Why I watch Trump’s daily coronavirus briefings (and no, it’s not because I’m a masochist)

“How can you stand it?”

It’s a question I’ve been asked many times as I sit through every almost single one of President Trump’s press conferences on the COVID-19 crisis, just as I have sat through or listened to almost all of his public speeches and rallies. A recent circus in the Rose Garden was especially trying. It featured Trump again losing his temper at PBS reporter Yamiche Alcindor, bragging about what a great job he’s doing, and claiming that he knows more about South Korea than anyone (he doesn’t).

He brought up a parade of CEOs, including a cameo appearance from the “My Pillow” company owner and indefatigable Trump cheerleader Mike Lindell, who turned an admirable gesture by his company into a campaign plug, replete with a creepy mini-sermon about how God chose Trump and how we must put God back in our schools.

We didn’t learn much; but then, we rarely do from these shameful spectacles.

It’s exhausting and enervating, watching the leader of your country rant, bluster and lie, putting what former GOP White House staffer Peter Wehner has called his “disordered personality” on full display regularly. Why would I do it? Why would anyone?

Real-time lab of democracy in decline

There are two answers, and neither of them involve being a masochist. First, as a professional matter, I’m a political scientist, and Trump is the president. When the president speaks, I tune in and listen, as I have with every chief executive. Even if I don’t learn much about policy — because Trump really doesn’t have “policies” so much as he has random thoughts and reactions — I still need to know what my fellow citizens are watching and what they’re being told.

The other is that Trump’s rambling press conferences, South Lawn fandangos and bellowing rallies are now a real-time laboratory in democratic decline, and I think it’s important to be a consistent witness to it all. Although I often live-tweet his public events as a kind of venting (it’s better than yelling at the television, really, and my wife has gotten to the point where she can’t watch Trump, so I’m usually on my own anyway), I actually am trying to figure out the impact on my own society.

Comparisons to other nations and other times (like the inane and overused Nazi analogies used by too many of Trump’s most bitter opponents) don’t help very much. It’s difficult even to place Trump’s unhinged performances within the American experience, because these past three years feel, at least to me, like a unique break in the American character.

President Donald Trump listens to Michael J. Lindell, CEO of MyPillow Inc., in the White House Rose Garden in Washington, DC, on March 30, 2020.

We’ve been divided before, as anyone who lived through the annus horribilis of 1968 and the decline and fall of Richard Nixon in 1973 and 1974 can tell you. But we’ve always maintained a certain standard from ourselves, and especially from our national leaders. We’ve demanded some sense that they are in control — if not of events, at least of themselves. We have, until now, been critical of undisciplined breaches of conduct by public officials, whether a congressman yelling “you lie!” at President Barack Obama or another congressman having to apologize for saying that President George W. Bush was enjoying seeing our soldiers killed overseas.

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Sure, we had zingers in public exchanges, from “You’re no JFK” to “There you go again,” but we had basic rules about not threatening to lock each other up or throwing around words like “treason.” We never celebrated Trump’s brand of crude ignorance, his vulgar taunts, the fusillade of lies that come too fast even for teams of fact-checkers.

And so I watch, because at some point this will end and we will have to repair the damage to our political system and our constitutional order. And to understand how to do that, we will need to remember how it happened and what it looked like while that damage was being dealt to our institutions.

My family, like everyone’s, is in danger

It does take a toll. There are only so many of Trump’s public statements you can listen to before you doubt your own grip on reality. That is the point, really, of a Trump speech: To cast everything into doubt. As Russian dissident Garry Kasparov notes, this is one place where Trump is like other authoritarians: He’s less interested in getting you to believe his story then he is in getting you to believe in nothing at all, so that he can improvise and lie at will without fear of contradiction.

Watching these fiascos can make you irritable (which is mostly my natural condition anyway), especially when a Fidel Castro-length Trump rally induces an actual headache. I have a certain amount of awe for reporters like CNN’s Daniel Dale, who fact-check Trump in real time, but I have my limits.

And, yes, watching a Trump press conference shakes my faith in my fellow citizens. When the reporter from the Trump-supporting One America News network, whose journalistic model seems to have been imported from North Korea, throws Trump some inane softball, I wonder how such a network even exists, and how its reporters sleep at night.

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I hear Trump  contradict his own words, even as they’re being read to him verbatim, and I wonder how Americans watching a president brazenly lie end up angry at the journalist who asked the question rather than Trump himself.

I watch sycophants like Lindell tell us that God chose Trump and I wonder how many millions of people think God picks presidents (something alien to my personal faith as a Christian) but then reassure themselves that He somehow didn’t pick Obama.

Mostly, I watch these days because my family, like everyone else’s, is in danger and I want answers and guidance from the experts who must share the podium with the president. My brother is in a veteran’s facility that just had a COVID outbreak. My wife dares not touch her new granddaughter. Our governor has imposed self-quarantine restrictions on visitors to our tiny state.

And so I watch, because I hold President Trump responsible for his handling of this crisis, and I am paying attention to every single word he says.

Finally, I watch because we all should, in order to ensure that we can tell our fellow citizens about it even if they refuse to listen. When this is over, there will be many Americans who will claim they didn’t know what the president said, when he said it, or what responsibility he might bear for any of this. I will not be one of them. I will remember. And I will speak up about it, for a long time to come.

Tom Nichols is a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors and author of “The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters.” Follow him on Twitter: @RadioFreeTom

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