Imagine the reaction if, after Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt had shrugged and said: Well, we’re not going to win this one — and, instead of leading America through a hard but necessary war, had just focused instead on the next election. That is essentially what President Donald Trump is doing regarding the coronavirus, an enemy that has so far killed almost 100 times as many Americans as died on that fateful day in Hawaii in 1941. Trump’s chief of staff, Mark Meadows, said as much over the weekend, declaring: “We are not going to control the pandemic.”
Vice President Mike Pence is broadcasting the same message by staying on the campaign trail despite having recently been exposed to multiple infected staffers. And Trump’s final sprint this week of crowded, largely maskless rallies is the ultimate white flag in this viral war.
Other than imposing some porous, unevenly enforced travel restrictions from China in February — not at all the life-saving total ban he claims it was — Trump did virtually nothing in the early weeks of the pandemic, predicting it would go away on its own, “like a miracle.” When he finally did start taking action in March, it came with his usual mix of self-serving politics and personal peevishness.
He initially insisted on sidelining the scientists and conducting the daily national pandemic briefings himself, inevitably tainting the facts with his own uninformed views. He seriously — not jokingly, as he now claims — proposed injecting people with disinfectant. He engaged in distracting grudge matches with Democratic governors over pandemic resources while demanding those governors “treat us well” in their public comments. He repeatedly signaled, against all expert advice, that the country should “open up” without regard to infection trends, at one point threatening, with zero constitutional authority, to “override” state safety measures.
When the country desperately needed a national testing-and-tracing program, Trump instead derided the importance of testing. This self-styled master dealmaker has failed to get even the Republican Senate to the table for an adequate new round of economic relief. His intentional campaign to turn mask-wearing into a culture-war wedge issue has undoubtedly cost lives.
As counterproductive as Trump’s attempts to address the pandemic have often been, his current strategy of just pretending it isn’t happening is even worse. Millions of his supporters absorb his example as he struts through crowded venues, defiant and maskless, disputing medical facts and flouting the dangers of the very virus that hospitalized him less than a month ago.