A day later, the president was asked by reporters at the White House whether the new moniker was his way of telling the American people to swallow the fact that reopening the economy will result in more Covid-19 cases — and therefore more deaths.
“So I called these people warriors,” he responded, gesturing to nurses gathered behind him. “And I’m actually calling now … the nation warriors. We have to be warriors. We can’t keep our country closed down for years. And we have to do something.”
Trump has already dubbed himself a “wartime president,” invoking the language of military conflict as he confronts a “strong” and “tough” opponent — “the invisible enemy.”
But the past week marked a more deliberate messaging strategy as the White House shifted its efforts toward resuscitating a sputtering economy with the president’s own battle for reelection less than six months away.
Along with conscripting Americans as soldiers in the reopening effort, this week was also the first time Trump publicly compared the pandemic directly to two of the most notable national tragedies in modern American history.
“This is really the worst attack we’ve ever had. This is worse than Pearl Harbor. This is worse than the World Trade Center. There’s never been an attack like this,” he said at the White House on Wednesday. The comment immediately prompted questions about whether he viewed the outbreak, which has triggered conspiracy theories tied to its Chinese origins, as a deliberate act of war.
“I view it as a — well, I view the invisible enemy as a war. I don’t like how it got here because it could have been stopped,” he asserted later, correctly pointing out that coronavirus has killed many times the number of Americans as either attack.
Invoking the war metaphor is a natural impulse for leaders in crisis, even if it might not be the right fit for the current moment, said James J. Kimble, a Seton Hall University professor who studies war rhetoric.
“Almost any time there’s a national emergency of one sort or another … World War II is going to crop up. 9/11 starts to come up, too,” he said. “It’s sort of this existing cultural narrative — not really based so much on fact anymore, just a useful analogy.”
Those allusions by the president, he said, call forth a sense of urgency that general battlefield language might not, underscoring the notion that the outbreak was the kind of “surprise attack” that in America has often given way to a sense of unity afterward.
But the approach only goes so far in extending the label across the American public. “Where he’s going with it?” Kimble said. “OK, I’m a warrior. What does that mean?”
The wider American public is just the latest group Trump has drafted into battle. The designation has gradually broadened in scope as the crisis progressed.
In March, the White House constantly hailed the health care “warriors” on the front lines of the virus, as Trump described them in press briefings “running” into hospitals as if they were soldiers running into the line of fire.
Later it expanded to include other front-line workers, including truck drivers and grocery store workers — “such incredible bravery” — and touted the progress of a “unified national effort.”
It’s a tactic Trump has employed before in his presidency, with two other groups he asked to endure hardships on his behalf when he found himself in politically treacherous waters.
Earlier this year, when Washington was consumed with impeachment proceedings against the president, Trump repeatedly praised the Republican “warriors” in Congress who stood by his side.
Before that, he dubbed the nation’s battered farmers as warriors in his trade disputes with China, urging them to soldier through the financial hammering caused by retaliatory tariffs.
The same week he adopted the label of a “wartime president” was when he began to refer to the coronavirus as an “invisible enemy,” a description he’s used on a near-daily basis ever since.
That pivot came after weeks of criticism that Trump was not taking the virus seriously enough — just a week earlier he was still suggesting it would miraculously disappear — and questions about the White House’s fumbling of early testing efforts and the national lack of critical medical supplies.
While the nation’s testing capabilities are still not where experts say it needs to be for the economy to reopen, the Trump administration has significantly scaled up test production.
Social distancing guidelines and stay-at-home initiatives, meanwhile, have had the intended effect of flattening the curve of infections, preventing the kind of strain on hospital resources once feared.