But there’s still more that Democrats could be saying. That’s because Trump has exposed a major leadership weakness, one that goes well beyond just the coronavirus response.
The weakness in question: Trump’s chronic inability to admit that anything on his watch is less than stupendously wonderful. This pathology is deeply ingrained in this presidency. It infects everything from his depictions of the economy to his insane demands of border officials, in addition to (as we’re now seeing) the government’s handling of a public health crisis.
Highlighting this provides a way to integrate criticism of Trump’s management failures with an indictment of his hideous character flaws —his towering dishonesty and megalomania. In this telling, those failings are not just the latest ugly installment of the Daily Trump Show. They’re also shortcomings that threaten major real-world consequences.
A debate over Trump’s handling of the epidemic is one that his propagandists badly want to avoid — so they’re casting all criticism of it as only reflecting a desire to harm Trump himself. Numerous Republicans and right-wing media figures have made variations of this claim.
Perhaps worst of all, Donald Trump Jr. is claiming that Democrats want “millions” to die of coronavirus to end Trump’s “streak of winning.” In so doing, Trump the Younger usefully unmasked his reprehensible instinct to see the prospect of mass U.S. deaths mainly through the prism of how this would impact the president politically.
And yet, on CNN’s “State of the Union,” Vice President Pence actually defended this sentiment as “understandable.” Why? Because it was a response to … criticism of Trump, which is apparently so intolerable that it justifies even this.
This cultish prioritization of protecting Trump above all else, of course, flows from the tone that Trump himself has set. But the case that Democrats can now make is that this very megalomania is itself corroding the government’s ability to handle this crisis.
Trump’s megalomania poses a danger
The Post’s extraordinary weekend report on our evolving response to the crisis underscores the point. Trump badly wanted to minimize coronavirus’s seriousness — it was rattling the markets, which Trump views as a crucial gauge of his reelection chances.
And so, Trump fumed as he watched his own health officials inform the country about the seriousness of the threat, considering this to be alarmist. He raged against the media for treating him unfairly, confirming again that everything gets filtered through how it personally impacts him.
As The Post details, that’s the crucial backstory to what happened next: Trump contradicted his own officials by downplaying the dangers posed. And Trump put Pence in charge of the response after declining to bring in an outside coordinating “czar," in part because he worried that this person might be disloyal — that is, that he or she would tell the country the truth in a way that didn’t reflect well on him.
This is likely to have real consequences.
With a second American dying from coronavirus, officials now fear that the spread on the West Coast due purely to transmission in the community, not through foreign travel, may have been far more severe than we knew, and may have gone undetected.
In a widely cited Twitter thread, Jeremy Konyndyk, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development, explained that Trump’s “preferences,” his rage at those who suggested the outbreak might be more serious than he wished it to be, probably colored the administration’s response in subtle ways, potentially leading to this lapse in detection.
Time will tell whether this reading is correct. But we already know Trump’s megalomaniacal insistence on making everything about him — and his intertwined belief that he can magically mold reality to his benefit — surely threatens to hamper our response in untold ways.
The Democratic criticisms
The presidential candidates are now hitting Trump over his coronavirus response. Joe Biden is faulting its managerial incompetence. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) is warning of economic instability. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) is underscoring his case for Medicare-for-all.
And Bloomberg’s new TV ad notes that the president’s role amid such crises is to “marshal facts and expertise,” and to inculcate public confidence that the administration is being “transparent” about the response and that “professionals are in charge.”
From all this, it’s only a short leap to making the point that a major impediment to achieving this is Trump’s pathological need to cast everything on his watch as smashingly marvelous.
We’ve seen this on numerous fronts: In a fury over soaring migration numbers, Trump demanded that border officials break the law. He misled Ohio residents about the health of the manufacturing economy. To mask his trade war carnage, he told farmers to get bigger tractors, and regularly and falsely claims that China, not the U.S. consumer, is paying his tariffs.
This criticism will stand even if officials do ultimately manage coronavirus effectively. That’s because such an eventuality will effectively take place behind Trump’s back — officials will be succeeding despite the obstacles created by his pathologies.
That’s a case Democrats should not shy away from making, despite screams that they must not “politicize” the outbreak. This is exactly the debate the country needs right now — even or especially in the very political context of the presidential race.