It has been a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad week for the president.
Over the preceding month, Donald Trump’s chances for reelection had been looking pretty good. The economy was roaring, the administration inked a deal with the Taliban for U.S. withdrawal from the “endless war” in Afghanistan (the deal was terrible, but that didn’t seem to matter politically) and, most important, it looked as if Trump was going to get the general election opponent he wanted and worked so hard to get: Bernie Sanders.
A week later, international markets are in turmoil with a recession looking almost assured, the Afghan deal is unraveling and Joe Biden — the candidate Trump most fears — looks increasingly likely to secure the Democratic nomination.
But the biggest problem the president faces isn’t, strictly speaking, political; it’s biological. If Trump’s foes had set out to create a crisis, they hardly could have designed anything better than the coronavirus. Not only is Trump himself famously germophobic, but the disease and its economic effect are primarily a threat for his best demographic — old people. The news that attendees of the Conservative Political Action Conference were exposed adds insult to injury, as does the likelihood that the rallies that have given Trump sustenance will have to be canceled going forward.
The president has a number of superpowers — shamelessness, a gift for entertaining his base, the ability to bring out the worst in his enemies and, relatedly, a gift for benefiting from political polarization. The political downsides of these abilities are significant, but they’re manageable when the economy is strong. And they would have been fairly trivial in a contest against a socialist opponent with a long track record of supporting America’s geopolitical foes. But none of these weapons are well-suited to combating a massive disease outbreak that has the ability to stifle economic supply and demand.
Trump’s unwavering braggadocio is entertaining (to some) when the stakes are low, but it’s unnerving during a public health crisis. Trump’s insistence at a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lab last week that he has a natural gift for understanding the science of pandemics because his uncle was a nuclear physicist at MIT is not exactly the presidential equivalent of a good bedside manner. It’s about as reassuring as saying, “I’m not an epidemiologist, but I did stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night.”
A more revealing sign that the president is ill-equipped to deal with this challenge is his irrepressible need to move back to his comfort zone, by minimizing the nature of the threat, overpromising the timeline for a vaccine, blaming his enemies and shifting the conversation back to himself and his grievances.
On the same CDC visit, the president went out of his way to attack Washington Gov. Jay Inslee as a “snake.” Trump also said that COVID-19 tests are available to anybody who wants one (that wasn’t true and still isn’t), adding: “The tests are all perfect, like the letter was perfect. The transcription was perfect, right? This was not as perfect as that, but pretty good.”
The “letter” Trump was referring to was the transcription of the phone call he had with the president of Ukraine that launched his impeachment. Given how few people actually believe that call was perfect — even many GOP senators condemned it — one has to wonder who was reassured by the claim that our COVID-19 tests are almost as perfect as the phone call that got Trump impeached.
But reassurance isn’t the goal. The priority now is to squeeze a global outbreak into the same narrative structure that has sustained Trump.
“The media mob’s weaponization and politicizing of this very serious issue is beyond predictable and disgraceful,” Sean Hannity of Fox News said.
It’s undoubtedly true that many in the media are eager for this to be Trump’s Hurricane Katrina, but the cast of “Morning Joe” didn’t convince the Italians to quarantine some 16 million people or the Chinese to shut down an entire city.
If there is one lesson of the Trump presidency, it’s that he can’t change to fit the circumstances; he makes the circumstances fit him. That has worked surprisingly well for him. But it may be that the virus is immune to Trump’s powers. It’s almost as if he had a better reason than we thought to be a germophobe.