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This week, Joe Biden began the process of locking down the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination. The Afghan government and the Taliban began to implement the peace process signed last week by the United States and the Taliban. The Greek coast guard and border paramilitaries reportedly used lethal force against would-be asylum seekers sent to Europe by Turkey. The Census Bureau began mailing out questionnaires to tens of millions of American households. And the Supreme Court allowed Trump’s vicious “remain in Mexico” policy to stay in place.
All of these, in normal times, would merit banner headlines. But in today’s COVID-19-racked world, they are footnotes.
There’s only one Signal this week: the global lockdown now underway to combat what is shaping up to be the world’s worst public health calamity in a century. It is now clear that COVID-19 will not be contained, will have incalculable human costs, and will devastate the global economy, reshaping our lives, workplaces, community relations, and international affairs, possibly for years.
And the man at the American helm, the captain who is supposed to help navigate us through these troubled waters, is an ill-informed narcissist, concerned not with the actual number of infections, and how to contain and treat them, but only with perceptions.
After weeks of denying the severity of the crisis, of mocking public health officials who urged a proactive effort to stop the disease from spreading, of making baseless claims about how the US response had been perfect and had shut the virus down, Trump’s extraordinary intervention on Wednesday evening veered in the opposite direction. Suddenly, the crisis triggered by this “foreign virus” was so existential that flights from Europe would be closed off. Trump then went off script and claimed that cargo routes from Europe would also be suspended—a misstatement that he was forced to correct (via Twitter, of course).
None of this makes sense: Trump touts America’s alleged low infection rate, blaming European travelers for those clusters of infection that do exist; but it’s becoming clear that America’s infection numbers are low only because its testing regimen is so inept. In my home county, California’s Sacramento, a retirement home resident recently tested positive. But the county can’t test the facility’s other residents and workers because kits aren’t available.
Presidents set the tone during emergencies. Trump’s tone on Wednesday was panicked, ill-informed, bigoted, and blustering. Absent was any sense of international solidarity, any notion of global cooperation in working to solve not just the public health crisis but also the economic implosion, which is ravaging financial markets and will soon ravage labor forces.
The result? An accelerating panic. Far from calming the markets, Trump’s blundering intervention triggered a global meltdown. If the sell-off continues, the global economy could be headed into a deflationary cycle with no easy exit. The tools that should have been available to fight this are absent or inadequate, with central-bank interest rates already at historic lows and with tax cuts for billionaires having frittered away financial resources, already meager because of public health spending cuts and funding lavished on the military.
If there has ever been a time for US global leadership, for the marshaling of resources and creative thinking, it is now. Yet Trump’s only response is mindless nationalism. It is far past time for this man to leave the political stage. He has been a catastrophically bad president, and he is incapable of exercising leadership during this crisis.
That’s the Signal. Everything else is mere Noise.