At every turn, President Trump’s policy regarding coronavirus has unfolded as if guided by one rule: How can I make this crisis worse?
Presidents are not all-powerful, especially not in the case of pandemic disease. There are limits to what they can do, for good or ill. But within those limits, at every juncture, Trump’s actions have ensured the worst possible outcomes. The worst outcome for public health. The worst outcome for the American economy. The worst outcome for American global leadership.
Trump’s Oval Office speech of March 11 was the worst action yet in a string of bad actions.
Here are the things the president did not do in that speech.
He offered no guidance or policy on how to prevent the spread of the disease inside the United States. Should your town cancel its St. Patrick’s Day parade? What about theatrical productions and sporting events? Classes at schools and colleges? Nothing.
He offered no explanation of what went wrong with the U.S. testing system, nor any assurance of when testing would become more widely available. His own previous promises of testing for anyone who needs it have been exploded as false. So what is true? Nothing.
Layoffs are coming, probably on a very large scale, as travel collapses and people hunker down at home. Any word for those about to lose their jobs? Only the vaguest indication that something might be announced sometime soon.
It’s good to hear that there will be no co-pays on the tests nobody seems able to get. What about other health-care coverage? Any word on that? Nothing.
The financial markets have plunged into a 2008-style crash, auguring a recession, perhaps a severe one. The Trump administration has had almost two months to think about this crisis. It has trial-ballooned some ideas. But, of course, fiscal policy would require assent from the House of Representatives. Trump is still pouting at Speaker Nancy Pelosi. So—aside from some preposterously unconvincing happy talk about the economy—again: nothing.
There was one something in the speech: a ban on travel from Europe, but not the United Kingdom. It’s a classic Trump formulation. It seeks to protect America by erecting a wall against the world, without thinking very hard how or whether the wall can work. The disease is already here. The numbers only look low because of our prior failure to provide adequate testing. They will not look low even four days from now. And those infected with the virus can travel from other countries and on other routes. Trump himself has already met some.
The travel ban is an act of panic. Financial futures began crashing even as Trump was talking, perhaps shocked by his lack of an economic plan, perhaps aghast at his latest attack on world trade. (The speech seemed to suggest an embargo on European-sourced cargo as well, but that looks more like a mental lapse of Trump’s than a real policy announcement. The ban on cargo was retracted by a post-speech tweet, although the ban remains in the posted transcript of the speech.) Among other things, the ban represents one more refutation by Trump of any idea of collective security against collective threats. While China offers medical assistance to Italy, he wants to sever ties to former friends—isolating America and abandoning the world.
This crisis is not of Trump’s making. What he is responsible for is his failure to respond promptly, and then his perverse and counterproductive choice of how to respond when action could be avoided no longer. Trump, in his speech, pleaded for an end to finger-pointing. It’s a strange thing for this president of all presidents to say. No American president, and precious few American politicians, have ever pointed so many fingers or hurled so much abuse as Donald Trump. What he means, of course, is: Don’t hold me to account for the things I did.
But he did do them, and he owns responsibility for those things. He cannot escape it, and he will not escape it.
More people will get sick because of his presidency than if somebody else were in charge. More people will suffer the financial hardship of sickness because of his presidency than if somebody else were in charge. The medical crisis will arrive faster and last longer than if somebody else were in charge. So, too, the economic crisis. More people will lose their jobs than if somebody else were in charge. More businesses will be pushed into bankruptcy than if somebody else were in charge. More savers will lose more savings than if somebody else were in charge. The damage to America’s global leadership will be greater than if somebody else were in charge.
There is always something malign in Trump’s incompetence. He has no care or concern for others; he cannot absorb the trouble and suffering of others as real. He monotones his way through words of love and compassion, but those words plainly have no content or meaning for him. The only thing that is real is his squalid vanity. This virus threatens to pierce that vanity, so he denied it as long as he could. What he refuses to acknowledge cannot be real, can it?
And even now that he has acknowledged the crisis, he still cannot act, because he does not know what to do. His only goal now is to shove blame onto others. Americans have to face the fact that in the grip of this pandemic, the Oval Office is for all practical purposes as empty as the glazed eyes of the man who spoke from that office tonight.