When the story of the novel coronavirus is written, if anyone is around to do so, it will feature a rogue's gallery of participants that will rank among history's most reprehensible leaders.
And at the top will be the one person most influential in carving out the path on which America is now stumbling and dying: Donald J. Trump.
Throughout his long and checkered career as money-launderer, grifter, and cheat—and especially over the past two weeks—he has tried to revise history; unfortunately the survivors of this current catastrophe will eventually revise his.
Think back. Today is March 24. Just two months ago the president answered a question as to his concerns for the virus like this: "No. Not at all. And we have it totally under control. It’s one person coming in from China, and we have it under control. It’s going to be just fine.”
Two months ago—it might as well have been two centuries, so much has happened since.
On that day the illness had already spread to four countries, and yet passenger travel between the United States and China—to and from Wuhan itself (then the epicenter)—continued unabated. Eight days later Trump initiated a travel ban with China—his only positive action, but one that came after thousands of travelers from China by way of everywhere had entered the U.S.
On January 31 when Trump convinced Sean Hannity that the virus had pretty much been shut down, the number of cases had doubled to 15,000 in three days' time.
Not if but when
Amid warnings of a pandemic and the constant repetition from experts that it was not a question of if, but when, Trump remained dismissive, trusting his gut. When the first W.H.O. test kits produced a glitch, Trump refused to remove regulations that prevented private hospitals and labs from quickly developing their own tests. It was within his purview; instead he blamed his predecessor—a palpable and provable lie. This was a mess of Trump's own making, one he could have mitigated with a pen stroke. He held back: the virus did not.
On February 10 we still lived in a normal country. We were going to work, going to the movies, going to restaurants, and going to grocery stores where groceries remained available. Hoarding had begun on a small scale, but no one stepped in to stop it in time because the president was promising that by April it would all miraculously go away.
On February 19 he said that we had 12 victims at one point but that they're all getting better. A lie.
February 26—“We’re going down, not up. We’re going very substantially down, not up.” The same lie twice.
February 29—a vaccine will be available readily and rapidly. Another lie. On that day there were 83,403 confirmed cases in 55 countries. That part was true.
America as a sanctuary dissolves
Yet we still lived in a normal country, changing our behavior in infinitesimal ways—no shaking hands or hugging. But the band played on because our president was fearful of spooking the markets with talk of a pandemic. He warned nobody, although the warnings were known by the Washington inner circles, several of whose members dumped stock in anticipation of the coming crash. Even when it became apparent that the elderly faced the greatest risk, the president never advised them to be especially careful. "We're going down, not up." Some of us began to realize that his words were more apocalyptic than we had thought.
During the George W. Bush presidency the federal government developed a plan to meet a public health emergency. Five rules. Be first, be right, be credible, show respect, and promote action. Trump broke every one before March 2, when he told Sean Hannity this: "We’re talking about a much smaller range” of deaths than from the flu. The rule breaking and the lies continued.
March 6—Anybody who wants a test can get a test. Lie.
March 10—just stay calm, it'll go away. Lie.
March 11—the newly presidential Trump makes an Oval Office speech full of self-congratulations, blame-shifting, and misinformation. Immediately afterwards his aides have to correct it. One truth—two lies. The presidential Trump is the same as the petty, timorous, and deceitful one we'd come to know.
March 15—it becomes obvious that isolation is the only way to slow down the spread of the virus. But while major cities take emergency measures, beachgoers fill Florida's shoreline. It is the most blatant proof of the need for federally standardized behavioral guidelines. Trump ignores it. When spring break ends the revelers carry the virus home with them in cars, buses, and planes. (Just as an aside, my house sits beneath the Bradley International approach pattern, and a phone app tells me where the planes overhead have come from. Until this week when almost all flights have stopped, their source was invariably Miami, Orlando, Tampa, or Fort Lauderdale. When they flew over at 5000 feet, all I could envision was a tube filled with virus waiting to find new hosts. About fifteen minutes later each of those planes was on the ground.)
Our wartime president
March 18—Trump anoints himself with a new title: wartime president. If it weren't so tragic it would be funny, considering he had already lost the war through mismanagement, ignorance, and stupidity. “We must sacrifice together because we are all in this together," he said, "and we will come through together.” The stock market revives at his words, but the next day, and the next, when his words result in no concrete actions, the markets collapse again.
Even this past Sunday he showed the hesitation of a coward—he doesn't want to force companies (most of whose CEOs are his supporters) to make the essential, necessary medical supplies; he wants companies to do it voluntarily. He doesn't understand that a wartime president takes charge and brooks no refusal: Stay inside. Don't congregate. Break the rules and face arrest. (In Italy a party was planned in open defiance of the rules to keep a safe distance. In response the authorities promised to arrive at that party with a flamethrower. The party was canceled. Perhaps there's a middle ground somewhere between laissez-faire and military weapons. I wish Trump would find it.
He rambles and presents wishes as facts, but a wartime president is firm: this company WILL sew masks. This manufacturer WILL produce respirators. Anyone caught hoarding or price-gouging or flaunting the stay-at-home laws WILL be prosecuted. That's what a wartime president does—he doesn't pick fights with reporters or congratulate himself on a job well done when it's not. And comparing himself to George Washington proves that not only is Trump inept and out of touch, but that he's intellectually limited and emotionally stilted.
There's blame to go around, but there's a buck to stop—Pence could stop it
China is complicit for delaying the news of the virus, and other countries have mismanaged the outbreak. But many, like Hong Kong and Singapore, have not. It's a matter of leadership—of leveling with the citizens and giving them the bad news they need to hear. Trump's incompetence and misinformation—his happy talk and diminution of the danger— have cost lives and will cost many more. We all know this. Congress knows this. And who will die in the greatest numbers? The very people who still don't realize that Trump is a pathological liar—the ones who still believe he gives a damn about them.
And at his most duplicitous and cynical, he has invoked the Defense Production Act but not enacted it. Why not? Because if he were to enact it and supplies remained short, he would take the blame, and Donald J. Trump takes no blame. At best the D.P.A. cannot come in time to save victims and health care workers in New York or California, Boston or Chicago. Those deaths are due to earlier administration inaction. But T. S. Eliot's cruelest month, April, promises to be especially cruel this year, and without medical supplies, the death toll will reach well into the thousands, maybe the tens or hundreds of thousands. The wartime Trump, like peacetime Trump before him, can bluster and criticize and shift blame, but he cannot lead.
But we can. Instead of fretting over the D.P.A., it's time to revisit discussions of the 25th Amendment. We currently have a president who is unable to "discharge the powers and duties of his office," and while I don't look forward to Mike Pence as my Commander-in-Chief, Pence knows how to govern and how to listen. He also has some political credibility, and he lacks the egotistical neediness of the current officeholder. The Democrats in Congress know this; the Republicans do also. It has to be spoken aloud by all our elected officials, and it has to happen fast. Many experts claim that the next two to three weeks are crucial—a missed opportunity may mean years of recession and want. Invoking the 25th amendment, then carrying out the process does not occur overnight, but if projections are true and April will be worse than March, we cannot afford to face that new month with Trump in charge. Time is wasting.
A few weeks back the Senate backed down on impeachment, a decision that left no blood on their hands. Now there's plenty of blood and there will be more. Pence is not a stupid man—he knows that initiating an act to remove the president may be the end of his current political career. But when he's looked upon as the man who saved the United States, he may have a new and better one. He could actually be our wartime president, but it would require a tremendous act of courage Throughout history, in every crisis, we've been able to find such leaders. Why not now?