Donald Trump has been predicting the imminent disappearance of Covid-19 ever since the outbreak of the pandemic at the beginning of the year. During Thursday night’s debate, he reiterated his claim that the pandemic was almost over. “We’re rounding the corner,” Trump claimed. “It’s going away.” Citing his own bout with the coronavirus, Trump claimed that new therapeutic drugs amounted to a cure. “I can tell you from personal experience, I was in the hospital,” Trump said. “I had it and I got better. And I will tell you that I had something that they gave me, a therapeutic, I guess they would call it. Some people could say it was a cure, but I was in for a short period of time. And I got better very fast or I wouldn’t be here tonight. And now they say I’m immune. Whether it’s four months or a lifetime, nobody’s been able to say that, but I’m immune. More and more people are getting better.”
Trump’s claim that “we’re rounding the corner” deserves to be remembered as one of the classic examples of presidential happy talk in the face of catastrophe. It ranks with Herbert Hoover’s 1930 boast that the United States had, after six months of recession, “passed the worst” and with Lyndon Johnson’s 1966 promise that the nation would soon see the “light at the end of the tunnel” in the Vietnam War.
Like Hoover and Johnson, Trump is a prisoner of boosterism, trapped by an inability to acknowledge a painful reality, and vulnerable to an electorate that will judge repeated failed promises. The causes of Trump’s plight are manifold. They include his personal propensity for positive thinking, his unwillingness to heed expert advice when it goes against the wishes of powerful business interests who are hostile to an extended lockdown, and his desire to please grassroots right-wing activists who oppose mask wearing.
These factors combined with Trump’s incompetence have created a situation where his administration has effectively surrendered to the Covid-19 virus. The Trump White House is increasingly edging toward the idea that the spread of the virus can’t be slowed down but only mitigated by therapeutic drugs until a vaccine is found.
As The New York Times reported on Sunday, senior White House officials have been intrigued by the Great Barrington Declaration, described as “a scientific treatise that calls for allowing the coronavirus to spread naturally in order to achieve herd immunity—the point at which enough people have been infected to stall transmission of the pathogen in the community.”
Written by heterodox experts from Stanford University, Harvard, and Oxford, the Great Barrington Declaration was formulated at a gathering hosted by a libertarian think tank partially funded by the Charles Koch Institute. According to The New York Times, while senior White House officials “have denied advocating this approach, they have praised the ideas in the declaration. The message is aligned with Mr. Trump’s vocal opposition on the campaign trail to lockdowns, even as the country grapples with renewed surges of the virus.”
Speaking at a rally in Lumberton, N.C., on Saturday, Trump sounded like a man who was aggrieved by the fact that he still had to pay attention to the pandemic. He clearly regards the pandemic as an unfair political cudgel used against him. “They’d prolong the pandemic,” Trump said. “That’s all I hear about now. That’s all I hear. You turn on television. Covid, Covid, Covid, Covid, Covid, Covid. A plane goes down, 500 people dead, they don’t talk about it. Covid, Covid, Covid. By the way, on November 4th, you won’t hear about it anymore. Covid. Covid.”
As always, Trump’s statement is factually bizarre. There hasn’t been a plane crash that killed more than 500 people since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, an event that did not suffer from a lack of media attention. Prior to that, the last crash with an excess of 500 casualties was in 1985 in Japan. Covid-19 deaths have been trending up over the last week, a sign that the winter surge is starting. On the day Trump made his comments, nearly 900 Americans died from Covid-19.
Trump’s habit of holding large rallies, where many of his followers are not wearing masks, is itself making the pandemic worse. As USA Today reports:
As President Donald Trump jetted across the country holding campaign rallies during the past two months, he didn’t just defy state orders and federal health guidelines. He left a trail of coronavirus outbreaks in his wake.
The president has participated in nearly three dozen rallies since mid-August, all but two at airport hangars. A USA TODAY analysis shows COVID-19 cases grew at a faster rate than before after at least five of those rallies in the following counties: Blue Earth, Minnesota; Lackawanna, Pennsylvania; Marathon, Wisconsin; Dauphin, Pennsylvania; and Beltrami, Minnesota.
On Sunday, White House chief of staff Mark Meadows told CNN, “We are not going to control the pandemic. We are going to control the fact that we get vaccines, therapeutics and other mitigation areas.” CNN host Jake Tapper pushed Meadows on this point, asking, “Why not get control of the pandemic?” Meadows responded, “Because it is a contagious virus just like the flu.” Pressed again by Tapper, Meadows finally said, “We are making efforts to contain it.”
Later on Sunday, the White House admitted that at least five aides and advisers to Vice President Mike Pence had tested positive for Covid-19. Normally, Pence would go under quarantine in such a situation, but the White House deemed him an essential worker. Pence’s continued campaigning in these circumstances is in line with the larger White House message of stoic acceptance of the pandemic as simply a fact of life.
Trump’s message of resignation to the pandemic is hurting his reelection bid. As The New York Times reports, “Voters remain deeply concerned about the virus, with 51 percent of those sampled saying they feared the worst of Covid-19 was still to come, and just 37 percent saying they believed the worst was over. Among voters over 65, a bloc that has drifted away from Mr. Trump, the difference was even starker: Fifty-six percent said they worried the worst was still to come, and only 29 percent said the opposite.” These numbers on Covid-19 help explain Trump’s inability to change the dynamics in the national polls.
If the bungling of the pandemic is a major factor in defeating Trump, Joe Biden’s victory will have come at a steep price. Even if Biden wins, Trump will remain president until January 20. That means the current failed policies will continue for another three months, with the winter surge leading to tens of thousands more unnecessary deaths. A Biden presidency will be facing a pandemic much larger and harder to contain than what exists even now.
With a little over a week before the election, it is clear that if Trump goes down, he’ll drag many others with him.