There are no atheists in foxholes, and no libertarians in a pandemic. As the spread of the COVID-19 virus in the United States starts to resemble the exponential outbreaks in countries where the pandemic is more advanced, the American public wants the kind of security that only government can provide. Donald Trump was elected to provide security, whether from the domestic challenge of outsourcing or the foreign challenge of a rising China. In recent days, he has failed in judgment, in leadership and in decision-making. Only after the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic did he address the nation and announce the closure of America’s borders. And he has not advised people to follow the one tactic that can reduce the scale and speed of an epidemic: comprehensive ‘voluntary distancing’.
The federal government should be creating calm and providing security. Instead, in an eerie image of the virus, it has become a mechanism for the spreading of panic and fear. Trump’s press conference on Monday evening was a banana-republic farce. He turned up late, looked peeved at having to attend at all, issued platitudes about the economy, then shuffled off the stage, effectively leaving Mike Pence to address the nation. In his address on Wednesday night, he blamed China and the Europeans for infecting Americans with a ‘foreign virus’, and finally got around to issuing the necessary platitudes on healthcare. Like the distribution of test kits, this may well be too little, too late.
Trump is a clever man, and he picks only the battles he can win. But he cannot win against a virus. People will die, the media will keep a running count, hospitals may get overloaded as they have elsewhere, the economy will plummet, and every single buck will stop where it should, with him. His refusal to address the public health aspects of COVID-19 is petulant and, worse, incompetent. His insistence on puffing up the economy, and his bizarre reiterations of concern for the cruise-ship industry, reminds us that he remains the pitchman for Boomer leisure projects.
It also shows that Trump is just as susceptible to the political power of private money as the professional politicians he derides. In 2008, Barack Obama protected the banks, not the people who put their savings in them. Now, Trump is protecting Wall Street and the airlines and the cruise lines, not the physical safety of the American people. We might expect nothing less from a businessman — except that he campaigned on a promise that his presidency would not be business as usual, and would restore the interests of the people to the heart of government.
Trump has compounded his failure of leadership by tweeting disinformation. He has compared the annual death toll from flu to the current toll from COVID-19, which is medically illiterate. He has thanked the Chinese authorities for their ‘transparency’, while it appears the Chinese authorities were not nearly transparent enough in the early stages of the epidemic. He has floated the theory that warmer weather in April will ‘kill the virus’, an idea contradicted by Dr Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
On February 24, Trump tweeted that the virus was ‘very much under control in the USA’. On February 25, the CDC warned that the virus was spreading. On February 26, Trump claimed, falsely, that the number of cases was ‘going very substantially down’. On February 27, the CDC confirmed the first American case with an unknown source of infection: COVID-19 was now at large in the population. On March 4, Trump told Sean Hannity that he had a ‘hunch’ that the US might ‘have thousands or hundreds of thousands of people that get better just by, you know, sitting around and even going to work — some of them go to work, but they get better’.
‘We have the greatest healthcare system, experts, scientists and doctors anywhere in the world,’ Trump claimed on Wednesday evening. He then foreclosed the obvious criticisms with another banana-republic order to the press: ‘The Media should view this as a time of unity and strength.’
The truth is that we have plenty of experts and scientists, but we also have an expensive healthcare system that fails to cover millions of Americans and whose economic foundations, shoddily laid by Obamacare, are collapsing with Trump’s approval. Trump is not liable for the failure of Obamacare, a shameful exercise in corporatist exploitation. He is, however, responsible for its replacement. His failure to replace it isn’t just bad politics, offering the Democratic nominee a popular policy to campaign on in November; it’s frivolous and irresponsible.
We also have a polity as divided as it has been at any time since the Civil War, and the gap between the rich and poor wider than it was in the Gilded Age. The splits between the left and the right and the top and the bottom leave the moderate middle class exposed. There is nothing around which to unite, nothing strengthening at the center of modern American life: not even a welfare state which, as it does in every other western and western-style democracy, might offer free healthcare at a moment of crisis, and by doing so might prove the strength and legitimacy of the state. Instead, we see lies, cowardice and pandering to big business.
The writing was on the wall weeks ago about COVID-19. Perhaps Trump, who’s generally lucky, will get lucky again, and the graph of the epidemic won’t shoot up in the next couple of weeks as it did in Italy and is now doing everywhere else in Europe. Perhaps he won’t, in which case the 2020 election is wide open, because the ‘Trump economy’ no longer looks like such a great sales pitch. Either way, the words of an earlier writing on the wall for an earlier ruler will not go away, and may yet become the last word on his presidency: mene, mene, tekel, u-farsin: ‘Thou are weighed in the balances, and art found wanting.’
Dominic Green is Life & Arts editor of Spectator USA.