of any kind of information that suggests that anyone has been treated anything other than humanely--notwithstanding everything we have read and heard." A few years later, he issued a much broader condemnatory critique: "The worst about America and our military seems to so quickly be taken as truth by the press, and reported and spread around the world, often with little context and little scrutiny, let alone correction or accountability after the fact."
As for DeSantis, a year ago he lashed out at the media's COVID coverage this way: "We've succeeded and I think that people just don't want to recognize it because it challenges their narrative, it challenges their assumption, so they've got to try and find a boogeyman." Last week he was still blaming the press, this time for warning people about hospital shortages: "I think it's important to point out because obviously media does hysteria, you try to fearmonger, you try to do this stuff. And when they'll talk about hospitalizations, our hospitals are open for business."
All of these parallels are a stark warning. History is likely to remember both Rumsfeld and DeSantis as arrogant and reckless "public servants" who bore significant responsibility for unnecessary and unmitigated disasters. Thousands upon thousands of lives have been and will be diminished or destroyed by their manipulative, self-serving mind games. It isn't complicated. Successful crisis management requires leadership and integrity. When those qualities are replaced by unbridled personal ambition, devastation follows. We saw it in Iraq. Now we're seeing it in Florida.
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