Every day in the Trump administration is a demonstration of what happens when unbridled arrogance meets jawdropping incompetence (meets wanton corruption). But every so often an event comes along that REALLY brings into stark relief what a bad idea it is to turn your government over to a defiantly ignorant, pathologically narcissistic, D-list celebrity wannabe, serial sexual predator, and lifelong con artist.
A pandemic is one of them. Whoda thunk it?
THE CON MAN AND THE CRISIS
Let’s be clear about what’s going on.
The President of the United States, in an effort to guard his massive but fragile ego and protect his chances for re-election, is going around deliberately misrepresenting the extent and status of a major health threat the likes of which this country has not seen in a hundred years. He is spreading disinformation—lies, as they are sometimes known—that will make the pandemic worse, pouring figurative fuel on the fire, and in so doing possibly costing people their lives.
This is criminal malpractice by an (alleged) head of state.
At a time when the nation needs calm, serious, thoughtful leadership, this malignant buffoon is concerned only with his own personal gain, no matter who gets hurt. He is denying the facts, contradicting his own public health experts, and engaging in magical thinking about the prospects for a benign outcome.
Of course, no one should be surprised. Donald Trump is not going to change 73 years of consistently terrible and self-centered behavior overnight (or ever). But the sheer extent of his lies and self-aggrandizement, set against the life-and-death stakes of the situation, is especially stark, even for a country used to three years of this beclowning.
But just for a moment, let’s set aside the appalling immorality of this. Just on a purely practical, self-serving level, this strategy is short-sighted in the extreme, and—hmmm, what’s the clinical term?—insane.
Surely Trump knows that all his lies will be exposed. The virus will spread, the numbers of those infected will rise—exponentially—as will hospitalizations and deaths, our woeful unpreparedness will be laid bare, as will the inadequacy of the American health care system. Trump will look like the fool he is and be blamed for it all, and rightly so.
But this is Trump to a tee. He is in juvenile denial of reality, believing he can bluff and bullshit and bluster his way out of this.
But this is a foe that doesn’t respond to bullying or nicknames or allegations that it is “fake news.” As Quinta Jurecic and Benjamin Wittes write in a piece for The Atlantic, “The new pandemic is a challenge for which his playbook seems uniquely unsuited.”
Or as Charles Blow puts it, “You can’t gaslight a virus.”
(N)one of the tricks that Trump has learned and deployed will work against this virus. Only science, honesty, prudence and genuine concern for public safety will work now. And precisely for those reasons, this virus exposes Trump’s enormous weaknesses as the chief executive officer of this country.
The fact that he wants to spin media coverage of the virus as politically motivated, the fact that he keeps lowballing the number of people infected, and the fact that he has said that the virus may miraculously disappear, all show that Trump is as much a public health threat as the virus itself.
A deadly virus could emerge on the watch of any president. I don’t blame Trump for that. (Who says I’m hard on the guy?) But this president has engaged in a specific campaign of Know Nothing anti-intellectualism that has purged the federal government of the very professionals and subject matter experts it needs to manage a crisis like this. He has gutted the institutions that are built to handle an emergency of this magnitude. On a broader scale, he has disparaged and attacked scientific fact and even truth itself in favor of an Orwellian fantasy world that better suits his desire for an autocracy. Once the crisis appeared, he reportedly shut down attempts to take prophylactic action in its early stages, when it would have been most useful. Aides fearful of angering him were unable or unwilling to press the matter.
The consequences of these actions and Trump’s entire nihilistic style of governance (if it can be called that) are now becoming painfully apparent.
China’s aggressive containment of the new virus in the early weeks of this year gave other nations time to ready themselves for what was inevitably going to come: a shortage of test kits and personal protective equipment for a virus that spreads as quickly and causes as many deaths and hospitalizations as COVID-19 does.
The United States wasted that opportunity. Trump’s initial impulse to downplay the risk, at least until the stock market took note, wasn’t just fanciful; it was dangerous. He has consistently minimized the number of sick, blamed Barack Obama’s administration for a shortage of test kits, and publicly mused about the potential of a vaccine being found quickly. The American response to the new disease should be based on something more than hunches and magical thinking.
PAGING DR. TRUMP, DR. FINE, DR. TRUMP
There is even more, of course.
Trump fired Director of National Intelligence Dan Coates, who tried to warn him of the national security implications of a pandemic. (That’s not the specific reason he fired him, but it’s emblematic.)
He disbanded the global health security unit of the National Security Council.
Perhaps most galling of all, he tapped Vice President Mike Pence to lead the federal response to the crisis, a man who takes the Bible literally, who as recently as 2001 rejected the idea that smoking is bad for you, and who infamously botched Indiana’s HIV prevention program when he was governor. To his credit—or at least in contrast to Trump—Pence has at least looked serious about his job and the severity of the crisis, even as he has left press conferences while ignoring pertinent questions from reporters like, “Will people without health insurance be able to get tested?”
Juliette Kayyem again:
President Donald Trump and his administration have vacillated between ignoring the threat and making wildly unrealistic promises about it. On Wednesday, Vice President Mike Pence promised 1.5 million coronavirus tests, but The Atlantic reported Friday that, according to all available evidence, fewer than 2000 had been conducted in the United States. Trump himself is simply lying about basic facts about the COVID-19 response; despite the testing kit shortfall, he has publicly stated that everyone who wants to get tested can get tested.
The video where Trump makes that last claim about universal testing is especially likely to haunt him in the election. There he is on a visit to the CDC, looking morbidly obese, by the by, in a weird jacket and a red KAG cap that’s a shameless merging of his official duties with his re-election campaign (not to mention merchandising and data mining), bragging like a seventh grader about how much he knows about virology. (“Every one of these doctors said, ‘How do you know so much about this?’ Maybe I have a natural ability.”) It was a moment that inevitably recalled similar boasts about knowing more about ISIS than the generals, more about drones than anyone, more about campaign finance, consulting, construction, the press, windmills, the environment, polls, Scranton, banks, trade, nuclear weapons, and on and on.
He then made his case by giving out horrifically wrong advice, like saying that people infected with COVID-19 should still go to work.
Insert Edvard Munch emoji here.
It was bad enough when he used a Sharpie to loop Alabama into the path of a hurricane. This is infinitely worse.
He also, for no apparent reason except his own pathology, issued some word-vomit comparing the “perfect” tests to his “perfect” phone call with Zelinskyy. But above all, he also gave the game away—again, with characteristic Trumpiness, saying the quiet part out loud—by explaining that he doesn’t want the infected passengers aboard the Diamond Princess to debark because it will make the numbers of coronavirus cases in the US look bad. Which he thinks—l’etat c’est him—makes him look bad.
Guy: you are LITERALLY BROADCASTING YOUR HORRIBLENESS OUT LOUD TO THE WHOLE WORLD. And I know that quiet flows the Kool-Aid, but I have to believe that even some semi-sentient Trump supporters had to hear that and be given pause.
Similarly, details of a White House meeting with a group of Big Pharma CEOs as reported in the Washington Post are downright terrifying, as Trump was unable to grasp basic facts, repeatedly pressing the execs for rosy scenarios that they repeatedly told him were impossible. Forget Russia and Ukraine: he ought to have been impeached just for that performance alone. Or perhaps we could save time and just have Animal Control fire a tranquilizer dart into his neck via crossbow through an Oval Office window.
And then, in the middle of this whole crisis, last week he spent two days playing golf.
Nero’s fiddle never got a workout like this.
We are in a major crisis and we need a real president. Instead we have this malicious sociopathic troglodyte.
(But her emails, amirite?)
WE’RE GONNA NEED A BIGGER BOAT
To my knowledge, Jonathan Chait was the first to compare Trump to the mayor in Jaws who doesn’t want anyone to know about that bigass shark because it will hurt the town in tourist season. (And as many have pointed out, that mayor was still the mayor in Jaws 2. So elections do matter.)
So what is the truth that Trump is trying desperately not to tell us? Right now, the best estimates from doctors and other public health experts are grim.
Here’s Dr. Martin Makary MD, MPH, professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine:
If the virus stays on its current trajectory, what happened in Wuhan will happen in the US. There is no strong scientific argument to suggest otherwise…..
Further hindering public health efforts, the concept of American exceptionalism has morphed into a societal arrogance that somehow the immune systems of Americans are stronger than those of the Chinese. And even though other countries have enacted very strict quarantine practices, including martial law and a shutdown of schools, there is a misleading perception that the US would have less community transmission because of a better health care system and better hygiene…..
Italy has now quarantined approximately 60 million people, and closed all nightclubs, gyms, and sporting events…..Based on the current trajectory of the pandemic, all U.S. schools are at risk and may need to be closed, public gatherings like NCAA tournament games may need to be postponed, businesses should have their employees work from home whenever possible, and hospitals should staff up.
If Americans conclude that life will continue mostly as normal, they may be wrong. The United States is far less prepared than other democratic nations experiencing outbreaks of the novel coronavirus. Low case counts so far may reflect not an absence of the pathogen but a woeful lack of testing….
As Dr. Margaret Bordeaux, my colleague at the Security and Global Health Project at Harvard’s Kennedy School, told me, “None of us want to be Chicken Little, but there is too much consistent data to not begin to rattle the cage pretty loudly.”
A HECKUVA JOB, BROWNIE
The coronavirus is already shaking up the American political landscape. If—or should I say, when—it develops into a full-blown national emergency on the scale just described, it might do what no other politician or scandal has been able to do: topple Trump from his perch.
Indeed, Trump’s political epitaph is already being prematurely written. Jonathan Chait even went so far as to say that we are “watching the probable demise of Trump’s re-election in real time.”
But haven’t we learned our lesson with all the other crimes, scandals, and would-be presidency-enders that were supposed to bring him back down to his rightful place hawking clip-on ties on QVC? Chait insists this one is different:
The obvious factor distinguishing the coronavirus and the probable recession from the Access Hollywood tape, firing James Comey, and all the rest is that they have a tangible impact on the lives of Americans. (Or, to put it more precisely, Americans who have voting representation, unlike Puerto Ricans.) Trump’s continuous din of scandals and gaffes is unintelligible to many Americans who either do not follow the news closely, or follow Trump-controlled news organs, and who have instead judged his presidency by the direct experience of peace and prosperity….
But….Trump has finally made his unfitness for office so blatant that even his own supporters will notice. The American economy, its health infrastructure, and perhaps more are plunging into foreseeable crisis. And every step Trump has taken along the way seems almost calculated to expose him to maximal blame. Trump is now quite likely to lose his reelection, and we will look back at the last few weeks as the time when he sealed his own fate.
From your lips to God’s ears, Jon.
The specter of Katrina has already been raised, and it’s an apt comparison: a criminally inept response to a natural disaster that dealt a deadly blow to a president’s political viability. But this is even worse. The photo of a dull-eyed George W. Bush staring down at the devastated city of New Orleans through the window of Air Force One will live in infamy, but at least he didn’t go on Fox News and say, “Flooding? What flooding? There’s no flood!”
How ugly is it looking for Don the Con? I can’t believe I am agreeing with Ross Douhat, who I can’t believe is agreeing with Jonathan Chait:
Combine this scenario’s inevitable economic consequences with the optics of the president’s blundering and solipsistic response, and the coronavirus seems very likely to doom Trump’s re-election effort, no matter where he casts the blame.
And how ironic that would be. In 2016 we elected a China hawk who promised a “complete shutdown” in response to foreign threats, a germaphobic critic of globalization who promised to privilege the national interest above all. Now he is in danger of losing his presidency because when the great test came, in the form of a virus carried by global trade routes from Communist China, he didn’t take the danger seriously enough.
There is a tweet for everything, so Trump’s old Twitter attacks on Obama over his handling of ebola and his ostensible responsibility for the fluctuating stock market are especially rich. I certainly don’t want the economy to crater, but it sure would be ironic if a bear market brought down Donald.
Trump of course is also a famous germaphobe, so it’s equally fitting that an epidemiological crisis may be his undoing. It’s apparent as we watch him on television, covered in flopsweat, dancing as fast as he can, spewing lie after lie. For all his ego and braggadocio, to me he always has an Imposter Syndrome thought bubble over his head reading, “I’m a fraud! Everyone can see it!” The coronavirus crisis has brought that to a new level.
Fox News and its ilk have followed Trump’s lead in portraying this crisis as a Deep State/DNC conspiracy, “fake news,” or at best an overreaction. (Remember Presidential Medal of Freedom winner Rush Limbaugh saying coronavirus is just a common cold? Yeah, and lung cancer is just a bad cough.) Just a few days ago shitbag Florida Congressman and SCIF-crasher Matt Gaetz was wearing a gas mask on the floor of the House to “own the libs.” Soon after, he had a constituent die (hilarious!) and was then informed he himself had been exposed to the virus at CPAC, as had Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), Reps. Doug Collins (R-Ga.), Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.), and Louie Gohmert (R-La.), who unconscionably has refused to self-quarantine.
In another irony, even Trump’s new pick for Punching Bag, er, I mean, Chief of Staff, the sycophantic Rep. Mark Meadows of North Carolina, has had to be quarantined. (Meadows is replacing Mick Mulvaney, who will resume his role as Golum in the stage adaptation of Lord of the Rings at the Burt Reynolds Dinner Theater in Jupiter, FL.)
It’s not been widely discussed in the press, but is there any reason to think Trump himself has not been exposed? Dr. Makary, again:
At the current rate of spread, we can expect members of Congress, and even presidential candidates, to be infected with the virus within 6-8 weeks. In fact, President Xi Jinping of China has not been seen in public for weeks, and many of Iran’s leaders have the infection……Many more (US congressmembers) are likely infected but we have been using a false pretense that confirmed cases are the only cases out there, despite that fact that testing has been extremely limited at best. It’s time we dispel the notion that this virus is somehow contained. It is at large.
YOU’RE A RICH GIRL, BUT YOU’VE GONE TOO FAR
But all of the above is readily apparent and has been commented upon at length. What I’d like to address in closing is what this crisis tells us about our country, and another kind of lie: the one we tell ourselves about how wonderful we are.
Last week there was a widely circulated piece in the New York Times about how, F. Scott Fitzgerald-like, the very rich are preparing for the plague differently than you and I. Featured in it was a description of everyone’s favorite whipping girl—rightly or wrongly—for tone deaf entitlement, Gwyneth Paltrow, posing for Instagram in a Swedish-made Airinum mask, in stylish black, with five layers of filtration and an “ultrasmooth and skin-friendly finish.”
File under Fruit, Low-Hanging. Because it is not just the ultra rich who are affected differently.
It’s true that a virus doesn’t care if you’re rich or poor, but people with means—that is to say, middle class people and above—are able to prepare for and respond to this emergency with a vastly different toolkit than our less fortunate and more vulnerable fellow Americans.
In short, COVID-19 is a Klieg light shining on our own privilege.
Forget concierge medical services, stockpiling oxygen, and hiding out on your yacht until the crisis passes. The most vulnerable among us cannot do even some of the basic things many of us are doing, like stockpiling groceries, or avoiding public transit, or making plans to work from home.
It’s a bit like the fantasy within the Resistance—in which I confess I have dabbled—of fleeing the country if Trump wins a second term. I couldn’t be more sympathetic, but the average American does not have the flexibility or freedom to do that.
Many private schools have already preemptively closed. But for public schools to close is a much bigger deal, and with much bigger implications—for childcare, for nutrition, for public safety. Juliette Kayyem again:
(I)magine that a school district closed for even three weeks. Take just one child, raised by a single parent who is a police officer. The child is home, so the parent must stay home. Other officers in the same patrol will be affected even if they don’t have kids in school. Shifts will change, nonessential functions will be put off, and the department will have less flexibility to respond to problems unrelated to the epidemic—even as, with more teens unsupervised, rates of car accidents and certain crimes could well increase.
I can feel the eyerolling from Fox Nation. “Come on, King’s Necktie—stop being a starry-eyed naïf. There will ALWAYS be differences between rich and poor!” (That’s not really how they talk, of course, but you get the idea.)
Yes, but where is the line? Do we want to throw our hands up and surrender to this Darwinian way of life? I know Elon Musk will always have a nicer car than me, and I’m happy for him. But do we really want to have a society where some of our fellow citizens die because there aren’t enough hospital beds, where they don’t have access to the most basic level of health care, clean air or water, sanitation, or edible food?
Kayyem one last time, channeling Donald Rumsfeld’s “you go to war with the army you have”:
A threat as dire as the new coronavirus exposes the weaknesses in our society and our politics. If Americans could seek testing and care without worrying about co-pays or surprise bills, and if everyone who showed symptoms had paid sick leave, the United States could more easily slow the spread of COVID-19. But a crisis finds a nation as it is, not as its citizens wish it to be.
Suddenly “affordable care for all” isn’t just a slogan, or a political wedge issue; it’s a matter of life and death. And to our great shame, we virtually alone among the major industrialized nations of the world have been unable to get our shit together to provide it. And we may be about to pay a hefty price.
LORD, I GOT THE FEVER
So as we get ready to face a crisis like none of us has ever seen on US soil, I am reminded of Springsteen’s song “We Take Care of Our Own,” from 2012.
This is a great song, but not one of Bruce’s classics. It’s never gonna keep “Thunder Road” or “Kitty’s Back” or even “Sherry Darling” up at night worrying about their place in the pantheon. But it keeps bubbling up in my mind as I consider America in the early 21st century.
The song’s eponymous chorus recalls “Born in the USA” as a critique that is easily mistaken for an anthem. With just a nudge, its seeming triumphalism might even be pushed into a threat to those who would harm us: “We take care of our own, so watch out.” But of course, this is the precise opposite of what Bruce is up to. In fact, he announces it in the very first verse of the song:
I been stumbling on good hearts turned to stone
The road of good intentions has gone dry as a bone
In explicitly calling out Katrina (“From the shotgun shack to the Superdome”), he makes the point that we in America clearly do NOT take care of our own. We talk a good game, but at the end of the day, more often than not, we look out for number one.
And this song pre-dates the cruelty and divisiveness of the Trump era by four years. It’s more apropos now than ever. (Notwithstanding that fact, or precisely because of it, the song was regularly played at Obama rallies in 2012.) Maybe its title is aspirational.
Reliably, Bruce brings it home in the final verse:
Where are the eyes, the eyes with the will to see
Where are the hearts that run over with mercy
Where’s the love that has not forsaken me
Where’s the work that’ll set my hands, my soul free
Where’s the spirit that’ll reign over me
Where’s the promise from sea to shining sea?
I believe in a promised land indeed.
Photo by unknown photographer; pointed out to me by Justin Schein