The President’s Mistakes: Trump and the Coronavirus

Perhaps one could temper this perspective regarding the Trump administration’s response to the COVID-19 crisis with some restraint since the crisis is still ongoing. However, in following the situation closely, what I outline here may end up being absolutely correct. The importance of this approach and oversight is not just that it analyzes the shape of the situation as an emergency health crisis the world is confronting for the very first time, but rather that it reveals a typical scenario showing that even in the most democratic systems, a citizen or an entire people may fall victim to the poor performance of their political system, specifically the president, in such a way that the situation ends in catastrophe. Certainly it will not do anyone any good as to whether the president is held accountable or not, impeached or not impeached, reelected or not reelected.

Although the coronavirus pandemic is sweeping across different countries throughout the world, the peculiarity of the American case is that it emerges from the paradox of significantly downplaying the seriousness of the virus at the presidential level, while the United States simultaneously occupies the top spot in the level of virus transmission globally. The first confirmed case of the coronavirus in the United States was recorded on Jan. 21, 2020, and by March 13, 2020, the number of cases had reached 1,663 across 46 U.S. states. However, even up to that point in time, President Donald Trump continued to downplay the impact of the virus in both his statements and on Twitter.

Therefore, it isn’t surprising that at the start of the crisis, President Trump was accused of minimizing how serious the situation was by emphasizing that localized spread of the virus was not unavoidable. Actually, these statements were incorrect, with the number of infected people reaching catastrophic levels, such that today there are more than 300,000 cases representing a quarter of the global infection rate. Remarkably, criticism of Trump came from such sober magazines as Foreign Affairs, which expressed the view that Washington, and in particular the White House represented by President Trump, mishandled the spread of the virus in such a way that it laid bare a state of confusion, showing what the magazine described as the United States’ inability to lead the global system.

Strangely, Trump has never listened to the voice of the U.S. media, and instead started out by describing them as stupid and dull. Rather than listening, Trump followed his usual approach of sparring with journalists, as he did when a CNN correspondent attending a news conference referred to Trump’s previous statements that the virus was, to a large degree, under control, and that it would disappear. Because this was not the case, the president’s negligence seemed to be clearly apparent and recognizable across the United States. When asked about his administration’s method for dealing with the virus, Trump first asserted that he did not bear any responsibility, while on a second occasion, he indicated that nobody was aware there would be a pandemic of this size.

Yet anyone who has followed Trump’s positions and press briefings since the risk of transmission of the disease increased can see the signs of a recent shift in his tone. Trump partially insists on sticking to his position, and yet, is also becoming wary after the American public has begun accusing him of playing games with their health and exposing them to risk to the extent that Americans are no longer waiting for the White House to take a stand, but are listening to their state governors, according to media sources.

The principal obsession governing Trump’s position is the negative effect this pandemic is having on the U.S. economy, which could lessen his chance of reelection later this year. Trump has asserted that during different stages of the crisis, and even after it reaches its peak, the pandemic should not have a significant effect on the economy. He indicated this in statements saying that the the U.S. would not allow the coronavirus to become a long-term economic problem. This attitude has clashed with ongoing efforts to contain the spread of the virus, efforts which have required shuttering different economic sectors and stopping many businesses from operating. In the short term, Trump’s argument seems to prioritize economic considerations over consideration for human life.

In the midst of all this, there is a clear shift in Trump’s tone when he speaks, as he moves from sarcasm about the virus to issuing a call for Americans to prepare for hard days, and warning of two very painful weeks, when the number of Americans applying for unemployment compensation could reach more than 10 million. There is also a rising sense of uncertainty due to President Trump’s shortcomings in addressing the pandemic, which some see as something that may cost him his standing and lead to a loss in the coming election, and which is the reason why he is so eager to downplay the crisis.

In light of the way Trump has dealt with this issue, perhaps the lesson to be drawn is that the president of any political system is still only human. He might make mistakes and fall short. No matter how efficient the institutions surrounding him are in guaranteeing good management of the country’s affairs, the machinery involved in exercising power may end up enforcing the president’s vision even if he is wrong. This means that there is a wide range of official or social institutions that the president will consult, and that these institutions may resist the president’s decisions and still rein in disaster, so that we do not experience the worst potential negative effects.

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