Donald Trump’s Consistent Unreliability on COVID, and Everything Else

Last February 7th, at five-thirty in the morning, Donald Trump tweeted praise for China’s “great discipline” in fighting the coronavirus ...


Last February 7th, at five-thirty in the morning, Donald Trump tweeted praise for China’s “great discipline” in fighting the coronavirus and predicted that Xi Jinping would be “successful, especially as the weather starts to warm & the virus hopefully becomes weaker, and then gone.” Later that day, the President, in an interview with Bob Woodward, acknowledged that the virus was serious, but said, “I think that that goes away in two months with the heat.” On February 24th, as infections in America increased, he tweeted, “The Coronavirus is very much under control in the USA.” (“I wanted to always play it down,” he later said, according to Woodward’s book “Rage.”)

It is painful to reflect today on the tens of thousands of lives that might have been saved if a less reality-challenged President occupied the White House. Trump has been consistently unreliable across the eight-month arc of our national crisis. Last week, as he recuperated from his own bout of COVID-19, he unleashed a fresh torrent of tweets and videos. These offered transparent nonsense (“Maybe I’m immune”) and also dangerous lies, such as the claim that for most people the coronavirus is “far less lethal!!!” than the seasonal flu. (Scientists report that the coronavirus is about six times more deadly than the typical flu virus.) “He’s in denial, as he was right from the start,” Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House, said last Wednesday, as she tried to negotiate with Trump over a new economic-stimulus package. She added, “I could never explain to you any rational, linear path of action on the part of the President.”

Even after four years of Trump shocks, the operatic dénouement of his reëlection campaign has been staggering. With early voting already begun, the President and the First Lady are both under care for covid-19, and some three dozen White House employees, advisers, and recent guests have tested positive. (The sickened aides include a military officer who followed Trump around with the “football” containing the codes that would enable him to launch a nuclear attack.) It remains unclear just how the outbreak began and spread, but such an occurrence was perhaps inevitable, given the Administration’s refusal to require masks and physical distancing in the White House and at public events. Eventually, journalists and biographers will sort out exactly what the President knew about his own possible contagiousness before October 2nd, the day he announced that he had tested positive—and how he handled any risk that he might infect others. On October 4th, during his hospitalization at Walter Reed, when he was almost certainly contagious, he staged a photo op in which he was driven around in an S.U.V. and waved to onlookers. At least two Secret Service agents were required to join him in the sealed, armored vehicle, putting them at risk of exposure. It was an inane campaign stunt, and a study in selfishness.

The next day, in a made-for-TV return to the White House, Trump stood on the Truman Balcony and peeled a cloth mask from his face. But what was the point? His disdain for public-health guidelines often defies political logic. In a new poll from National Geographic and Morning Consult, three-quarters of Americans say that they wear a mask every time they leave home, a figure that has risen by nearly twenty-five per cent since July. According to a late-summer survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation, six in ten people think that the worst of the pandemic is yet to come, but last week Trump urged Americans not to let the coronavirus “dominate your life” and suggested “learning to live” with it. After the trauma of 2016, Democrats may be reluctant to accept that Trump could be as severely misguided about his reëlection messaging as he is about so much else—such as, say, his failure to stand up to the far right. On Thursday night, he tweeted, “Governor Whitmer—open up your state, open up your schools, and open up your churches!,” just hours after members of a Michigan militia were charged with plotting to kidnap her.

National polling averages put Joe Biden well ahead in the race, but an upset is, given the importance of the Electoral College, a real possibility. Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight site, which publishes an obsessed-over election-forecast model, predicted last week that Trump had about a one-in-six chance of winning the Electoral College—not great odds, from the President’s vantage, but still only a lucky roll of a die. For all his bravado, though, Trump surely understands that he is in a hole. His campaign to discredit the election result in advance suggests that, if the margin is narrow, he and his Republican allies will contest the outcome, and hope that the courts throw it Trump’s way.

Will it be close? Since Biden won the Democratic nomination, the election has played out mainly as a referendum on Trump’s record as President. His dissembling about the coronavirus is in plain view, in his tweets and his Fox News interviews. On Thursday, he told Maria Bartiromo, on Fox Business, that he may have been infected by Gold Star families who “want to kiss me.” He added that “I’m a perfect physical specimen and I’m extremely young,” whereas “Joe’s not lasting two months as President, O.K., that’s my opinion.” On Friday, ABC reported that Trump planned to hold a rally with hundreds of people on the South Lawn on Saturday, less than ten days after his infection was made public. His campaign announced that he would also hold one in an airport hangar in Florida on Monday.

The essence of Trump’s failure during the pandemic does not lie with his Administration’s crisis management, botched as that has been; it is the result of his character. “I’m a total act and I don’t understand why people don’t get it,” Trump told Anthony Scaramucci, his former communications adviser, according to “A Very Stable Genius,” by Philip Rucker and Carol Leonnig.

Donald Trump and Joe Biden offer starkly different visions of America, but the most important question in this election is whether voters will affirm the President in his delusions for another four years, allowing him to further his anti-democratic instincts and push against the limits of his power. The electorate is battered, divided, and demoralized; this summer, according to Gallup, Americans reported a level of dissatisfaction with how things are going in the country comparable to that of December, 2008, in the grip of the Great Recession. Democracies endure because of their capacity for self-correction. In the postwar era, we have never required one so desperately. ♦

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Newsrust: Donald Trump’s Consistent Unreliability on COVID, and Everything Else
Donald Trump’s Consistent Unreliability on COVID, and Everything Else
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