In one scene of the 1962 film The Manchurian Candidate, Frank Sinatra’s character Bennett Marco tells the U.S. Secretary of Defense, “Mister Secretary, I’m kind of new at this job, but I don’t think it’s good public relations to speak that way to a U.S. Senator, even if he is an idiot.”
We often err on the side of politically palatable as opposed to morally expedient. In recent weeks, I’ve pondered this as I’ve tried best to articulate my feelings on the current administration and its response to the greatest public health crisis to hit the United States in a century. Arguments should be intelligent, layered, and well-articulated even if the most cathartic way to make your point is through verbal blunt force trauma. I also believe resorting to insults undercuts your point because you couldn’t think of a more articulate way to stress it, so when it comes to how this President has handled this crisis, I will simply say former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson put it best.
Since taking office, Donald Trump has displayed a lack of intellectual curiosity necessary to do this job and a lack of enthusiasm for any part of being the President other than getting to tell people you’re the President. He is incapable of considering any ramifications beyond a 48-hour television news cycle. He is unable to grasp the long-term impact of being unprepared, of dismantling government functions specifically designed for the prevention of nationwide crises, or of how any public issue could ever be viewed through a lens beyond how it affects Donald Trump.
That lack of perspective, indifference to the wonkish details of steering the ship of state, and refusal to staff government agencies with competent civil servants, or, in many cases, any human beings at all, has defined the response of the United States government to the COVID-19 pandemic. It has been equal parts inadequate, disorganized, and disastrous. And because of that, millions have lost their jobs, many people and businesses will go bankrupt, and, according to this administration’s own models, it is quite possible that hundreds of thousands of people are going to die.
It did not have to be this way.
Nearsighted decisions to curtail American preparedness efforts for any potential unforeseen viral outbreaks, even ones specific to unknown coronaviruses, are well-documented. But even if you think those choices were sound at the time from a budgetary perspective, the U.S. government response has been a muddled hodgepodge since signs of a looming threat became clear. The Trump administration received its first notification of a novel coronavirus in China on Jan. 3. Despite repeated efforts by officials like Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar to ramp up preparedness, warning signs went largely ignored. Azar’s attempts to discuss the growing crisis with Trump in mid-January were cut off by the President, who instead wanted to criticize Azar’s work on vaping products.
Even as more evidence of a looming crisis piled up, alarms raised about a likely shortfall of PPE for frontline health workers would be dismissed by administration budget hawks. Administration health officials began pushing for restrictions on European travel in early February, a step that wouldn’t be taken for nearly a month as Trump heeded concerns of high-ranking officials worried about the economic fallout. Early CDC testing kits were determined to be unreliable as early as Feb. 8, but private labs were not given permission to develop their own diagnostics for three weeks. The United States still does not seem to have any semblance of a coherent, nationwide testing strategy.
According to the Washington Post, plans for implementing the Defense Production Act, which would enable the federal government to compel private industry to produce materials crucial to fighting the pandemic at fair market value were initially drawn up in mid-January. The President inexplicably refused to enforce the measure for weeks, at one point haggling with GM over a reported $1 billion price tag for ventilators before finally invoking powers he had for more than two months. Delays in implementing the DPA mean that despite heroic efforts on the part of manufacturers, they are unlikely to meet demand in times that critical ventilator shortages will hit vast swaths of the country.
And speaking of those ventilators, as early COVID hot spots like New York began to feel the brunt of the virus, the President unevenly allocated federal resources with some wondering if politics were at play. Trump did little to assuage those worries, publicly saying governors had to “treat us well” when it came to requesting federal help.
Throughout the response, messages from the President have been mixed and confusing – from his early efforts to downplay the threat for fears it might send the wrong message, to his later abandoned hopes of opening up the country by Easter. He has expressed concerns that the long term economic damage to the country could outweigh the death toll, presenting the false choice that we must choose between our money and our grandparents. As the crisis worsened in recent weeks, the President bragged about the ratings of his daily press conferences while advertising tune-in.
And yet, while the Trump administration continues to come up short in its pandemic response, the President has shown he can walk and chew gum at the same time, taking time to settle personal scores with an inspector general, chip away at emissions standards, and continue his mercurial war on Obamacare when public health is not exactly a back-burner issue.
His unwillingness to make hard choices for weeks when the facts had been regularly presented to him, have led to a domino effect on the Republican governors across the country. Some, like Ohio’s Mike DeWine or Maryland’s Larry Hogan, have had the sense to take necessary action. Most follow the example of Florida’s Ron DeSantis, who allowed Spring Break to go on until responding to public pressure. Texas governor Greg Abbott did not issue a stay-at-home order until April 2. Georgia’s Brian Kemp resisted protective measures, ludicrously claiming it wasn’t until this week that he learned asymptomatic carriers of COVID-19 were contagious.
These are not just ignorant, ill-informed or stupid choices. These are choices that are going to kill people.
This pandemic will be remembered as one of the great struggles of modern history. It is a moment that calls not just for a leader to comfort and inspire a frightened populace, but to effectively oversee and execute the full mobilization of the federal government behind a singular effort. Instead of preparing for and seizing that moment, the administration’s response has been akin to that of a turkey farmer tasked with supplying all supermarkets with their November inventory, only to have all turkeys arrive the day after Thanksgiving and for that farmer to become defensive when we aren’t excited that some of us received turkeys.
This does not all lie on Trump’s shoulders. Complaints from conservative media about China’s massive disinformation campaign regarding the true nature of its outbreak are not wrong, even if those pundits are largely employing it as a shiny object to distract from Trump’s incompetence. As well, the institutional response has been hampered by decades of conservative efforts to achieve limited governance, effectively hollowing out the machinery of state.
But other administrations have faced similar issues. Barack Obama’s administration kept swine flu relatively contained nor did any delayed response effectively lead to a shutdown of public American life. George W. Bush mobilized the federal government to enact wildly successful measures to contain HIV and AIDS in Africa with PEPFAR. Trump’s claim that he took Xi Jinping at his word beggars belief after the President spent much of his first three years in office amplifying Chinese skepticism in pursuit of a destructive trade war. And while this administration did not start the process of deconstructing numerous state agencies that are necessary in a public health emergency, it did make a point of leaving thousands of civil service positions vacant and appointing unqualified individuals to oversee threadbare departments.
The buck stops with him. That is the job he signed up for.
The slowed response, economic fallout, and the rising death toll are almost certain to damage Trump’s reelection bid as November nears. Unabashedly liberal news outlets like Fox News have criticized the lack of seriousness the President has employed at times. The middle of the country is still weeks away from the expected peak of COVID-19 cases, but the President’s numbers have already begun to slip. I bring that up not because it is the focus or even appropriate. I bring it up because it seems to be the thing Trump cares about most.
The Manchurian Candidate gained attention around Trump’s election due to wild conspiracy theories that he was knowingly an operative of the Kremlin. In the film, Raymond Shaw, an American serviceman in Korea is psychologically trained to be an unwitting assassin by an international cabal. Whenever he is mentioned, those who served with him, despite personal reservations, are brainwashed to always say the same thing.
It is silly to claim Donald Trump is functioning as a secret espionage tool of any foreign power, but his particular brand of “laissez-faire” governance has been enabled by those around him. For years his advisers, his functionaries, and his supporters have treated him with the same type of reflexive adulation as the men in Raymond Shaw’s company. Now that this republic is facing one of the great crises in its history, those that enabled Trump are seeing the true measure of the man as history tries its best to thrust greatness upon him.
One wonders if they’ll treat him the same way when the crisis is done.
Photo credit: Getty Images https://thehill.com/opinion/white-house/491003-a-new-type-of-wartime-president