But I get the sense that this was different. In the aftermath, Trump’s self-excusing lie — claiming he was engaged in sarcasm — was painful to behold. Then a president who had repeatedly bragged about his boffo television ratings during a national crisis — as though the death toll were providing him with good monologue material — was yanked from the daily briefing stage.
The difference this time was not the act in the foreground but rather the accompaniment. Behind Trump’s expected drama, a drum now beats for every lonely, quarantined death from covid-19. More than a thousand beats each day. The president tweets about a favorable poll. Beat. He refers to a prominent woman as a “dog.” Beat. He brags about a golf course he owns. Beat. He attacks one of his predecessors for urging national unity. Beat. He posts a video of Mike Tyson. Beat. He accuses another predecessor of organizing a treasonous deep-state conspiracy against him. Beat. He goes after the “Lamestream Media.” Beat. He throws his intelligence briefers under the bus on coronavirus warnings. Beat. He compares himself to Abraham Lincoln. Beat.
In light of the coronavirus threat, the Trump Show has become sickening and surreal. This is less a presidency than a failing Vegas variety act, trying to keep a dwindling audience with more cleavage and dirtier jokes. The president recently took the side of “very good people” carrying guns, swastikas and nooses in Michigan. But didn’t he already take the side of “very fine people” carrying guns and Confederate flags in 2017 in Charlottesville? Perhaps there is a list of diversionary tactics in the top drawer of the Resolute desk. Is it time to go after a black athlete or a black mayor or a black legislator? How about complaining of rigged elections and hinting at a third presidential term? Or is the moment right to attack Muslims or Mexican migrants?
Trump’s repertoire is not only stale; it now represents the dishonoring of sacred responsibilities. It is increasingly evident that our Neronian president fiddled while portions of America burned. He preferred to live in a land of hopeful dreams and happy talk for several weeks while a pandemic spread, cough by hacking cough. He ignored warnings in the expectation that a virus would respect his political strategy and cooperate in attempts to talk up the stock market. It was a risk he was willing to take — though the consequences have fallen on others.
The U.S. reaction to covid-19 lacked presidential leadership from the beginning. The basics of pandemic response are not a mystery. The country needed a national strategy of testing, tracing and quarantine, including the systematic provision of tests and tracing support where needed. But for months, the United States lagged badly behind the world in testing (and remains far behind Germany and Italy). And out of an estimated national need for 100,000 to 300,000 contact tracers, a recent National Public Radio survey of states found 7,062 currently employed. (South Africa, by way of comparison, has about 28,000 contact tracers.)
This is utter failure by any measure. A pandemic cannot be confronted by the patchwork policies of states, cities and counties. Those divisions mean nothing to the virus. We needed a national effort to provide tests. We need national standards and detailed guidance on economic reopening — not the vague, dumbed-down version the administration dumped on the states. We need federal support, guidance and monitoring to ensure that contact tracing is done well.
One expert on epidemiology told me via email: “I recently listened to a National Academy of Sciences event on covid-19. The head of the Chinese [Center for Disease Control and Prevention] mapped out what they did and how they are approaching reopening — all from a national perspective. A number of European countries also have sophisticated strategies. It makes what the U.S. is doing look like a kindergarten homework assignment. Appalling. Just appalling.”
And what does our president do? He struts and frets and dissembles and whines and mugs for the audience. And always behind his tired act, the beat, beat, beat.