We just passed 6 million cases, and it didn't have to be like this — if we'd had a leader

Another grim milestone to remind us how tragically Donald Trump has failed. He had an opportunity, and ran away

Published September 1, 2020 7:00AM (EDT)

Planet Earth with Coronavirus and Trees (Getty Images)
Planet Earth with Coronavirus and Trees (Getty Images)

The United States this week surpassed 6 million cases of COVID-19, the most in the world. Even when measuring relative to population, America's standing is dismal and depressing. We're currently ranked 10th in the world with 18,675 cases per million people, and growing by 30-50,000 new cases every day. As I begin to write this essay, midday on Monday, we've already racked up 14,151 cases for the day so far. 

Just for the sake of contrast, Italy is ranked 60th in cases per million residents. France is ranked 63rd. Germany is 83rd. Iraq is ranked 49th. Canada is 76th. Again, the U.S. is ranked 10th. There are "shithole countries," as Trump called them, who are faring better than we are.

In case the Red Hat trolls jump into the comments to rubber-stamp Donald Trump's nonsense about how we have the most cases because we do the most testing, the U.S. is ranked 18th in testing per million residents, far from the most in the world (per million), yet we're 10th in cases, and 11th in deaths. Denmark, on the other hand, is 13th in testing, meaning it does more testing than we do, but it's ranked 82nd in cases and 55th in deaths (all per million residents). If Trump were right, and testing artificially increased cases and deaths somehow, Denmark would have many more cases and deaths per million than we do. It doesn't. We still have more. Many more.

It's difficult to verbalize how mortifying and inexcusable this is. 

Trump can't shut up about making America great again. But based on his response to the pandemic alone, we're not even close to being great. We're not even greatness-adjacent.

The once-vibrant concept of marrying civic and societal responsibility with patriotism has all but disappeared from a not-insignificant population of our fellow Americans. Throughout the past four years, and especially during the past six months, far too many shirkers have been hoodwinked into believing that irresponsibility, self-indulgence, recklessness and blind gullibility are patriotic. And it's entirely the consequence of the most irresponsible, self-indulgent, reckless and easily-manipulated president in history. 

As of today, thanks to the malicious incompetence of Donald Trump, there's no end in sight. But it didn't have to be this way. 

Had the president sucked it up and fulfilled the bogus "presidential" fantasies of Van Jones and Chris Cillizza, if Trump had followed the response strategy he was provided by previous administrations, and if he had simply looked to presidents who, during a variety of previous national emergencies, rallied the country to achieve actual greatness, we'd surely be ranked far better than the unforgivable status we occupy today. In fact, it's likely we'd be celebrating today, rather than desperately hoping for a vaccine and a change in leadership while more and more of our friends and family get sick and die.

What could the president have done differently? In a word: everything.

During the 2014 Ebola outbreak, the United States led the world's response, deploying thousands of "DOD, CDC, USAID, and other U.S. health officials to Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea to assist with response efforts, as part of a 10,000-person U.S.-backed civilian response." Likewise, during the 2009 H1N1 outbreak, within seven days of the first case, the CDC under President Obama had already activated its emergency operations center — three days prior to the World Health Organization's emergency declaration. The H1N1 outbreak ended with around 12,000 American deaths. Under Trump, during COVID, there were 12,000 deaths in the past 14 days alone, since Tuesday, Aug. 18.

On Jan. 21, 2020, when the first U.S. case was identified, Trump refused to do a damn thing, failing to take the threat seriously and failing to mobilize our national infrastructure — federal, state and local — to isolate the virus before it spread. Instead, his endless record of irresponsible denial began with a statement to CNBC about how everything was "under control" and that "it's going to be just fine." That's all he did. 

Trump's "travel ban" from China wasn't authorized until 10 days later, on Jan. 31, after the virus was already here. It was a full 20 days after the first COVID death in China and the day after the World Health Organization's global health emergency declaration. In the midst of all that, Trump did the least he could do without doing nothing, banning some travel from China. 

What if he had banned all travel from China as well as Europe on the same day, given cases and deaths in France, too? Instead, the travel bans were staggered piecemeal, and even after the China ban, 40,000 people entered the U.S. from China — to repeat: after his flimsy ban. Trump didn't impose a ban on travel from Europe until mid-March, dooming his hometown of New York City, where most of the cases were traced from Europe, not China.

It would be nearly a month later, on Feb. 25, before Trump finally requested coronavirus response funds from Congress, launching the White House task force the next day. Imagine if Franklin D. Roosevelt had waited a month to mobilize in response to the Pearl Harbor attack, dilly-dallying before asking Congress for a declaration of war in, say, January 1942, rather than early December 1941. Imagine if John F. Kennedy had waited a month to respond after learning about the introduction of Soviet nukes in Cuba.

By the time the president appointed Mike Pence as the head of the task force, the first American COVID death had already occurred, 20 days before. On Feb. 28, Trump assured his disciples that the virus would disappear "like a miracle" — also calling it "the new hoax." How's that working out?

Imagine if Trump had declared a national emergency 14 days earlier than he did on March 13, nearly a month after the first U.S. case. A Columbia University study showed he could have reduced deaths by 84 percent. If he had acted just a week earlier than he did, 35,927 lives would've been saved.

Instead of urging Americans to make the sacrifices needed to contain and eradicate the virus, Donald Trump began to loudly insist upon reopening the country at the worst possible time — in mid-April, at the initial height of the curve — indulging his fanboys with all-caps tweets like "LIBERATE MICHIGAN!" (The day he tweeted that message, 2,597 Americans died from the virus, just 400 fewer than on 9/11.) 

He could have taken a difference approach: the path taken by so many other presidents in prior eras of actual American greatness. But he's too brittle, too paranoid, too toxic, too illiterate to do that.

Like the previous Republican president, he could have framed the lockdown and prevention efforts with rah-rah Lee Greenwood patriotism. Trump could have rallied the entire nation by appealing to our national pride rather than resigning himself to being the president of his base alone. Imagine the national mobilization for World War II, but applied to the pandemic, with all Americans chipping in to the war effort. He could have achieved exactly that, but he's incapable of it. He lacks the restraint, discipline, forethought and temperament possessed by even our more lackluster chief executives.

Trump could have marched us to war against the pandemic, framing the isolation, the social distancing and the mask-wearing — the minimum requirements advised by experts — as intrinsic to our patriotic duty, setting an example himself with photo-ops of his own sacrifices. But he didn't. 

He could have pushed for even more financial relief for out-of-work Americans, sandbagging against further economic repercussions until the curve had been flattened. 

He could have celebrated every achievement and milestone with triumphant addresses from the Oval Office. He hasn't, because there aren't any achievements to celebrate, beyond the ones he falsely claims as his own.

With a unifying, proactive tone established by the White House, there could have been national telethons to raise money for the victims. 

There could have been plans for post-pandemic memorials, like the 9/11 or Vietnam memorials, giving us something positive and inspirational to strive for. After all, Trump fancies himself a builder. 

He could have, at the bare minimum, called for national moments of silence for the people we lost. To date, he's never called for a moment of silence for the victims or anyone else. Ever.

He could have leveled with us, yet he's only ever downplayed the threat while embellishing his bungled, ham-fisted non-response.

He could have explained the stakes while calling upon our spirit of community to do what's necessary rather than what's easiest. 

The president, for the first time in our national history, chose to frame selfish defiance, irresponsibility and loud ignorance as patriotic, shirking what's right, ignoring expertise and deceiving the public about the true dynamics of the threat.

There never should have been any question of holding public rallies until after the curve was flattened. Instead, Trump held a rally in Tulsa — once again, at the worst possible time, during the second spike of the first curve. Former Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain is dead now, and the event became a vector for the disease, all due to Trump's unquenchable vanity and his desire for unsubstantiated accolades.

Trump, unlike every president before him, refuses to call the threat by its actual designation.

It's nearly fall now. Had Trump led the nation as it's been led in the past, I'm confident the pandemic could have been all but ended by now, or would at least be on the way out. We would have seen dramatically fewer deaths and cases with a national strategy, not unlike our national strategies confronting world wars, terrorist attacks, natural disasters and so forth. Instead, Trump chose to defer his duty to the states, lazily delegating his job to others while he plays golf and verbally masturbates on Twitter. 

At this rate, and with this president in charge, I'll be shocked if this is over by next August, with Americans more divided than ever. The unity of the post-9/11 era seems like fan-fiction today.

Thanks to Trump, we've become a nation of proud self-destruction, growing increasingly numb to the catastrophic death toll our lack of national leadership has precipitated, while our president encourages and indeed embodies our worst instincts — lionizing the negative character traits our parents raised us to reject. (Sadly, some of our Trump-supporting parents have rejected those values, too.) Rather than rising up as we have so often in the past, Trump and his people have given up, many of them choosing to relentlessly screech at anyone who tries to display even modestly responsible behavior.

Presidential leadership isn't some kind of magic trick. Rather, it's as easy as borrowing from copious historical precedent and applying it to what we could have accomplished today. By all measures, historical and otherwise, Donald Trump is a failed president, achieving the exact opposite of American greatness — 10th worldwide in deaths per million! — because he's too stubborn, too vain and too sociopathic to do what's difficult or what's right.

In failing to rise to the occasion, Trump has transformed America from being a proud and noble if imperfect union into a pitiable shell of its former self, cupping its ears under the covers and shouting "Not listening!" while the president's henchmen tell us we're all going to get the virus anyway, so why bother? This kind of non-leadership, this kind of nihilism, should never be rewarded with a second term.

They say we shouldn't change horses midstream, meaning we shouldn't change presidents mid-crisis. Yet what's become abundantly clear, especially since March, is this: Our horse ran away at the first sight of water. Now we're drowning in a preventable flood and it's long past time for a new leader who can carry the burden of our beleaguered nation to the shoreline. Finally.

By the way, as I finish writing this, 32,987 new cases of coronavirus have been confirmed so far today, up from 14,151 when I started. That's 18,836 new U.S. cases in the time it took me to write this. Not great. Not even close.

By Bob Cesca

Bob Cesca is a regular contributor to Salon. He's also the host of "The Bob Cesca Show" podcast, and a weekly guest on both the "Stephanie Miller Show" and "Tell Me Everything with John Fugelsang." Follow him on Facebook and Twitter. Contribute through LaterPay to support Bob's Salon articles -- all money donated goes directly to the writer.


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