Trump’s Playbook Is Terribly Ill-Suited to a Pandemic

The president cannot rely on his usual strategies of lying and bullying to fight the spread of the coronavirus.

President Trump discussing the coronavirus.
Carlos Barria / Reuters

President Trump rode out the Mueller investigation. He survived impeachment. He has waved away dozens of lesser scandals as though they were nothing more than gnats.

But now he faces a challenge unlike any he has confronted before: The coronavirus is continuing its spread around the globe and has arrived in the United States, causing widespread alarm and a precipitous drop in the stock market.

Americans should all hope he succeeds in mitigating the danger posed by the virus, though there are reasons to fear he is not up to the task. The new pandemic is a challenge for which his playbook seems uniquely unsuited.

The Trump crisis playbook to date has involved bullying both political allies, to keep them in line, and potential opponents, to prevent them from talking. It has involved lying. It has involved the deflection of attention onto other matters. It has involved attacking the attackers, spinning conspiracy theories about and spawning investigations of the investigators. It has involved bombastic dismissals of serious issues as the latest “hoax” or “witch hunt” or instance of “presidential harassment.” And it has involved endlessly reminding people that the economy is humming along and their 401(k) plans are doing well.

But a virus, unlike a Republican member of Congress, cannot be bullied. It doesn’t care about the president’s poll numbers. Nor does it pay any mind to whether the president describes his own handling of its presence as perfect.

The second- and third-order consequences here are also out of the president's control. People don’t hold on to stocks out of political loyalty whose value they see declining. Businesses don’t make purchasing decisions to validate presidential ego either. The current challenge involves the highly distributed actions of countless organisms—human and microbial—none of whom will be looking over their shoulders at the president’s anger or desires.

“The one that matters is me,” Trump once said about staff vacancies in the State Department. “I'm the only one that matters because when it comes to it, that’s what the policy is going to be. You’ve seen that; you’ve seen it strongly.”

Viruses don’t believe this—and neither do economies.

So what happens when the confrontation between the president and prosecutors, the president and Congress, and the president and his enemies gives way to a confrontation between the president and circumstances beyond his control?

The MSNBC host Chris Matthews once memorably commented that President Bill Clinton “never had his shot at greatness” because he never had the opportunity to lead the nation through a true crisis. He described Clinton as “lucky” for this deprivation. In this sense, Trump, too, has been lucky: His presidency has lurched from calamity to calamity, yet somehow Trump has avoided botching anything so dramatically that his core supporters would be forced to hold him accountable politically. He’s courted war with Iran and North Korea without getting his hair mussed, for example. There’s even a meme about Trump’s skill at escaping crisis, which declares, “I’d like to see ol Donny Trump wriggle his way out of THIS jam!”—right before Trump successfully does just that.

This isn’t to say that Trump hasn’t dealt with, and even flubbed, situations that resist bullying, lies, and reality-television-style stunts. In 2017, the administration badly mismanaged disaster response in Puerto Rico after the island was ravaged by Hurricane Maria. Puerto Rico did not receive anywhere near the necessary level of federal aid following the hurricane, and estimates indicate that almost 3,000 people on the island died in the hurricane’s aftermath, making Maria one of the deadliest natural disasters in decades. But Trump’s strategy was to ignore the criticism and insist that everything was going perfectly. On a visit to the island, he jokingly tossed paper towels to a crowd in San Juan. Later, he declared that reports of the heavy death toll had been inflated “to make me look bad.”

Two years later, Trump attempted his strategy of denial again in response to Hurricane Dorian: He scrawled on a map with black marker in order to back up his claim that the storm was headed toward Alabama. “Sharpiegate” became a story of its own about the politicization of federal agencies in the face of disaster, as news broke that the commerce secretary had threatened to fire top officials at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for contradicting the president.

Yet, in the end, the president’s quixotic efforts to reshape reality according to his wishes didn’t have much of an effect on his political fortunes. Hurricane Dorian proved catastrophic for the Bahamas, but the Eastern Seaboard of the United States escaped the worst.

“We got lucky,” Trump said again and again at a press conference on Dorian response—Alabama, despite his predictions, having been spared. The 2017 wreckage in Puerto Rico, meanwhile, had all the trappings of a major scandal that could cause Trump lasting political damage, like the federal mismanagement in responding to Hurricane Katrina did for President George W. Bush. But three years after Hurricane Maria, its human toll hasn’t had a substantial effect on Trump’s fortunes—perhaps because Puerto Rico lacks voting representation in Congress, and perhaps because Trump’s voting base outside Puerto Rico hasn’t seemed to care all that much about the people who live there.

But the current epidemic seems different. For one thing, the virus’s spread won’t be geographically limited to areas the president and his base dismiss. It will affect regions populated by Trump supporters, as much as it will regions dominated by his opponents. For another, the economic impact will be felt worldwide. And the fallout will tend to erode Trump’s core response to all the other scandals he has faced: that things are good, and they are good because of him.

So how does Trump handle the combination of the virus and the economic fallout from it? He can’t blame it on a political conspiracy, though he has flirted with the notion—suggesting at one point that the whole thing was a new Democratic “hoax” before denying he had said that. And there’s no enemy here to finger as the villain either. There’s no Robert Mueller, Peter Strzok, or Adam Schiff against whom to rail.

Denial isn’t going to work, as the Chinese Communist Party learned when it tried to cover up the virus early on in the outbreak. Trump has tried to minimize the likely impact on the United States, talking about how few cases there have been and what a good job his administration has done on containing the spread. But now that cases have shown up in California, Washington State, Rhode Island, Florida, and New York, and the first deaths are beginning to occur, his self-congratulation is starting to look naive. If the spread of the virus continues, this look-on-the-bright-side approach will appear altogether ineffective—particularly bad for Trump, who has marketed himself as the guy who comes in and makes magic happen. And while Trump has insisted that the current weakness of the stock market is nothing but a blip that will reverse shortly, he has essentially no leverage to make good on that prediction.

The president can, of course, protest that the spread of the virus and the resulting economic damage are not his fault. He may even be right about that—not in the sense that his handling of the matter has been competent, but in the sense that this particular virus may have been beyond the power of even competent management to contain. But presidents rarely get spared political blame for economic shocks beyond their control. And a president who ties his political fate so energetically to the state of the economy and the market—who declares that voters should ignore apparent illegality, corruption, and serial failures of decency because their retirement accounts are faring well and their job prospects are good—may prove particularly vulnerable to conditions that undermine the premise of his argument. The fact that he has long claimed to control the economy with the force of his will makes his inability to do so a particular liability.

The point here is not to predict, much less to hope, that the virus will do what Mueller and Schiff could not. The Fox and Friends host Pete Hegseth claimed that “the Democrats” and “the media” are “rooting for coronavirus to spread.” Acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, similarly, told an audience at the Conservative Political Action Conference that the press thinks “this will bring down the president, that’s what this is all about.”

Everyone should be hoping that Trump handles this matter brilliantly—even if that means that he reaps political benefit from it. Situations like this are among the reasons the country needs a functioning executive branch, and all Americans are invested in the presidency’s success in managing the disease’s spread.

The risks of considering the likely political impact of the virus and its economic fallout are already visible in the deranged response to it by some of the president’s political supporters, who—clearly fearing some of the very effects we are describing here—are busy putting out information that may well get people killed. The talk-radio host Rush Limbaugh’s insistence that COVID-19 is nothing more than “the common cold,” and statements by Fox News hosts that frightening news coverage of the virus is aimed only at taking down the president, would be irresponsible in any context. But comments minimizing the harms of the epidemic are particularly dangerous, given that listeners to Limbaugh and viewers of Fox News tend to be older, and elderly people are dramatically more likely to die if they contract the virus.

Our point, rather, is that the challenge President Trump now faces is one he cannot obviously meet with the usual toolkit he has relied on during previous crises. He can meet it only by actually doing the job of president of the United States, which is—in a fundamental sense—a management position that supervises a raft of executive agencies with immense resources to address a wide range of issues. This is exactly the part of the job Trump has never shown the slightest interest in or capacity for. It is the part of the job that he actively disdains.

It is also, alas, the part of the job that implicates the name of the branch of government he heads. The solution to this problem involves faithful—and skillful—execution of the powers of the government. But that solution will require Trump to begin to value the role played by a more traditional president. It is not an exaggeration to say that many lives may depend on his undergoing that transformation.