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Donald Trump has always been a fibber with numbers. Exaggerating his successes and minimizing his failures is second nature to him. Part of the grim spectacle of the Covid-19 pandemic is that we can see him fiddling the figures in real time as his attempted sales pitch gets overwhelmed by events.
On February 26, Trump said the total number of Covid-19 cases was 15 and notoriously predicted that “within a couple of days is going to be down to close to zero.” On April 20, he offered a low-ball estimate of the potential death count. “Now, we’re going toward 50, I’m hearing, or 60,000 people,” he said. “One is too many. I always say it: One is too many. But we’re going toward 50- or 60,000 people.” Even when he said those words, Trump was clearly offering false hopes, since the numbers were already approaching 50,000 dead—not counting the many thousands more who likely died of the disease but were never tested for it.
On Sunday, in an interview with Fox News, Trump conceded that these numbers were also too low. Trump said, “That’s one of the reasons we’re successful—if you call losing 80 or 90,000 people successful.” He added, “I used to say 65,000, and now I’m saying 80 or 90, and it goes up, and it goes up rapidly.” As with his earlier upward revisions, Trump’s latest will almost certainly be swept aside by events. By some estimates, the United States is already on track for 175,000 deaths by August.
Joe Biden has been hammering at the simple point that Trump bears an enormous personal responsibility for this. “The hard truth is that it didn’t have to be this bad,” Biden tweeted. “The lack of preparation, the slow response on testing, the failure to administer the relief in the CARES Act appropriately—all of it stems from Donald Trump’s failures as president.”
Biden is fully justified in going after Trump in this way. While Trump’s presidency has been marked by scandal and corruption, everything to date pales in significance to the Covid-19 crisis. Trump’s handling of the pandemic will almost certainly be the major issue of the election, the decisive question in determining whether Trump will be a one-term president.
The pandemic provides more than enough evidence to render a judgment on Trump as one of the worst presidents in American history. On Saturday, The Washington Post published a deeply researched report arguing that “the span of 34 days between March 29, when Trump agreed to extend strict social-distancing guidelines, and this past week, when he celebrated the reopening of some states as a harbinger of economic revival, tells a story of desperation and dysfunction.”
Among the failures of the period were Trump’s reliance on ridiculously optimistic models about low casualties, notably one offered by Kevin Hasset, described by the newspaper as “a former chairman of Trump’s Council of Economic Advisers with no background in infectious diseases.” Economists like Hasset repeatedly clashed with scientific advisers like Dr. Anthony Fauci, who offered competing models projecting a far more dire scenario if there was no mitigation of the pandemic. As one Trump adviser complained about this group, “They’re all about science, science, science, which is good, but sometimes there’s a little bit less of a consideration of politics when maybe there should be.”
Another failure was relying on information from Fox News hosts to elevate an unproven medicine, hydroxychloroquine, as a promising wonder drug.
Finally, the relationship between the federal government and the states is now in tatters. As The Washington Post reports, “Trump’s interactions with the states during the time were jarringly inconsistent. One day, he called himself a wartime president with total authority; the next day, he said he was merely President Backup, there to help states as he deems necessary.” Former Kansas governor Kathleen Sebelius told the newspaper, “The administration seems to have washed their hands of it and said [to governors], we’re out of it. You’re on your own. Figure it out.”
Trump deserves to be condemned for his botched response to Covid-19, and if there is justice, he’ll be thrown out of office in November. Yet, as incompetent as Trump is, a disaster of this magnitude can never be the fault of just one man. There’s the guilt of the Republican Party, which made Trump its standard-bearer and stuck with him despite manifold evidence of his unfitness for office. The GOP also deserves the blame for the ideological straitjacket that prevented a robust response to the crisis. Trump’s initial reluctance to support a lockdown and his over-eagerness in reopening the economy are byproducts of the Republican Party’s fealty to big business.
But beyond partisan recrimination, there’s much in the Covid-19 crisis that implicates the entire political class, including Democrats. Oxford University sociologist Gina Neff notes that the three major sites of Covid-19 clusters are “prisons, meat packing plants and nursing homes.” These are institutions that were hazardous long before the virus hit, thanks to deregulation and austerity. Nor has the crisis led to any awakening of conscience. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, lionized by many Democrats, has been slow to release prisoners.
Any account of how meatpacking in America got to be such a dangerous industry will have to discuss Bill Clinton’s long-standing relationship with Tyson Foods. As The Wall Street Journal reported in 1994, “Few corporations in America have stronger personal ties to Bill Clinton than Arkansas-based Tyson Foods Inc., and few have fared better in their dealings with his Agriculture Department.” The report went on to observe, “Over the past year, an Agriculture Department blitz against unsanitary slaughterhouse practices has bypassed chicken processors, and thus Tyson’s 66 plants, altogether. This has meatpackers and others complaining about selective enforcement.”
The pandemic is sometimes compared to the 9/11 attack. But it’s a 9/11 where hundreds die every day. Nor is there any end in sight. The fall presidential election is crucial for getting rid of the failed leadership of Donald Trump that made this crisis much worse than it had to be.
But there is plenty of blame to go around. There was never a real reckoning with the policy failures that led to 9/11. A major task for progressives in the coming years will be to make sure that mistake isn’t repeated with the pandemic.