In a crisis as severe as the coronavirus pandemic, government officials owe the general public two things: reliable numbers and an honest basis for hope. That’s what citizens get if politicians step aside from the microphone and let experts speak. When Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, testified before a House committee yesterday, he warned that COVID-19 has a death rate 10 times that of the seasonal flu; that the worst is yet to come; and that, without more aggressive containment measures, “many, many millions” of Americans could become infected. This was a sobering message, but his audience could at least take comfort in knowing where things stand.
That has not been true of President Donald Trump, who has pooh-poohed the danger of the new disease, played down case counts, and insisted that the new disease will soon taper off. In a televised address last night, he was visibly uncomfortable and talked about the pandemic not as a deadly health problem but as a venue for global competition. His portrayal of the new pathogen as a “foreign virus” and his boast that the United States had the “best response” to the virus did nothing to alleviate fears Americans might have about their health and the massive disruptions now occurring in society. His showiest move—his announcement of a ban on travel from Europe—showed little regard for the fact that COVID-19 is already spreading in the United States.
For some time, Trump and his White House have acted as if they only have a public-relations problem to contend with. When Trump designated Mike Pence as leader of the administration’s coronavirus task force, the vice president promptly moved to tighten messaging and take control of public appearances by government experts. Reuters reported yesterday that the White House is insisting that top-level coronavirus meetings be treated as classified—a designation that inhibits scientific transparency and excludes important experts without security clearances.
But a lack of message discipline is not what caused the stock-market crash this week. Investors see all too clearly that the federal response to the coronavirus has been disjointed, lagging in even providing the basic test kits to determine the magnitude of the threat.
Under any presidential administration, every major disaster is a mess. While some threats to human health and national security are in some way predictable, the government agencies that respond to them are always at a disadvantage. The entire emergency-management apparatus—the incident command response, as it’s known in homeland-security jargon—is positioned to activate only after the terror attack, hurricane, oil spill, or disease outbreak is under way and some amount of death and destruction have already happened. By the time the federal government gets involved in the first place, going back to the status quo ante is no longer a choice.
An administration does have the power to engage citizens in mitigating the consequences of a disaster. The problem for Trump, however, is that doing so would mean providing both numbers and hope.
Entire communities, no less than the professionals in charge of managing any emergency response, benefit from situational awareness. Which is to say, average citizens need factual information not only about the magnitude of destruction but also about the seriousness of the response. Regardless of the nature of a crisis, people need information about how many have been killed or harmed, about which agencies are providing how much aid, about how many hospital beds, shelter beds, meals, and gallons of water are available.
The Trump administration is providing numbers about tests, but those numbers seem untethered from reality. Pence said Monday that more than 1 million coronavirus tests had been distributed and that 4 million would be distributed by the end of this week. Also on Monday, The Atlantic could only verify, based on local data, that 4,384 people had been tested in the United States.
The administration’s lack of candor does nothing to give the public hope. Citizens need to know that their government and its leaders adequately understand what has gone wrong and that they are capable of ameliorating it. After a disaster, the measure of a successful government response isn’t whether everything returns to normal. It’s whether people foresee opportunities for improvement. Most people can sense when they are being lied to, and they appreciate leaders who will tell them the truth.
As for giving hope, that job can’t be delegated. Trump—who went golfing both days last weekend—appears simply incapable of grasping the magnitude of the situation before us. Calm and cool have their benefits in stressful times, and making sure that the public does not overreact is an important job for elected leaders. But Trump’s efforts to minimize the disease look delusional against everything we know about it. The United States is just entering the mitigation stage of this crisis, during which cities and states will severely curb movement and social interactions to slow the spread of the disease and relieve burdens on our health-care system. For weeks to come, Americans will become accustomed to this jarring sense that time and basic social norms are suspended.
After falsely saying the coronavirus is essentially contained, then not seeming to show much interest until the stock market took notice, Trump has shown no empathy for what the nation is now suffering. By all evidence, he is deeply concerned with how the pandemic will make him look. But as Craig Fugate, the former head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, used to tell his teams, the best way to get good press is to do a good job.
Americans need to brace for impact. Trump’s standard tactics—blaming immigrants and outsiders, promising fantastical walls, wearing red hats with slogans—are powerless against a global pandemic. While the coronavirus is by far the most dangerous crisis that the United States has faced since Trump took office, he has not participated in its resolution in any meaningful way.
But a president isn’t allowed to be irrelevant at a moment of national crisis. Or, to put it another way, an irrelevant president is a harmful one. Last night Trump felt obliged to intervene more strongly—just not with the kind of information and leadership that will prepare Americans for a disturbing new reality.