The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The covid-19 pandemic is Trump’s legacy. He can still salvage a shred of his reputation.

Health-care workers staff a covid testing site in Eau Claire, Wis., on Nov. 21. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

President Trump's shameful legacy will be the needless death and vast devastation of the covid-19 pandemic.

 More than 3,100 Americans died from the novel coronavirus on Wednesday, a shocking all-time high, with the virus currently the nation's leading cause of death. The health and economic impacts of covid-19 were always going to be brutal, but Trump made everything much worse than it had to be. And he has capped his mismanagement of the crisis by making it more difficult not just to persuade Americans to comply with life-saving preventative efforts but by also sowing doubt about the vaccines that are the way out of this crisis. 

The worst thing Trump did — and continues to do — is to treat the virus less like a threat to the nation and more like a danger to his own political and psychological well-being. From the beginning, he listened to the advisers who told him what he wanted to hear — that it wouldn't be so bad (though epidemiologists said otherwise), that we could achieve some sort of herd immunity (though infectious-disease specialists said this was madness), that the disease would magically "go away" in time for the election (though all realistic people said this was pure fantasy).

Trump could have used his megaphone and his dominance of the Republican Party to push for consistent, nationwide rules for mandates and shutdowns. If he had called last spring for universal mask-wearing, for example, and driven that message home with his loyal MAGA followers, Republican governors such as Ron DeSantis of Florida, Greg Abbott of Texas and even Kristi Noem of South Dakota likely would have had no choice but to go along or face the wrath of constituents who are more loyal to Trump than to them.

Full coverage of the coronavirus pandemic

Instead, Trump did the opposite. When influential GOP voices began to treat masks and business closures not as public health measures but as threats to liberty, Trump encouraged these self-destructive attitudes because his base liked them. He led his supporters to believe that the refusal to wear a mask was somehow an act of bravery, the refusal to practice social distancing somehow a declaration of independence. Rather than try to contain the virus, he literally encouraged its spread.

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As the beneficial impact of the first stimulus and relief package wore off — and officials such as Federal Reserve Chair Jerome H. Powell practically begged for more tools to stanch the bleeding — Trump did nothing. If he has enough power over Republican senators to make them afraid to recognize Joe Biden as president-elect, he has more than enough juice to push them to provide real relief for desperate individuals and small businesses that have reached the point of ruin.

So here we are. Covid-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths are climbing rapidly, making the spring's pessimists seem like winter's optimists. The measures that could quell the surge — masks and shutdowns — have become politicized. There is only a tenuous chance of more economic aid before Inauguration Day, and then not enough of it.

We should be celebrating the success of the administration's Operation Warp Speed in shepherding the development of multiple vaccines, some of which involve groundbreaking medical technology, in record time. Instead, we have to worry about whether enough Americans will agree to take the vaccine to guarantee the level of immunity needed for a return to normal life.

Is it fair to blame so much of this on Trump? Unfortunately, yes. Too many of his supporters don't believe the pandemic is real and seem likely to see vaccines as not just unnecessary but another restriction on their freedoms. And Trump's treatment of the scientific and regulatory process has undermined many Americans' trust in the guardrails that are supposed to keep them safe.

Trump wants to personally take credit for the rapid development of apparently safe and effective vaccines. I say fine, whatever, give him all the credit he craves — if, and only if, he does what he can to reach the people who are still listening to him, and to convince them that they ought to get vaccinated, if only as a way of giving Trump one final win.

That messaging won't reach anyone who is concerned that Trump has interfered with the process of developing and approving these vaccines; it'll be up to figures such as Anthony S. Fauci, former president Barack Obama and incoming President and Vice President Joe Biden and Kamala D. Harris to allay their concerns. That's still a lot of damage to undo, but Trump was always going to leave an enormous amount of wreckage behind him. The most we can ask of him now is that he clean up a tiny fraction of it, even if only in his own self-interest.

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Read more:

Read a letter in response to this piece: Trump’s real legacy will be all those deaths from the coronavirus

Submit a question for Eugene Robinson’s Dec. 15 live chat

Read the transcript of Eugene Robinson Dec. 8 live chat: Same old same old — with two big exceptions

Eugene Robinson: The Trump administration’s covid-19 message: You’re on your own. Try not to die.

The Post’s View: Trump is right: He can’t contain the virus. But a better president could.

Michael Gerson: Trump is engaging in U.S. history’s deadliest-ever sulk

Leana S. Wen: Two scenarios could derail trust in the vaccines. Here’s how we must prepare for them.

Jennifer Rubin: The price of Republicans’ war on reality: Vaccine denial

Coronavirus: What you need to know

Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 5 and older get an updated covid booster shot. New federal data shows adults who received the updated shots cut their risk of being hospitalized with covid-19 by 50 percent. Here’s guidance on when you should get the omicron booster and how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections.

New covid variant: The XBB.1.5 variant is a highly transmissible descendant of omicron that is now estimated to cause about half of new infections in the country. We answered some frequently asked questions about the bivalent booster shots.

Guidance: CDC guidelines have been confusing — if you get covid, here’s how to tell when you’re no longer contagious. We’ve also created a guide to help you decide when to keep wearing face coverings.

Where do things stand? See the latest coronavirus numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people. Nearly nine out of 10 covid deaths are people over the age 65.

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