When he isn’t watching Fox News or tweeting insults at his perceived enemies, President Donald Trump spends a lot of time hunting scapegoats.
Always preoccupied with escaping responsibility, Trump’s lifelong delinquency is suddenly a matter of life and death, as coronavirus claims thousands of American lives on his presidential watch. And as it becomes clearer that the United States might have easily avoided the worst consequences of the pandemic – and failed because of federal inaction – it is Trump whose historic reputation will plummet.
So will his chances of re-election. The latest Gallup poll shows his approval rating, now mired in the low 40s, has slid six points during the past month.
Trump’s peripatetic search for someone else to blame has taken him from Beijing to Capitol Hill to Manhattan to Geneva as well as various state capitals. He complains about the Chinese government, the Democrats in Congress, the New York Times and CNN; the governors of Washington state, Illinois and Michigan; and, most recently, the World Health Organization, whose vital funding he has threatened in one of the most misguided acts ever perpetrated by an American president.
He has misused the bully pulpit provided by his Coronavirus Task Force “briefings” – which impart almost no useful information – to launch broadsides against all of those targets.
Meanwhile, the government he supposedly leads still has no substantive plan for testing enough citizens to ensure their safe emergence from isolation. His proclamation of a business council to prepare for economic reopening was an embarrassment, showing that his rapacity is exceeded only by his incompetence. The corporate and labor leaders whose names he droned were evidently not told of their expected participation – and they warned him that without sufficient testing, they won’t join his reopening scheme.
What is even worse for Trump than the daily tableau of federal failure is his unflattering contrast with the state governors – from Andrew Cuomo in New York to Gavin Newsom in California and so many others – who have deployed their limited resources to great effect in combating the pandemic.
With courage and consistency, governors of both parties are summoning the best from their public and private health systems, protecting their constituents and defending democracy from the authoritarians in the White House.
Not surprisingly, several Republican governors have imitated Trump’s useless approach. But most state leaders are achieving important victories against the virus without puffing themselves in Trump’s grandiose, gaslighting style.
That style, so characteristic of Trump, has taken on a new and sinister meaning in our dystopian reality. He must constantly identify enemies and villains because without them, his own culpability in this catastrophe will become the central question – as it should.
The factual history of the coronavirus and the United States government is actually quite simple. It begins with decisions by the Trump administration to squander and spoil efforts by previous presidents, dating back to Bill Clinton, who spent billions to prepare the country for a viral pandemic long foreseen by scientific advisers.
For reasons that he will never be able to explain, Trump allowed his imbecilic appointees to fire the American officials in charge of monitoring potential disease threats, not only in Washington but also around the world.
While Trump obsessed about creating a space force with comic-opera uniforms, he insisted on slashing the budget of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which he found boring. In 2018, even as professional staff tried to warn him about the likelihood of a deadly pandemic, Trump cut the CDC so brutally that the agency had to close nearly all of its overseas bureaus, most notably in Wuhan, China.
Months later, Trump’s then-national security adviser, John Bolton, fired Tom Bossert, the principal National Security Council officer who had called for a comprehensive biodefense strategy. This was a time when the Trump White House was eagerly undoing former President Barack Obama’s Cuba and Iran initiatives, and Bossert’s call sounded too much like something Obama would pursue.
Flash-forward to December 2019, just over a year after Trump began to dismantle the pandemic defense infrastructure, when word began to emerge of a virus in China that had leaped from animals to people and was threatening a global tsunami of human infection.
While the Chinese government – and in particular, the mayor of Wuhan – tried to conceal the extent of human transmission at first, the truth emerged in time to prevent the worst. The WHO’s effort to preserve Chinese cooperation did not prevent it from issuing a timely warning, which Trump loudly and persistently ignored. [Blogger Dan Benbow has compiled a useful timeline of his malfeasance.]
Trump’s search for scapegoats will end in frustration, like so many of his angry compulsions. There is nobody else to blame.