Donald Trump, reality-TV phony to his core, clearly believes all he needs to do to erase his almost unfathomable levels of failure that have led to the coronavirus crisis is to play-act being a resolute leader on the teevee. Having spent weeks denying, minimizing and outright lying about the coronavirus threat, Trump now seizes live airtime every day to preen about what a strong and capable leader he is — and also to present himself as the biggest victim of this crisis, even as people die and millions find their jobs are threatened — even as he does nothing consequential but tweet, lie and boost his own ego.
Trump's commitment to being seen as the conquering hero (while doing as little as possible) is a result of his bottomless narcissism, of course. New York Times White House reporter Maggie Haberman indicated on CNN that Trump took over the daily coronavirus task force briefings from Vice President Mike Pence because he was jealous of all the attention Pence was getting. Gabriel Sherman of Vanity Fair also noted on MSNBC that his White House sources say Trump "has been furious and frustrated at New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who has been holding these very widely well-received early morning press conferences" — because, of course, Trump sees it as stealing his precious spotlight.
There's good reason to fear that Trump's reality-TV simulacrum of a competent leader is working to fool Americans. His approval rating has jumped, hitting almost 50% in the latest Gallup poll, which is as high it's ever been. Indeed, polling repeatedly shows the majority of Americans believe Trump is doing a great job handling this crisis.
He isn't. On the contrary, Trump is largely to blame for the horrific situation we now face, where the disease is spreading rapidly and the economy is tanking. As difficult as the task may be, especially with so much else going on, it is critical that journalists and activists do everything in their power to remind the public that the only reason the situation is so bad is that Trump screwed up.
The biggest screw-up that caused this situation was Trump's belief that any problem can be made to go away by simply lying about it and denying it. To that end, he did everything he could to hide the fact that the coronavirus had already reached the U.S. — and by trying to hide the problem, he allowed the virus to spread unchecked through the population. Now it's too late to do anything but embrace drastic lockdown procedures nationwide, which are grinding the economy to a halt and, likely kickstarting what will amount to another Great Depression.
The sheer number of lies Trump told to bamboozle the public — and the markets — into thinking coronavirus was no big deal is too large to list in detail, though the New York Times published a lengthy breakdown last week. He promised it would "work out well" in January and suggested that a vaccine would be available shortly (at best, it's next year). Throughout February, Trump promised that the virus "miraculously goes away" and said that "the numbers are going to get progressively better" (they have been getting progressively worse). In March, he was continuing to call it "mild" and saying "I'm not concerned at all."
He told these lies despite the fact that, as various reports have showed, intelligence services had been briefing him about the threat of coronavirus for months. Instead of trusting his own intelligence reports that the Chinese government was covering up the extent of the viral spread, the Washington Post reported, Trump instead chose to believe the notoriously dishonest President Xi Jinping of China, thanking Xi for his "transparency."
Meanwhile, South Korea was swinging into action, instituting a plan to corral the spread of the virus without facing the economic devastation of a lockdown. That nation has 50 million people and is one of the most densely populated in the world, and yet was able to dramatically slow the spread of the disease without much curtailment of people's freedom. The key, according to Science magazine, was the institution of widespread testing that allowed doctors to focus resources and quarantine efforts on people who were already infected, instead of locking people at home and crippling the economy.
While Italy has seen the coronavirus run rampant, the small town that was the center of the nation's outbreak has managed to curb its spread by implementing mass testing. Testing on that scale is not possible in a country as big as the U.S., but these results show that the major restrictions and huge economic impacts could have been much reduced with a strategic approach that involved mass testing instead of treating everyone like a potential vector.
But Trump quite obviously didn't want mass testing, and seemed to believe he could hide the spread of the disease by preventing any measurements of it. As Politico reporter Dan Diamond told NPR, Trump did "not push to do aggressive additional testing in recent weeks" because "more testing might have led to more cases being discovered of coronavirus outbreak," and Trump believed "the lower the numbers on coronavirus, the better for the president."
What happened instead is that we have no idea how many cases there are in the U.S., but we know for sure it's a lot more than what's being counted — almost certainly orders of magnitude larger. Because there's no way to know, people are in a panic and governments are shutting down most public-facing businesses, grinding the economy to a halt. Trump continues to lie, claiming tests are easily available. In reality, they continue to be rationed across the country, so there's no telling how long it will be until it's safe to return to normal.
The US is now on pace to have the worst coronavirus outbreak anywhere... pic.twitter.com/GgtcF4788J
— Mark MacKinnon (@markmackinnon) March 25, 2020
"What's happening here, in this country, was avoidable," the Atlantic explained in an analysis of this disaster. "Nearly every flaw in America's response to the virus has one source: America did not test enough people for COVID-19."
Even though Trump's pathological lying is the principal cause of this disaster, he hasn't backed off this lie-all-the-time strategy. He has started claiming there's an effective treatment using drugs that have potentially severe side effects, even though there's as yet no scientific evidence for this claim. (One person has already died due to taking Trump's advice.) He's making noises about "reopening" the economy by Easter, even though he has no authority to do this and there's no reason to believe the crisis will anywhere near contained by then. He repeatedly promises help is on the way — in the form of naval ships, a testing website, medical supplies and increased testing — even though his administration has in fact done almost nothing to provide those things.
The Senate is passing a bill that, despite Republican efforts to make it a giveaway to the already-rich, appears to get direct aid to people who need it. That should help, but it won't make this crisis disappear. We're still facing widespread infection, many deaths and catastrophic levels of unemployment.
Trump will try to use this crisis to position himself as a strong leader guiding his people through a difficult time. He must not be allowed to do this. None of this would be nearly as bad if he wasn't a sociopathic monster who from the beginning was more interested in concealing the crisis than fighting the virus. This crisis is Trump's fault, and it is the duty of the media and activists and Democratic politicians to remind the public of this every single day until the election. If we still get to have one.