In the two months since Covid-19 was first diagnosed in China, the Trump administration’s response has been incompetent, short-sighted, and disastrous, and it may have increased the number of lives lost and the scale of the economic disruption caused by the disease.
Trump has, from the beginning of this crisis, consistently sought to minimize the impact of the coronavirus by not preparing for it.
His administration initially failed to set up a program for mass testing and allowed infected Americans to fly home on a commercial flight, which almost certainly caused more Americans to contract the virus. When his health officials suggested telling the elderly and those with pre-existing conditions, such as cardiovascular disease, lung disease, and diabetes, to avoid air travel, Trump overruled them. He even suggested that he wanted passengers stuck on a cruise ship to remain offshore because if they stepped foot on American soil it would increase the number of Americans stricken by the coronavirus and thus make him look bad. Going back further Trump, two years ago, closed down the office on the National Security Council tasked to deal with potential pandemics — leaving the nation woefully unprepared for exactly the scenario unfolding right now.
Most disturbing, however, have been his public statements that have misstated the threat from the coronavirus and played down its potential impact on public health.
Trump has claimed that the virus is contained (it’s not). He said that the number of cases in the United States was “going to be down to close to zero” (they weren’t). He suggested that warm weather would wipe out the virus, even though it’s unknown at this point. In fact in Australia, where it’s summer, there are 100 confirmed cases of Covid-19 and three deaths as of Tuesday. Trump also claimed that anyone who wants a coronavirus test can get one (they can’t). He even said that he is such an expert on the coronavirus that “every one of these doctors said, ‘how do you know so much about this?’ Maybe I have a natural ability."
Trump’s rationale for saying things manifestly untrue is born of an apparent belief that he can prevent economic disruption — and in particular a market sell-off — by convincing Americans that the coronavirus is no big deal. This decision has, to put it mildly, backfired. If anything, Trump has made the economic downturn that is probably coming exponentially worse. Yet, the president doesn’t see things that way.
According to NBC News, “Trump has been advised by some close to him to let public health officials, rather than the politicians, take a more forward-facing role, according to a person familiar with the conversation. But a person close to the White House said Trump thinks it helps him politically to keep doing what he has been doing.”
Spoiler alert … it doesn’t.
Indeed, with the stock market in free fall and businesses and consumers facing the possibility of serious economic disruption, Trump’s chances of reelection may have taken an insurmountable hit.
Trump has been a historically unpopular president whose ability to keep his head above political water is a direct result of an extraordinarily strong economy. Without low unemployment and strong economic growth rate, Trump would probably be far more unpopular — and this is a hypothesis that will be tested in the weeks to come. But for Trump to not take a political hit for a potentially severe economic disruption would be unprecedented.
That’s not even taking into account the possibility that many Americans blame Trump for the botched response to the coronavirus. There may be enough true Trump believers out there that the president’s numbers won’t completely crater, but even a loss of support from a small segment of the electorate could be enough to doom his chances of a second term.
What is truly remarkable, however, is that this is even in question. The president’s response to the coronavirus is unmatched evidence of how woefully unprepared he is to deal with a major crisis. Trump is unable to look past his own ego to consider what is best for the American people. He ignores evidence, spreads lies, and makes clearly self-interested and heartless arguments. Last weekend, in the midst of a growing crisis, he was playing golf. His actions to date have undercut the US response to the pandemic and may have done direct economic and personal harm to Americans. How could he not pay a political price for the mess he’s created?
After three years of watching Trump’s poll numbers remain steady even in the face of unspeakable incompetence, cruelty, and mismanagement, I no longer make any assumptions about public opinion. But at some point there needs to be a reckoning for Trump. If he is not held responsible by Americans for his coronavirus failures, if they cannot see how completely over his head he is — and that means even his supporters — then we have more problems than just an emerging pandemic.
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Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.