Donald Trump had the most famous line of the 2016 presidential campaign. He said that he could shoot someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue in Manhattan and get away with it.
He’s doing it right now, and not just on Fifth Avenue alone. It’s the bet he’s making on the 2020 election too.
Trump’s got plenty of blood on his hands already. American intelligence was aware of a major viral outbreak in Wuhan, China within days of its occurrence in November 2019. epidemiologists would obviously have understood the consequences of the decision by Chinese authorities, beginning locally but soon rising to the highest levels, to suppress any public knowledge of what was happening. It would also soon have been obvious that the virus was a novel one, uncontrollable without a vaccine tailored to it.
By early January — six critical weeks into the crisis — understaffed and beleaguered health agencies were sounding alarms to senior Trump officials that a pandemic was on its way, despite Chinese denials that extended into the third week of the month. By late January, Trump’s senior economic advisor, Peter Navarro, was attempting to advise him that without action the United States could face a third of the country falling ill, resulting in one to two million deaths.
Trump didn’t want to hear about it. Donald Trump doesn’t like bad news, especially news that might keep him from golfing, holding campaign rallies or winning reelection. He doesn’t like listening to medical experts, or anyone else whose prime qualification is that they know what they’re talking about rather than fealty to him. As for the virus, he just wished it away — it would miraculously disappear, maybe with warm weather or just on its own. More precious weeks were lost, while world-respected disease-control agencies dithered or descended into spectacular levels of incompetence. We now have well over 100,000 deaths from COVID-19, not including those known but uncounted. We are only a couple of months into serious loss of life. A million deaths are not out of the question under Trump. Some 675,000 Americans died in the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-19, one that struck hard but subsided quickly. We have, of course, no assurance that COVID-19 will do the same, and we certainly cannot depend on it. We must rather assume the worst-case scenario if we want to avoid facing it.
Trump’s initial reaction, once the reality of the virus could no longer be ignored, was a travel ban. It was late, and loose; the damage had already been done, and a general lockdown of the country was the only recourse. Trump now embraced, briefly, the role of a war president, the enemy being what he now called the “Chinese virus.” This cast a natural event, mishandled by the Chinese to be sure, as a willful assault by a wicked, alien foe, thus combining xenophobia and jingoism in classic fashion.
At the same time, Trump alternately invoked what he declared to be “total” authority in this “war” with a complete abdication of leadership in organizing and directing the lockdown, producing necessities for overwhelmed hospitals and personnel and dealing with the economic calamity of mass evictions from work. Trump’s generalship consisted of daily press briefings in which he alternately rambled and ranted, contradicting the experts he used as stage props, and going far beyond cockeyed in suggesting that the virus be treated with ingested detergent bleach or sunburn. A future age, when one happily arrives, will have the task of parsing such lunacy.
The commander-in-chief soon grew tired of his war, in which the only visible casualties were on his side. Within a couple of weeks, he simply declared victory. Easter churches were to reopen for celebratory worship, and the country was “ordered” to return to business. Contradictory to presidential opinion, Trump lacked the authority to force the country back open, and many governors, including Republicans, repined at the idea of inviting disaster. By this time, COVID-19 had become the leading daily cause of death in the United States, surpassing heart disease and cancer. But Trump could lay the blame on others for not joining his victory parade, which included military flyovers across the country assertedly to “thank” the so-called essential workers most directly in harm’s way, and to create another image of triumphant bluster. If you can’t beat ‘em, bomb ‘em. Hadn’t that been the way America had waged all its losing wars since Korea and Vietnam?
The virus was not impressed.
As the month of May progressed, Columbia University researchers released a study asserting that more than half the recorded deaths from the pandemic — 36,000, a number exceeding that of the Korean War — were attributable to the Trump administration’s failures to address it on every level. They had given the United States by far the largest number of deaths, both in gross number and per capita, of any country in the world.
To that point, the excess deaths from the virus represented mere dereliction of duty. Trump had not responded to warnings about the impending crisis, and/or aides had delayed transmitting them with sufficient urgency because of his well-known dislike of bad news, especially news that would imperil his reelection. Now, however, he was taking a deliberate step that, if followed, would virtually ensure the deaths of tens if not hundreds of thousands of Americans, with potentially uncontrolled spikes that could overwhelm the nation’s capacity to respond. Shoot ‘em dead in the middle of Fifth Avenue? Sure, why not, if that’s what reelection takes.
On its surface, such a strategy seemed suicidal. How, after all, could deaths that would force a new economic shutdown be of political benefit? But Donald Trump operates on different assumptions from yours and mine. Bet the house, and if you lose, blame someone else. It’s the principle that’s carried him through six business bankruptcies, where someone else always gets stiffed and there’s always a bank to bail you out. Trump’s wager is that summer weather will pause the virus, and the country will accept a modest excess in deaths for the benefit of a revived economy that will redound in his favor. With luck — and Donald Trump has long been the most phenomenally lucky man on earth — the real bill, when the comeback of the virus coincides with the normal onset of the flu season, won’t come due until past election day. Even then, he’ll find a way to blame others, starting with 50 state governors who simply didn’t handle things the right way and killed off a great new prosperity.
In Donald Trump’s world, there is only a sunny side to the street, and he’s the one on it. It’s a world without masks and coffins, where bad news is always someone else’s fault, and gambling with human lives is no different from gambling with chips in one of his failed casinos.
Death has a salesman in the White House.