The rosy sheen that Trump, Kudlow, and other White House officials have tried to express about the economic impact of the coronavirus outbreak has now collided with reality: The coronavirus is spreading, quickly, to more countries. It is killing more people than expected and wreaking havoc on global supply chains. Efforts to detect and contain it have failed. . . .Trump is highly concerned about the market and has encouraged aides not to give predictions that might cause further tremors. He is expected to talk to officials on Wednesday, said aides, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations.
Mind you, the president is not interested in the science, in the details of addressing the epidemic, in hiring the right people or anything else with which normal presidents would concern themselves. He is interested that the markets are spooked, which could hurt his reelection chances. It never seems to occur to this crowd that if you hire the best people, stick to the facts and punish corruption and incompetence, the results will speak for themselves. But wasn’t this always Trump’s business style? Hype the steaks, sell chewy meat. Hype the airline, go bust. Hype the university, don’t deliver.
Trump’s penchant for lying and self-promotion gives rise to the understandable concern that he is not telling us the truth about the virus, allowing scientists to speak openly or taking sufficiently bold action to stop what is becoming a fast-moving disaster. (“White House officials’ efforts to contain the economic fallout from the coronavirus have created new political hazards, as they publicly downplay the threat while other federal officials with a background in health and diseases are warning of more severe consequences for inaction.”) At times like this, you do wish loyalty were not the sole qualification for a job in the administration and that Trump’s reelection (which he pegs to the stock market) did not swamp basic issues of national security and public safety.
This is what authoritarian states do in a disaster (see: Chernobyl). The priority is on maintaining the facade of infallibility; the result is a worse disaster that would have been preventable had leaders understood the most valuable tool in disasters is often transparency and the free flow of quality information.
Trump has always treated natural disasters as platforms for photo-ops and self-congratulation (as in Alabama, where he is popular), or for carrying out vendettas (as when a mainly Democratic locale such as California or Puerto Rico is involved). We have learned that the disasters Trump touts (A caravan invasion!) can be less than what they appear. The pretexts for action (Imminent threat of attack by Iranian Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani!) do not always check out. The president’s priorities are often skewed so that legitimate needs (e.g., military housing) take a back seat to his political stunts (the border wall). His budget cuts (e.g., foreign aid to countries from which refugees are fleeing) are often not aligned with our budget needs.
On Monday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), in a written statement, blasted Trump. “The President’s request for coronavirus response funding is long overdue and completely inadequate to the scale of this emergency,” she said. “For almost two years, the Trump Administration has left critical positions in charge of managing pandemics at the National Security Council and the Department of Homeland Security vacant. His most recent budget called for slashing funding for the Centers for Disease Control, which is on the frontlines of this emergency. And now, the President is compounding our vulnerabilities by seeking to ransack funds still needed to keep Ebola in check.” In other words, Trump has neglected the details of governance, put people in charge who are not held accountable for their results and tried to make up with it by spewing gibberish.
Voters expect the government to get fundamental concerns about public health and safety right. President George W. Bush never recovered from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 because Americans saw the results of incompetent, out-of-touch leaders who tried to put a happy face on a disaster. (“Brownie, you’re doing a heckuva job.”) Trump should be worried by a lot more than the stock market. The public is seeing the price they pay for a narcissistic and utterly incompetent president. In cases like this, it is the president who takes the blame.