But now we’re seeing something that in its way is just as shocking: With the death toll from covid-19 approaching 200,000, Trump is still downplaying the pandemic, in both word and deed. His decisions, it has become clear, are guided not only by his self-interest (as always), but also by an utter contempt for the public and what they are capable of.
The defense that Trump didn’t want to create a panic is complicated by the fact that he tries to create panic all the time, whether it’s panic that caravans of migrants are about to invade Texas or panic that anarchists are coming to burn down suburban neighborhoods. And it’s clear that the panic Trump most worried about was a panic in financial markets.
But even if we were to take him at his word — after all, a broad public panic over covid-19 couldn’t have been good for his reelection — it reflects no better on him.
On Sunday, Trump held an indoor rally in Henderson, Nev., defying a state order limiting the size of such gatherings. Photos of the event show no social distancing at all among thousands of attendees, and only a few people wearing masks. Trump assured the crowd that there’s nothing to worry about. “We will very easily defeat the China virus,” he said. “That’s what’s happening, and we’re already making that turn. We’re making that round beautiful last turn.”
So not only have Trump and his campaign decided to argue that his response to the pandemic was utterly magnificent; today he argues that it’s all but over. Kids should go back to school, businesses should reopen, and we can pack together in indoor rallies.
Now think about this: When caught by the Woodward tapes, he says that back then, when he had knowledge almost no one else did, lying to avoid panic was the appropriate decision. But now everyone knows what he knew then. We know how deadly it is, and that the virus is airborne. The 6.5 million Americans who have been infected could tell you. So what’s the justification for continuing to lie right now?
To answer that, you have to understand how Trump views the public. If there is anything he’s good at, it’s homing in on people’s darkest impulses and worst motivations. Greed, envy, fear, resentment — these are the things on which he built a business career and then a political campaign. His is the con man’s view of human nature, in which we’re all grasping and immoral, and anyone dumb enough to give their life savings to Trump University got no less than what they deserved.
So when a pandemic loomed, the idea of leveling with the public and calling them to action clearly didn’t occur to him. He could have said, “This virus presents a grave danger, but there are steps we can take to minimize the harm. It will not be easy. It will require a common commitment, of the kind we’ve shown in other times of great trial. But if we all act together, we can prevail.”
That’s what leaders in other countries said to their populations. And in many places, they got the common purpose they sought. To take just one example, in the past week, 30 people in Canada have died from covid-19. When you adjust for population, if Americans were dying at the rate Canadians are dying from covid, that would mean we would have had 262 deaths in the past week. The actual number of Americans who died from covid in the past week is more than 5,500, or more than 20 times as much.
But where we are right now, with nearly 200,000 dead and many more to come, is literally the best that Trump thought we were capable of. When he says he didn’t want people to panic, it’s because he assumed that would be our only response. The idea that we might do the right thing if called upon was simply not a realistic possibility as far as he was concerned.
So he chose for us what he thought would be ignorant bliss: lie to the American people, tell them that everything was fine, and hope that as the bodies piled up they wouldn’t get too mad at the person who’s supposed to handle national crises. And that is the strategy he pursues even to this day.
One can justifiably criticize the rosy picture most politicians paint of the American people, in which we are possessed of limitless wisdom, generosity and determination, nothing less than the finest of all human beings anywhere and at any time. But at least one can say that these regular paeans encourage us to embody those virtues.
Trump, on the other hand, never calls us to nurture our better selves. He sees us as the basest of creatures, motivated only by hatred of others and the most impulsive reactions to stimuli. The purpose of his leadership is to channel our ugliness in the direction most beneficial to him, whatever that may be at a given moment.
The wreckage is all around us. With seven weeks until the election, Trump insists not only that this was the best he could do, but also that it was the best America could do. What will it say if the voters decide he’s right?