When Americans are confronting the most threatening national crisis in a generation or more, it would be uplifting to offer a few encouraging words about the president of the United States. And a few is about as many as can be offered at this point. Not only is his performance to date far below what his country needs but he also shows no sign of having learned the lessons that might allow him to improve.
To watch President Donald Trump preside over a coronavirus briefing must depress the most cheerful viewer. By now it should be obvious that Trump is no Franklin Delano Roosevelt; he doesn’t even achieve the minimal standard of leadership set by George W. Bush after the 9/11 attacks.
Instead of aiming to inspire confidence and trust, Trump shines the spotlight on himself. He insists on groveling praise from all of his subordinates. He spins crucial facts into useless misinformation. He repeats ridiculous boasts about his own brilliance. And he seeks above all to blame others rather than accept responsibility. That includes any reporter who dares to pose a question that doesn’t flatter him.
“What do you say to Americans who are watching you right now who are scared?” asked NBC’s Peter Alexander. “I say that you’re a terrible reporter. That’s what I say,” barked Trump. “That’s a very nasty question.”
The softball question wasn’t nasty at all, but Trump reacted like a bully, not a leader.
Sorry, but the best that can be said of the president today is that after weeks of failing to respond adequately to the coronavirus threat, he and his gang have realized that the pandemic is real and will take them down if they continue to do nothing. Under pressure from governors of both parties – and from Republican senators contemplating a November wipeout – he has at last begun to mobilize federal resources to aid the struggling states hit hardest so far. After dithering for days, Trump invoked his powers under the Defense Production Act to command corporate resources needed for the swiftest possible manufacturing of medical equipment.
Until the pandemic struck, the rank incompetence of Trump and those closest to him seemed likely to protect us from at least some of their most destructive impulses. Whatever awful things he might want to do – building border walls, banning immigrants, busting ObamaCare – would be tempered by his sheer inability to get anything done.
But the obverse of that principle can be seen in this crisis given that many crucial things that must be done right away are so far beyond his feeble capacity.
What makes the current situation still more dire is the administration’s ruling ideology, which combines the most backward aspects of Republican “conservatism” with Trump’s own “America First” obsessions. It is a combination that may prove extremely lethal in a pandemic and has already damaged our prospects for recovery.
First of all, there is no “America First” policy that can address a deadly disease spreading rapidly around the planet. Whether Trump likes “globalists” or not – and he likes them plenty when his sons are minting multimillion-dollar overseas deals – we live in a world where international air travel and trade guarantee that any contagion eventually reaches our shores.
Trump’s ban on travel from China only briefly forestalled the inevitable. What stopped a menace like Ebola and reduced an epidemic like HIV/AIDS was international organization and cooperation – including with nations whose governments we dislike.
Second, the Republican allergy to universal health coverage is now proved outdated and profoundly dangerous. Whether it is “Medicare for All” or another variation, we can only protect all our citizens from disease by providing health care to everyone here – whether they happen to be citizens or not.
Third, the Republican prejudice against “big government” is equally shortsighted and stupid. If we have learned anything in the past few weeks, it is that only government can bring to bear the necessary force to defend society in the face of massive destruction.
Trump’s decisions to abolish the National Security Council pandemic office, and cut funding for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, shows that he is unfit for his job. For Republicans to defend these decisions is proof that their ideology trumps their commitment to national security.
The only upside to Trump’s bumbling and buffoonish presidency is that if we survive, the lessons are clear. We had better learn them, because another pandemic is sure to come.