Donald Trump’s entire repertoire had long been familiar to Americans by the time he decided to address the nation on the evening of March 11, 2020, about the pandemic of the novel coronavirus. We knew Trump’s range: government by gesture; obfuscation and lying; self-praise; stoking fear and issuing threats. He had repeatedly dismissed the coronavirus as a minor flu and even a hoax; he had predicted that it would miraculously vanish. It had been two months since China, where the disease appeared first, had made the genetic code of the virus publicly available. The United States had wasted most of that time. Hospitals were not equipped to face the looming onslaught of patients. Protective equipment was in short supply. Essential information had been kept secret by the White House. Testing was not available. Now the virus was spreading in the country, it was too late for prevention, and no one had a plan for mitigation or suppression. Panic was starting to rise in Washington state, where the first American deaths occurred, in California, New York, and elsewhere. Trump finally appeared on television.
He performed his entire repertoire. He announced that he was banning travelers coming in from Europe – this was his grand gesture. He boasted of ‘responding with great speed and professionalism,’ promised widespread testing and effective antiviral therapies, and asserted that insurance companies would waive all copayments for treatments; this was the obfuscation and lying. These pledges blended seamlessly with self-praise, which included calling the American effort ‘the most aggressive and comprehensive,’ claiming to have handled the epidemic better than European countries had, and assuring his audience that the United States was well prepared. None of this was true. Finally, the fearmongering came when Trump called Covid-19 a ‘foreign virus,’ pointing the finger at Europe. Soon, he would home in on a better name – ‘the Chinese virus’ – and hate crimes against Asian-Americans would spike.
Trump apparently read from a teleprompter that night. He sounded grave. This was, in other words, one of those times when Trump sounded presidential to some people, because he didn’t sound entirely deranged. For example, former Ohio governor John Kasich, a Republican, defended Trump on CNN, saying that ‘he did fine,’ in part because he read from a script. But precisely because Trump was not at his worst – just his ordinary obfuscating and self-aggrandizing self – in the extraordinary situation of the pandemic, what we were witnessing was peak Trump.
Over the next few weeks, Trump would shirk responsibility for the crisis, at one point saying literally, ‘No, I don’t take responsibility at all,’ when he was asked about a lack of access to testing. He would tell governors to figure out their own ways of procuring supplies, and he would offer no guidance on policy. He would take the podium at the White House during almost daily briefings and issue bogus medical advice, such as extolling the virtues of untested drugs, which some people then rushed to use. He would resist calls to invoke the Defense Production Act, to compel companies to turn their facilities over to manufacturing essential equipment, evidently for fear of cutting into the profits of his corporate cronies. All along, he would praise his own intelligence and approach. The television networks would broadcast these sessions live; the newspapers would report on them, and Trump’s other coronavirus-related pronouncements, as though they were the stuff of an intelligible presidency, with positions, principles, and a strategy. As a result, even as hospitals across the country buckled, people died, and the economy tanked, more than half of all Americans claimed to approve of Trump’s response to the pandemic.
Some people compared the Trumpian response to Covid-19 to the Soviet government’s response to the catastrophic accident at the Chernobyl power plant in 1986. For once, such a comparison was not far-fetched. The people most at risk were denied necessary, potentially lifesaving information, and this was the government’s failure; there was rumor and fear on the one hand and dangerous oblivion on the other. And, of course, there was unconscionable, preventable tragedy. To be sure, Americans in 2020 had vastly more access to information than did Soviet citizens in 1986. But the Trump administration shared two key features with the Soviet government: utter disregard for human life and a monomaniacal focus on pleasing the leader, to make him appear unerring and all-powerful. These are the features of autocratic leadership. In the three years of his presidency, even before the coronavirus pandemic, Trump had come closer to achieving autocratic rule than most people would have thought possible. This is a book about that transformation – and about the hope we may yet have for emerging from Trumpism.
Photograph © dmbosstone