As Harvard Medical School’s Maia Majumder tweeted Saturday, the coronavirus crisis is inherently political because “an administration’s priorities can absolutely impact the trajectory of a pandemic.” It’s political because every government is — and should be — measured by its ability to protect its citizens to the best of its ability from the ancient threats of disease, violence and starvation.
For any national leader, this is the job: protecting the public, not flinging Twitter insults or goosing the stock market. To complain about politicization, as Trump and his supporters have done, is to say that the president should be above criticism from the people whose welfare he has sworn to protect. And by deflecting the criticism that’s being — rightly — directed at him for his bizarre and contradictory statements about the coronavirus outbreak, for his self-proclaimed faith in his own uninformed “hunch” about the severity of the crisis, and for his defensiveness about his administration’s flailing response, it is Trump and his supporters who are politicizing the coronavirus threat, and not the other way around.
Presidential leadership requires putting ego aside, seeking expert advice and absorbing bad news without attacking the messengers, to generate effective policy. In a public health crisis, it means making life-or-death decisions that approach the same level of urgency a president faces in wartime: allocation of scarce resources, calling for shared sacrifice and making tough calls that might result in saving some lives at the expense of others. It requires selflessness and a steady hand, neither of which Trump possesses.
Compare all of that to the narcissistic approach Trump has taken, which has distracted and sometimes paralyzed the response of experts and policymakers who must work together to protect the nation. Politics, not public safety, suffuses everything.
He handed oversight of the government’s response to Vice President Pence, a convenient solution to insulate himself from blame if the situation worsens, but to preserve credit if the situation improves.
Instead of objectively weighing the pros and cons of allowing potentially exposed cruise ship passengers to come ashore, Trump said he’d prefer that they stay aboard the ship because “I like the numbers where they are,” emphasizing the optics of the domestic coronavirus case count over the health of American travelers.
Instead of leveling with the public about the need to increase covid-19 testing capacity nationwide, Trump confusingly stated that “everyone who wants to be tested can get a test,” contradicting earlier statements by his advisers. Bafflingly, Trump compared the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s “perfect” testing capability to his ongoing personal obsession with his “perfect” phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
Meanwhile, Trump has corrupted the flow of information to the news media and the public by encouraging a culture of presidential glorification instead of expert candidness. Addressing the media Friday while standing next to the president, CDC Director Robert Redfield thanked Trump, for paying a visit to CDC headquarters, “for your decisive leadership in helping us,” and “sort of encouraging and bringing energy to the men and women that you see that work every day to try to keep America safe,” adding — incredibly — “I think that’s the most important thing I want to say, sir.” Two days later, Surgeon General Jerome Adams, a fit man in his 40s, rhapsodized on national television in terms you’d expect from a North Korean official about how our 70-something, overweight president is “healthier” than he, a point that served no purpose other than to speak to the audience of one in the White House.
When government officials must engage in these inane rituals, it erodes our trust in their professionalism, and it requires us to believe, by sheer force of will, that our national health experts are doing the right thing in private, no matter what absurd statements they are forced to say in public. It is not “politicizing” to say this out loud.
Public policy does not happen by accident. Scientists and government experts cannot tackle this problem alone. The public consistently misunderstands this, because ordinary citizens often think of policymakers and experts as the same group. But while an epidemiologist can tell you how a virus spreads, it is policymakers and their staff who work to turn all that science into guidance, money and requirements for government institutions. This doesn’t happen because the president dons a campaign hat and engages in cheery bloviation in front of television cameras.
In 2014, Trump trashed then-President Barack Obama for golfing during the Ebola crisis, a disease threat that was further removed from most Americans than the coronavirus is today. For once, Trump had a point, demanding that Obama put the nation, not recreation, first. Now, it is Trump hitting the links, and we should hold him to the same standard. I certainly do: I’m nearly 60 years old and dread the ordinary flu, much less the novel coronavirus. My daughter is a student in a public school. My stepdaughter just welcomed a new baby. My beloved in-laws are elderly. We’re all reliant on government acting honestly and competently.
As a nation, we require a caliber of leadership that Trump simply can’t muster. And if pointing this out is politicization, then so be it.