On Sunday, he retweeted a meme first posted by Dan Scavino, the White House director of social media, that showed a photoshopped Trump playing the violin, with the legend: “My next piece is called . . . nothing can stop what’s coming.” The words echoed a catchphrase associated with the looney-tunes QAnon conspiracy theory, not exactly a phenomenon to encourage at a moment when clear thinking and accurate information are vitally important. The image could not help but evoke the legend of the emperor Nero fiddling while Rome burned.
Trump’s solipsistic response to the coronavirus crisis offers overwhelming proof, if any more were needed, that it was a catastrophic mistake to give an egomaniacal reality-television star such power and responsibility. We are all paying the price.
How worried should you be about the coronavirus? Should you work at home, assuming that’s possible? Should you postpone or cancel that upcoming trip? Is it paranoia to think about stockpiling staples in anticipation of a possible lockdown, like those we’ve seen in parts of China and Italy? Is your hard-hit 401(k) likely to recover anytime soon? Is this just a transient crisis, or could it be the new normal?
No one can give definitive answers. But even a minimally competent president could calm anxieties by explaining what we know and what we don’t know about the virus. A decent president would be less concerned about the media coverage he or she was receiving and more focused on getting reliable information to a nation desperately seeking answers.
Trump is neither competent nor decent. He has consistently played down the epidemic, trying to convince Americans that the whole thing is no big deal. True, this is not Ebola or the bubonic plague we’re talking about. But epidemiologists at the World Health Organization and our own Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have made clear that the coronavirus is a very big deal, especially for the elderly or those with preexisting health conditions, and should be taken seriously.
On Monday, Trump irresponsibly tweeted: “So last year 37,000 Americans died from the common Flu. It averages between 27,000 and 70,000 per year. Nothing is shut down, life & the economy go on. At this moment there are 546 confirmed cases of CoronaVirus, with 22 deaths. Think about that!”
Okay, I’m thinking. Trump’s numbers are a little off, but they’re in the ballpark. Last flu season between 37.4 million and 42.9 million Americans got the flu and between 36,400 and 61,200 died from it, according to the CDC — meaning the death rate was about one for every 1,000 cases. But what Trump fails to note is that the WHO estimates the death rate from the coronavirus at roughly one for every 30 cases, suggesting this new disease is about 34 times deadlier than the flu. And the reason the number of confirmed cases here is so low is not necessarily that coronavirus is less prevalent, but that the United States has done less testing since the epidemic began than some other nations, such as South Korea, do in a single day.
Trump’s reaction to the virus has not been to think about what impact it might have on the nation but to obsess about what impact it might have on Trump — specifically, on his bid for reelection. He claims that Democrats and the media are conspiring to hype the threat. It’s all “Fake News,” he tweets.
Yet both the CDC and the State Department have warned all Americans not to travel on cruise ships, and the CDC also advises the elderly to avoid long plane trips. Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said Sunday that “social distancing” may become necessary. “I think you need to seriously look at anything that’s a large gathering,” he said.
The one thing Trump knows how to do in politics is drive wedges. He may well succeed in convincing his loyal followers that the coronavirus is some kind of hoax. We can only hope that none of those true believers end up paying with their lives.