The scepticism many have had about Donald Trump’s ability to handle a crisis proves to be fully justified.
Last weekend, the Washington Post reported that in late January, the White House started receiving a flow of intelligence briefings warning of a pandemic: “Taken together, the warnings painted an early picture of a virus that showed the characteristics of a globe-encircling pandemic that would require governments to take swift action to contain it.”
Trump and his administration took no notice. Indeed, they continued to insist that they knew better than those sounding the alarm and there was nothing to worry about.
On February 10, White House acting Budget director Russell Vought said, “The coronavirus is not something that is going to have ripple effects.” On February 24, Trump claimed, “The coronavirus is very much under control in the USA … stock market is starting to look very good to me.” On February 26, by which time there were 60 confirmed cases in the US, Trump said, “We’re going very substantially down, not up. As [those infected] get better, we take them off the list so that we’re going to be pretty soon at five people. And we could be at just one or two people over the next short period of time.”
Two weeks later, the US had more than 1000 confirmed cases.
So far, so dishonest and irresponsible. But, like the pandemic, it would get worse before it got better.
In late February, Trump told a rally in South Carolina that the Democrats, having tried and failed to bring him down via the Russia investigation and impeachment, were now embarked on a “new hoax” – Covid-19. Among other things, this contradicted his blithe assertion a day earlier that “it’s going to disappear. One day – it’s like a miracle – it will disappear.”
During a March 9 visit to the Atlanta headquarters of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Trump made what must surely be one of the most bizarre and disturbingly self-revelatory statements that has ever issued from the lips of a US president: “I like this stuff. I really get it. People are surprised I understand it. Every one of these doctors said, ‘How do you know so much about this?’ Maybe I have a natural ability. Maybe I should’ve done that instead of running for president.”
One flu over the cuckoo's nest
Those who harbour doubts about Trump’s mental health and grip on reality won’t be reassured to learn that, when informed during the course of this visit that some 36,000 Americans die of influenza each year, the fountain of knowledge responded, “I didn’t know people died from the flu.” (In 1918, Trump’s paternal grandfather, Frederick, became one of the first domestic American casualties of the “Spanish flu” pandemic.)
At a March 19 press conference, NBC’s Peter Alexander gave Trump the opportunity to be serious, empathetic and reassuring – presidential in other words – by asking, “What do you say to Americans who are watching you right now and are scared?” Trump replied, “I say that you are a terrible reporter, that’s what I say. It’s a very nasty question. It’s a very bad signal that you are putting out to the American people … You ought to be ashamed of yourself.”
And, of course, when he changed his tune, there wasn’t a hint of contrition or embarrassment or any acknowledgement that he’d underestimated the scale of the crisis. On the contrary, he claimed that he’d been ahead of both the curve and the experts whose warnings he’d spent weeks downplaying, if not dismissing out of hand: “I’ve always known this is a real – this is a pandemic. I felt it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic.”
And the inevitable bottom line: “I don’t take responsibility at all.”
The New York Times summed it up: “Trump’s performance on the national stage in recent weeks has put on display the traits that Democrats and some Republicans consider so jarring – the profound need for personal praise, the propensity to blame others, the lack of human empathy, the penchant for rewriting history, the disregard for expertise, the distortion of facts, the impatience with scrutiny and criticism. For years sceptics expressed concern about how he would handle a genuine crisis threatening the nation and now they know.”
He did what he always does. It can’t even be said that he reverted to type because he never departed from type.
As astonishing and, at times, nauseating as Trump’s behaviour has been, it’s entirely in character and consistent with his political brand. Ever since he took office and proceeded to disparage the intelligence community, the FBI and the military top brass, Trump has made it clear that he sees precious little value in expertise, specialisation and knowledge accrued through experience. After all, his “gut instincts tell me more sometimes than anybody else’s brain can ever tell me”.
Accordingly, in successive media briefings over the past few weeks, Trump has said one thing and the experts charged with leading America’s response to the crisis have said – usually tentatively since they know full well how Trump loathes being publicly contradicted – the opposite.
When Trump said the number of cases was declining, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar ventured that, “We can expect to see more cases in the USA.” When Trump insisted the onset of the northern summer would stop Covid-19 in its tracks, a World Health Organisation spokesperson responded that, “We have no reason to believe that this virus would behave differently in different temperatures.” When Trump suggested that a vaccine could be available within months – “I’ve heard very quick numbers” – Dr Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, had to point out developing a vaccine invariably takes between a year and 18 months. Ditto on the availability of tests; ditto on the deployment of “game-changer” anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine.
A disagreement with WHO director general Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus highlighted how the leader of the world’s most powerful nation is operating on gut instinct and with one eye on his political fortunes at a fraught moment in human affairs and in the realm of advanced medical science. After Ghebreyesus had pointed out that about 3.4% of reported cases globally had died whereas seasonal flu kills far fewer than 1% of those infected, Trump told Fox News’ Sean Hannity, “I think the 3.4% is really a false number. Now, and this is just my hunch, but based on a lot of conversations with a lot of people that do this, because a lot of people will have this and it’s very mild – I would say the number is way under 1%.”
In Iran, the death rate is almost 8%; Iran’s Health Ministry is reporting a death every 10 minutes and 50 new infections every hour. Trump, though, has ignored pleas from the international community and aid organisations for a temporary cessation of sanctions to help Iran fight the virus.
Perhaps we should leave the last word on this particular subject to porn star Cherie DeVille (real name Carolyn Paparozzi), who in 2017 announced that she was running for president under the slogan “Make America F---ing Awesome Again.” (She withdrew from the race early last year, throwing her support behind Senator Bernie Sanders.) Aside from her interest in health care and education policy, perhaps the major difference between DeVille and Trump is that she knows her limitations. “I will listen to my experts,” she promised. “I’m not an insane narcissist.”
It’s hard to escape the feeling that America is now reaping what it sowed in 2016 when it elected a non-politician, someone who’d never held elected office and came to what is often described as the most consequential job in the world after a lifetime of running a private company and accumulating vast wealth – or at least the appearance of it – through self-promotion, shamelessness, bullying and a refusal to play by the rules. That, in itself, clearly had the potential to be problematic. Add to that the fact that Trump ran on a platform of nativist and atavistic populism that was explicitly anti-science, anti-intellectual, anti-media, anti-everything his predecessor Barack Obama stood for and achieved in office.
“His supporters … didn’t elect him to be an expert president,” wrote novelist and screenwriter Gregg Hurwitz in a piece that appeared on The Bulwark website. “They elected him to blow everything up. And now he has. His supporters were willing to elevate him to the highest position on the planet. Not because he seemed presidential or intellectual or even capable. But because he wasn’t. Like most choices born of rage, this one was foolish and toxic and self-defeating.”
Hurwitz argues that rural and blue-collar Americans voted for Trump out of self-destructive spite because they’d been goaded almost beyond endurance by years of condescension and neglect on the part of a liberal elite “more interested in signalling moral superiority than in embodying the actual morals they spoke to”.
What makes this seem fanciful, and is reinforced at every one of Trump’s redneck rallies, is that his base responds and relates to him at a primal level. They see Trump as a man who speaks their language. They see him as one of them: white and proud of it, xenophobic, uncouth, unfiltered and unapologetic – the Deplorable in Chief, to extrapolate from Hillary Clinton’s characterisation. They elevate him because he embodies their dream of wealth, fame and lording it over those who aren’t like them.
Trump now faces an adversary that is, thus far, undeflected by the tactics that have worked for him in the past. “Trump bulldozed the Republican Party, corrupted American political life and lied and bullied his way out of every consequence that has ever come near him,” wrote Molly Jong-Fast on The Bulwark. “But it turns out that Covid-19 is immune to his bullshit.”
Maybe. Trump has already draped himself in the mantle of a war-time president confronting the “Chinese virus”, and some commentators are warning that the American tendency to rally behind a sitting president in times of crisis could determine the upcoming election. One poll showed 55% approval for his handling of the crisis, which suggests many Americans aren’t paying much attention. The more sanguine of his supporters predict that come November, Covid-19 will have been neutralised and the economy will be roaring back. (The stock market fall in the past month has wiped out the gains since Trump’s inauguration, the so-called “Trump bump”.)
To an extent, Trump’s re-election prospects now hinge on the very people he has spent his brief political career disparaging and disregarding: the scientists, the bureaucrats, the experts. It would be a somewhat bitter irony if their expertise and dedication save his bacon.
Not that he’ll leave it to them. Jong-Fast again: “I don’t think Trump can propaganda his way out of letting Covid-19 wipe out our parents’ savings and make our grandparents sick. But because he’s Trump, he’s sure as hell going to try.”
This article was first published in the April 4, 2020 issue of the New Zealand Listener.