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.
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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.