Parishioners' photos are seen in the pews as a priest...

Parishioners' photos are seen in the pews as a priest in South Orange celebrates Easter Mass via livestream because of the coronavirus pandemic. Credit: Getty Images / Elsa

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Thirty years before his presidency, Donald Trump declared: “I play to people’s fantasies. I call it truthful hyperbole. It’s an innocent form of exaggeration, a very effective form of promotion.”

This comes out of his ghostwritten book “The Art of the Deal." History has proved his hyperbole less than truthful and his exaggerations not so innocent. Nobody could have known that Trump one day would "play to people's fantasies" before a captive mass audience during a national calamity.

Today, Americans would love to believe the world will soon start returning their world to normal after weeks of disruption due to the coronavirus pandemic. Trump played to a collective fantasy by evoking full churches by Easter — a grand "reopening" of a society he'd never closed. The dream quickly evaporated. Now he tries to redirect anticipation to May 1, another unlikely date.

People would love to fantasize that they elected a president so insightful that he knows better than the generals in battle and better than the doctors in a pandemic. Neither of his pet notions has panned out.

Calling this a “war” against an “invisible enemy,” as Trump does, plays to a kind of paranoid fantasy. In fact, the COVID-19 scourge has made itself quite visible -- in underequipped and understaffed New York hospitals, in nursing homes and funeral homes.

One clear purpose of his touting hydroxychloroquine, as if it were a magic potion, is to feed the idea that a pill is ready to make the virus problem go away.

Fans of the president, and surely the president himself, would like to believe his assertion that he saved hundreds of thousands of lives by imposing travel bans in imagined defiance of experts and political rivals. Sadly the facts don't support this. On Jan. 31, administration announced limited travel restrictions to and from China, effective Feb. 2. There were nine confirmed COVID-19 cases at the time. As of Monday evening, the U.S. had over a half-million cases and over 21,000 deaths.

Serious medical experts put a crimp in this latest Trump tale of triumph; they cited evidence that New York City's coronavirus spread came largely from Europe. So he felt the need to denounce and distort news stories about it.

People would love to assume, as many do, that their president is coping methodically with a massive challenge. It is counterintuitive to come away from hours of televised talk by any president without the impression that he is trying to lead the way. After all, he's the host of the briefings.

But there are hints his governance and direction are more a simulation than a plan of action. The Washington Post last week noted the existence of multiple task forces and groups — which have yet to show a coherent road to quelling COVID-19. No matter how the president denied it Monday on Twitter, individual states are still running the nation's response.

The greatest collective fantasy of all is one that Trump lets some of his media allies and shills evoke — that coronavirus death tolls are inflated, that lockdowns are an overreaction and that the whole calamity is still somehow, in some way, a political hoax. If only.

Selling fantasy is magnetic. Who in his right mind wouldn't wish deep down that we were not experiencing this plague? Fantasies provide an escape route, and Trump plays to them, as always.