After his unhinged press conference yesterday night, it may be hard to imagine that Trump could get any worse or that his disastrous presidency could cause any more damage. Many governors have taken matters into their own capable hands. America’s social-distancing efforts seem to be somewhat flattening that notorious curve.
But we are in only the first phase of what could be a years-long effort to eradicate this disease. The most challenging days lie ahead, not just in the U.S., but all over the world. Experts predict that even if the summer sees a waning of new COVID-19 cases, the virus will resurge in late fall or early winter, opening up a scenario in which Trump is reelected just as the country is plunged into a fresh outbreak that he is wholly unprepared to manage.
Read: How the pandemic will end
Trump has already proved that he is incapable of carrying out even the most rudimentary obligations to American citizens affected by a disaster. Indeed, he and his team don’t seem to believe that a federal response is even warranted. As Ron Klain, who led the Ebola response under President Barack Obama, has said, the Trump administration is taking an Articles of Confederation approach.
Between the 2016 campaign and now, Trump has gone from “I alone can fix it” to “I don’t take any responsibility at all.” Both those statements reveal Trump’s profound misapprehension of what the presidency is all about. It is not a dictatorship—however benevolent—that can single-handedly solve people’s problems in exchange for fealty. Nor is it a figurehead atop a loose coalition of competing states. It is a position that wields hard and soft power on behalf of the American people—and it must be held by someone who understands that in a global crisis, everyone, including markets and states and ordinary citizens, relies on the federal government to guide a response. If the conductor doesn’t raise her baton, the orchestra slides into chaos.
Laying out a strategy, using federal authority to align the private sector’s capability with the public’s needs, guiding state responses, publishing reliable data and information, setting a tone both measured and optimistic—that is the president’s job. Despite the purported breakdown of the liberal international order, the world still sheepishly glances in our direction, hoping that a steady hand might convene the alliances that exist precisely to grapple with, say, a global pandemic.
From the Berlin airlift to the Paris climate accords, American leadership has, in the past, galvanized the world to take on global challenges—not with brute force, but with a collaborative spirit that we are, indeed, all in this together. China is attempting to fill that vacuum, but its dictatorial impulse to hide Wuhan’s initial outbreak has left it with little credibility. Amid the chaos, nationalist governments, including our own, are flouting the cooperation that scientists and public-health experts say is crucial to manufacturing essential equipment and medicine, researching vaccines and treatment, and managing the outbreak across borders. The result will be a virus that is never quite eradicated, circulating around the globe in an endless game of whack-a-mole.