The billionaire germaphobe’s optimistic conclusion in 2014 was part of an almost-daily barrage against President Barack Obama that fall. It revealed him to be resolutely consistent in blaming others, fearing germs and fitting medical crises into his notion that people can wall themselves off from others’ problems. “I have a natural instinct for science,” Trump has said on numerous occasions. But his prescriptions for dealing with the Ebola outbreak in West Africa — like his initial responses to the novel coronavirus — illustrate that Trump has always associated the spread of disease with the evils of migration and the idea that each person and each nation’s first priority must be to defend itself, not to come together in common effort against a problem that transcends borders.
In the current crisis, Trump has stayed true to his basic beliefs that sealing borders and focusing almost exclusively on the virus’s domestic impact is both the most effective and the most politically popular strategy. He has banned most travel from China and Europe, and he pointedly calls the culprit a “foreign virus” and the “China virus.” But unlike in 2014, when he relentlessly pushed the idea that Ebola would spread wildly and become an American plague, he insisted for weeks this winter that the coronavirus was not a big problem and would be dealt with easily and swiftly — a message that changed only after the bug spread through most of the country.
As with almost any issue, it’s easy to go back through Twitter and find ammunition with which to convict the president of hypocrisy. Of course he bashed Obama for playing golf during the Ebola outbreak and then, as president, went out on the links himself as the coronavirus crisis unfolded. And of course Trump hit Obama for picking an Ebola czar with “zero experience in infectious disease control,” and then put Vice President Pence — not exactly a medical expert — in charge of the coronavirus task force.
But beyond such facile critiques of Trump’s handling of the pandemic, the instincts he showed during the Ebola crisis reveal how he perceives threats, how he responds to long-term crises and how he fits new problems into his existing worldview.
Trump’s path into politics was based on questioning the legitimacy of government and “the need to prepare for disaster by maintaining a closed society protected from infected outsiders,” University of Wisconsin researchers Thomas Salek and Andrew Cole concluded in a 2018 study of Trump’s use of the Ebola crisis. They said that Trump’s “apocalyptic rhetoric sketched some of the foundational features of his ‘Make America Great Again’ ” platform in the 2016 campaign.
When Ebola spread through West Africa in the summer of 2014, the Obama administration responded by sending aid workers and about 3,000 U.S. troops to Liberia to try to help contain the outbreak and prevent it from coming to the United States and the rest of the world. But the epidemic became a political battering ram in Washington, as Republicans accused Obama of failing to protect Americans because he wouldn’t ban travel from the affected countries. Democrats, in turn, faulted Republicans for slashing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention budget, making an effective response to the outbreak more challenging.
Trump, already a prolific Twitter user by then, promptly began peppering the president with increasingly nasty insults — and with a nascent policy agenda that harked back to his earliest political instincts.
Trump first mentioned Ebola very early in the crisis, on July 31, 2014. His daily rants went immediately to the idea of excluding people: “Stop the EBOLA patients from entering the U.S. Treat them, at the highest level, over there. THE UNITED STATES HAS ENOUGH PROBLEMS!” Facts were, from the start, not terribly relevant to his approach: At the time of that Aug. 1, 2014, tweet, the United States was not accepting foreign Ebola patients for medical care, and there was no evidence that anyone who was infected was fleeing West Africa. But the outbreak was almost entirely limited to Africa, and sealing the border made more sense then than it does now, when coronavirus has already swept around the globe.
Trump continued the next day: “The U.S. must immediately stop all flights from EBOLA infected countries or the plague will start and spread inside our ‘borders.’ Act fast!” That same day: “The fact that we are taking the Ebola patients, while others from the area are fleeing to the United States, is absolutely CRAZY- Stupid pols.”
Trump’s first forays into politics, in the early 1980s, focused on his feeling that Japan and China were undercutting the United States by selling cheap manufactured goods here. From that time forward, the only consistent thread in Trump’s politics was his conviction that other countries were sucking the life out of the U.S. economy and that immigration was part of that process of undermining American strength. Even as he flitted back and forth between being a Democrat, a Republican and an independent, even as he toyed with entering politics locally, statewide or nationally, his reflexive nativism remained at the core of his message.
In 2014, as he began his most serious exploration of a run for president, Ebola was a grand opportunity to see how far he could stretch that basic message. Trump took to Fox News — already his prime outlet to reach Americans beyond his reality show, “The Apprentice,” on NBC — to workshop phrases that would later serve him well in building his base: He demanded that “if there is one more Ebola case” in the country, Obama must institute a “full travel ban.”
Trump made at least half a dozen appearances on Fox in October 2014, most on “Fox & Friends” but also on Sean Hannity’s and Greta Van Susteren’s shows, blending the ideas of a foreign virus and malign foreigners. He told Hannity: “You know, whether it’s Ebola or the borders themselves, but people are just flocking in by the tens of thousands. And we’re doing nothing.”
Many essential elements of the Trump method were in motion from the beginning.His instincts for showmanship and provocation framed his response to the crisis. He quickly pivoted from bashing Obama’s policy to daring the president to take dramatic steps: “President Obama has a personal responsibility to visit & embrace all people in the US who contract Ebola!”
Trump’s behavior during the Ebola epidemic displayed the building blocks of his future political appeal: the conspiratorial thinking, the bent toward paranoia, the hyperbole and vulgarity, and the insistence that he knew more than the experts, that he understood from the start just how awfully things would turn out.
Oct. 2: “Ebola is much easier to transmit than the CDC and government representatives are admitting.”
“The Ebola patient who came into our country knew exactly what he was doing. Came into contact with over 100 people. Here we go - I told you so!”
Oct. 8: “The Donald is always right!”
Trump was already using Twitter to get around the fact that mainstream news organizations treated him as a sideshow. The Washington Post and the New York Times mentioned Trump in connection with Ebola only six times in four months that year, always as either a punching bag or a punchline. A Richard Cohen opinion column in The Post, for example, called Trump “a furious germaphobe who dislikes shaking hands” and concluded that “sometime in the past, he must have shaken hands with an idiot.” But Trump got lots of attention that fall in right-wing outlets such as Fox News, Breitbart and the Daily Caller. He had a video blog on Instagram, and he used it to shout at Obama to “stop the flights into the United States now.”
Despite the considerable concern around the country, the United States suffered only four cases of Ebola during the 2014 outbreak. Ebola hit in waves from 2014 to 2016, and by the time the outbreak was truly done, there were 28,600 cases worldwide, causing 11,325 deaths.
But Trump consistently hyped the danger to Americans, even as the CDC reiterated that Ebola posed no real threat in this country — the exact opposite of what he’s done from the Oval Office with the coronavirus. “Obama refuses to stop flights from West Africa,” Trump tweeted on Oct. 7, 2014. “It’s almost like he’s saying F-you to U.S. public.” “The United States must immediately institute strong travel restrictions or Ebola will be all over the United States - a plague like no other!” he said a few days earlier.
Trump was certain that a pandemic was coming. He argued that Obama and the CDC were wrong not to see it. He said Obama “should apologize to the American people & resign” if a doctor who had treated patients in West Africa and then flown back to New York had Ebola.
A frightening epidemic 4,500 miles away turned out to be an effective tool for Trump. He mustered his lifelong political bugaboos and personal peccadillos and combined them into a message that would connect with millions of Americans living an increasingly unsettled, insecure existence in a country undergoing dizzying technological and economic change.
Through raw instinct, a knack for provocation and a lifetime of marketing himself as a brand that uniquely combined aspirational excess with everyman attitude, Trump tapped into Americans’ fears of a deadly disease and built the foundation for the campaign that would take him to the White House — and to a pandemic in which he is suddenly the guy in charge, the guy he always loved to bash.