From the start, the Trump Administration has waged war on science and expertise, making a great nation peculiarly vulnerable to the foreseeable public-health calamity of the coronavirus.
Illustration by João Fazenda
When has New York known a grimmer week? The sirens are unceasing. Funeral parlors are overwhelmed. Refrigerator trailers are now in service as morgues, and can be found parked outside hospitals all over town. We’re told that there are “glimmers of hope,” that hospital admissions are slowing, that the curve is flattening. Yet the misery is far from over. “The bad news isn’t just bad,” New York’s governor, Andrew Cuomo, said at one of his briefings last week. “The bad news is actually terrible.”
Across the country, the coronavirus continues to ravage the confined and the vulnerable, from inmates of the Cook County jail, in Chicago, to workers at the Tyson Foods poultry plant in Camilla, Georgia. Data from a variety of reliable sources show that African-Americans, who suffer disproportionately from poverty, inadequate housing, limited access to good health care, and chronic illnesses such as diabetes and hypertension, are dying from covid-19 at horrific rates.
The pandemic is an event in the natural history of our species, but it is also a political episode. Its trajectory is shaped by policy measures specific to particular governments. The fact that the United States is experiencing tremendous losses—that it has far more covid-19 cases than any other country in the world—relates to a number of collective risk factors and preëxisting conditions. The most notable one is to be found in the Oval Office.
“This is not the apocalypse,” President Barack Obama assured his shell-shocked staff members the morning after Donald Trump’s election. When, the next day, Obama received Trump at the White House and tried to relay information about a range of issues—the threat from North Korea, the Iran nuclear deal, immigration, health care—he got nowhere. Trump wanted to talk about himself and the size of his campaign rallies. Obama spoke about the value of having at his side such people as his homeland-security adviser, Lisa Monaco, citing her insistence on bringing him unvarnished, unwelcome news about everything from terrorism to the Ebola crisis. In the White House, she was known as Dr. Doom. Trump replied that maybe he should hire a Dr. Doom; he was joking. From the beginning, he practiced social distancing from anyone who told him what he didn’t want to hear.
And here we are, playing a tragic game of catch-up against a virus that has killed thousands and left millions unemployed. At Trump’s State of the Union address on February 4th, he pledged, “My Administration will take all necessary steps to safeguard our citizens from this threat.” Three weeks later, Kayleigh McEnany, a loud promoter of birtherism and of Trump talking points during the 2016 campaign, cheerfully told the Fox Business audience, “We will not see diseases like the coronavirus come here, we will not see terrorism come here, and isn’t that refreshing when contrasting it with the awful Presidency of President Obama?” Now McEnany is the President’s press secretary.
The coronavirus has inflicted a level of pain that is deep and global. And yet many nations, from South Korea to Germany, have done far better at responding to it than the United States has. The reasons for the American failing include a lack of preparation, delayed mobilization, insufficient testing, and a reluctance to halt travel. The Administration, from its start, has waged war on science and expertise and on what Trump’s former adviser Steve Bannon called “the administrative state.” The results are all around us. Trump has made sure that a great nation is peculiarly vulnerable to a foreseeable public-health calamity.
If the death rate turns out to be less than the initial forecasts––and, please, let it be so––it will be thanks to the discipline of the public and the heroics of first responders, not the foresight or the leadership of the President. The knowledge that we are led so ineptly and with such brazen self-regard is humiliating to millions of American citizens, if not to their leader. Trump gives himself “a ten” for his performance and berates any reporter who dares to challenge that premise. “You should say, ‘Congratulations! Great job!’ ” he told one, “instead of being so horrid in the way you ask the question!”
A nation facing a common threat normally pulls together, but Trump’s reflex is always to divide; he has invoked a multiplying litany of enemies. He directs his fire at the Obama Administration, at the World Health Organization, and at governors from Albany to Sacramento, with their constant pleas for ventilators, test kits, and face masks. The Democrats are to blame for everything. Early in the year, as the pandemic grew, they “diverted” the attention of the federal government, because “every day was all about impeachment,” as Trump’s unfailing loyalist Mitch McConnell, the Senate Majority Leader, put it.
At a time of medical peril and economic devastation, the President heads to the White House briefing room and frames the terms of his reëlection campaign. It is a campaign of cynicism and authoritarian impulses. To begin with, he has made it clear that he does not approve of efforts to make voting easier in November. Why should he? He takes a dim view of early voting, voting by mail, and same-day registration. Such reforms, he complains, would produce “levels of voting that, if you ever agreed to it, you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.”
Trump has not had the sort of bounce in the polls usually seen by Presidents during a crisis, but this hardly insures an end to his reign. Senator Bernie Sanders, who did so much to transform the debate over health care, the environment, and education policy, in both the 2016 and 2020 campaigns, has dropped out of the race, and the presumptive Democratic nominee, Joe Biden, has been either absent or woefully inarticulate in recent weeks. The former Vice-President cannot run on the idea of personal decency alone. He needs to provide a vivid, comprehensive plan of renewal equal to the moment. He needs to emphasize hard truths, one being that the laws of science, of the physical world, must be recognized. This pandemic is, in a sense, a rehearsal for what awaits us if we continue to ignore the demands of climate change. Biden would signal a seriousness of intent and offer a convincing alternative if he were to name very soon not only a Vice-Presidential running mate but a set of advisers and Cabinet officers who have shown themselves capable of policy rigor, executive competence, and compassion for the very communities that are suffering most from neglect and mistreatment.
Meanwhile, at the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak, a painful reckoning begins. New York has long prided itself on being a sort of cultural and political city-state, able to hold its own against any vagaries emanating from the White House. This is plainly not the case. We are in this together: that is the phrase, the balm, of the moment. But it is more than a cliché. It should be the spirit and the foundation of our national politics, starting with the election in November.