Donald Trump has decided to move on. It has been barely eight weeks since the weekend in the middle of March when he decided to put his coronavirus-denial days behind him and embrace the role of a Wartime President, but apparently he has had enough.
Wars and pandemics are the kind of events that traditionally galvanize nations behind their leaders. The image of George W. Bush speaking into a megaphone from the ashes of the World Trade Center sent his approval ratings into the stratosphere, and, for a brief moment, it seemed like the pandemic might do the same for Donald Trump. It’s not so hard, really: Tell the truth, acknowledge people’s fears and anxiety, paint a vision of a path forward. I recall a friend of mine commenting after the President’s first day leading the task force briefings that he actually seemed prepared to become the leader the moment demanded.
It was never destined to last. By the end of that first week, Trump had reverted to form, and before long those daily briefings became just one more platform for his war with the press, assailing his enemies, and trumpeting his own virtues. 100 Americans had died as of March 16th, when the President pushed Mike Pence to the side and took over the leadership of the Pandemic Tax Force. By the time he decided to move on from his Wartime President stint, 80,000 had died.
The facts surrounding the tens of thousands of people who needlessly died is hard to spin. Think what you will about the culpability of China’s government for the global pandemic and economic depression looming in its wake, the magnitude of death and destruction experienced here at home lies squarely in Donald Trump’s lap. While hosts on Fox News and Trump’s army across the right-wing blogosphere continue to call out China’s six-day delay in mid-January in informing the Chinese public and the world about the risks presented by the virus, the impact of that delay pales in comparison with the President’s abject failure in the ensuing months to uphold his oath to preserve and protect the American people.
Faced with a crisis beyond most people’s imagination, Trump has proven to be incapable of charting a path forward. Making tough choices and living with the consequences is an essential challenge of presidential leadership that is anathema to him. Charting a national strategy as the pandemic grew in force was inherently replete with risks — to choose a plan implied accountability for outcomes — and did not fit with his need to continually calibrate how any series of actions would play with his base, and the overarching imperative of enhancing his standing in political polls. Instead, time and again, he has found himself behind the curve, caught having to defend his past actions, or lies or digressions seemingly invented in the moment.
The President’s refusal to orchestrate anything approaching a focused national response to the pandemic is often compared to the successful strategy employed in South Korea — a point emphasized by Mitt Romney at the Senate hearing this week in his harsh rebuke of Trump’s testing tsar Admiral Brett Giroir. The two democratic nations identified their first cases of Covid-19 a day apart in mid-January. South Korea moved quickly to implement the internationally accepted public health protocols at the time to contain the spread of the virus, including testing, temperature taking, contact tracing, and social distancing. In contrast, while there was widespread discussion of these steps within the Trump administration — by early March, FEMA was prepared to implement a 21-day national shutdown — the implementation of a national pandemic strategy was suppressed by a president who preferred to jawbone the stock markets, while hoping that the virus would simply go away.
As illustrated in the graph here, the difference in the outcomes between South Korea and the United States from the point in January when the first cases of Covid-19 were identified has been staggering. As of today, we have suffered 85,000 deaths in a population of 331 million, while South Korea — a far more densely populated nation with 51 million people in an area the size of Indiana — has had only 260 deaths. South Korea might be a fair comparison or it might not be — some have argued that Asian countries had an advantage, as a series of similar flu epidemics over recent years have sensitized their populations and politicians to the importance of taking pandemic threats seriously — but suffice it to say that no other nation has suffered the scale of unnecessary deaths as ours.
The simple truth is that South Korea is more the rule than the exception in terms of strategy and results. In the months since January, when the world was informed about the threat posed by the coronavirus, small nations and large took the threat seriously. From the central African nation of Rwanda — just two decades removed from one of the most violent civil wars in recent history, yet able nonetheless to implement a cohesive national strategy — to advanced industrial nations like Germany, Canada, South Korea (and, yes, Sweden) nations took that information and acted on it. There was no mystery about the tactics that countries deployed — testing, monitoring temperatures, contact tracing and social distancing — the defining issue was leadership.
Those who developed a national strategy and acted early have fared comparatively well. Those who tried to ignore the threat or kicked the can down the road for political reasons did worse. If the United States had taken action early and achieved South Korea’s mortality rate per million population, 1,700 Americans would have died and 81,000 deaths would have been avoided. If one believes Germany or Canada are more reasonable comparisons, 40,000 to 50,000 deaths would have been avoided.
At the Senate hearings this week, Rand Paul pointed to Sweden as a model of how the United States could have responded, or could opt to respond going forward. Unlike most other countries in Europe, Sweden chose to adopt what has been widely viewed as a laissez faire approach to the virus. Paul’s questions reflect a degree of misunderstanding of how Sweden responded. As noted above, Sweden did respond early to the virus threat by instituting widespread testing and contact tracing early on. The distinction was that in lieu of mandates and shutdowns, Swedish epidemiologists and government officials asked the public to voluntarily practice social distancing, work at home when possible, and curtail leisure travel, with the objective of instituting practices that would be sustainable over the long-term. It was not an approach built around a libertarianism ethos, as Senator Paul and others have suggested, but one built on the belief that Swede’s would follow those directions and seek to do the right thing.
In terms of outcomes, the number of deaths per million in Sweden would project to an additional 30,000 deaths in the United States. The larger point is that the Swedish approach reflected a deliberate national strategy, in contrast to the United States where the President has not only opted out of having a national strategy, but reveled in his ability to instigate protests against the strategies that individual states employed in the absence of federal action or leadership. There is no small irony in hearing Rand Paul and other conservatives lash out at state-level action. One might imagine that proponents of federalism and states-rights would celebrate states taking the lead in confronting the pandemic, rather than cheering the President on as he has actively sought to undermine the actions of democratically elected state governments.
Listening to Boris Johnson this weekend thoughtfully laying out a systemic approach to reopening the British economy — along with the now well-worn steps of testing and contact tracing — was a reminder of the leadership that we do not have. Johnson may have modeled his political rise after that of Donald Trump, but when it came time to bring his nation together as it struggles to overcome the pandemic and rebuild the British economy, he realized that it was time to part ways from his erstwhile mentor. Even as Donald Trump grudgingly acquiesced to the recommendations of his public health advisors to encourage social distancing, wearing masks and the like, he has made every effort to signal to his base his defiance of those recommendations. At his varied White House events since the global outbreak emerged, he has resisted those protocols at every turn. And his base has received the message, as conforming to those practices — to wear or not to wear a face mask — has become a statement of whether one stood with the President, or with all those who have been working so assiduously to bring him down.
This week, however, gave the lie to Trump’s pretenses. As the coronavirus found its way into the West Wing, the President was quick to insist on adherence to those practices to protect himself that he has so assiduously worked to impede across the country. In the White House today, every person is tested for Covid-19 at least daily; everyone has their temperature taken regularly; and contact tracing of those infected has become the norm. In his public appearances, the President continues to project the pretense of casual indifference to the virus — it is just the flu, after all — while behind the scenes he demands adherence to all of those public health practices that might have saved tens of thousands of lives, and mitigated the depth and duration of the economic downturn that is now upon us.
“We have to be warriors,” Donald Trump said the other day as he called on Americans to be willing to take risks to restore the economy in the coming months. Those words marked the depth of his cynicism and hypocrisy. It remains a mystery how his followers fail to understand this simple truth: this President is no warrior and the only interest he has in mind is his own. When he calls on them to take risks, there is no “we” about it. As he calls on his them to defy the most basic recommendations of his own experts, to eschew the practices now protecting him in the White House, and to put their lives and those of their families at risk, he will not be manning the ramparts beside them. He will be snug at home, protecting himself in an increasingly tight cocoon of those protective measures he has for so long deemed unnecessary for the rest of us.
Follow David Paul on Twitter @dpaul. He is working on a book, with a working title of “FedExit! To Save Our Democracy, It’s Time to Let Alabama Be Alabama and Set California Free.”
Artwork by Joe Dworetzky. Check out Joe’s political cartooning at www.jayduret.com. Follow him on Twitter @jayduret or Instagram at @joefaces.