A lot of clever people have been predicting that the coronavirus pandemic will be a turning point for anything from globalisation, statehood, liberalism, economic and social systems to the environment, economic and cultural habits and even music.
But US President Donald Trump is failing to turn. In fact, he refuses to turn. Instead, he insists on sticking to the same trajectory that helped him win the last elections, disregarding what damage it may inflict on America and Americans amid the coronavirus outbreak. In the deepening health and socioeconomic crisis, he sees an opportunity to project himself as the indispensable leader of a vulnerable nation.
To quote a line from Aaron Sorkin’s film classic, The American President: “People want leadership, and in the absence of genuine leadership, they’ll listen to anyone who steps up to the microphone. They want leadership. They’re so thirsty for it they’ll crawl through the desert toward a mirage, and when they discover there’s no water, they’ll drink the sand.”
And sand is basically all it has been ever since Trump embarked on using the coronavirus crisis to dominate the national debate, rise in the polls, and make his way towards a second term. From the outset, Trump misled the nation about the imminent danger of a coronavirus outbreak. In February, a month into the epidemic, he was reassuring the public that there was nothing to worry about, that all was under control. And although he now denies it, Trump is on the record repeatedly underestimating the virus’s contagion, deadliness and disruption.
The question is, why? Why did he insist that the pandemic was under “tremendous control” and that the number of those infected would be brought down to zero? Judging by his usual erratic behaviour, it is more likely he was driven by sheer ignorance and arrogance than by wise statesmanship – by his eagerness to save the stock market rather than his concern with saving lives. Needless to say, arrogance breeds ignorance, just as ignorance breeds arrogance, and both spell danger.
As the infections grew in number, Trump decided to personally dominate the evening news with his regular prime-time press conferences, and succeeded in dictating the news agenda despite his mixed messages, mumbled utterances, falsehoods, and overall poor performance. With an eager, anxious nation, seeking guidance and comfort from its leader, he quickly gained the upper hand, racking up high TV ratings and even claimed (falsely) that he was “number one” on Facebook.
And to the astonishment of his detractors, his own ratings also went up five points in the polls by the end of March. In other words, Trump was being rewarded for his failure to fully understand the implications of the coronavirus outbreak and prepare the country early on to reduce the damage. While this bump in the polls was still lower than the double-digit bumps gained by other Western leaders, which is expected in a time of crisis, it was more than sufficient to overshadow the Democrats’ presumptive presidential nominee, Joe Biden, who by mid-March had gone into a self-imposed quarantine.
Trump did not stem the spread of the virus as hundreds of thousands became infected, but he was able to shape the news vibe. When asked on March 16 to rate his performance on the job, Trump did not hesitate. It was a 10, he insisted. That is – 10 out of 10. But if he was so brilliant and successful, who was then to blame for the unfolding epidemic, the ill-preparedness, the mounting fatalities, the rising unemployment and the looming economic recession?
As the crisis deepened, America’s commander-in-chief morphed into the blamer-in-chief, projecting his failures on anyone but himself or his administration, as any self-respecting populist leader would. The first to be blamed were those journalists sitting in front of him and the “fake news” outlets they represent. The national press conferences that were meant to inform and clarify have turned into theatres of the absurd, as a conceited president faced off with constipated journalists. Trump humiliated senior White House correspondents, criticised their questions, and questioned their motives.
He also blamed his predecessor, President Barack Obama and the “do-nothing Democrats” for the lack of protective medical gear and equipment and many governors who complained about the administration’s incompetence. Trump also went on a global blaming campaign, accusing Beijing of being responsible for the pandemic, his European allies of failing to stop the outbreak early, and more recently, the World Health Organization (WHO), of acting late and spreading wrong information. Any suggestions that he may have gravely erred, especially by closing the White House pandemic office set up by his predecessor in 2016, were immediately deflected and disparaged.
While dodging blame for the looming public health disaster in the US, Trump also sought to rally the nation behind his presidency by declaring himself a “war president”. The media had been quick to draw parallels between the pandemic and the Pearl Harbor attack in 1941 or the 9/11 attacks in 2001, so the incumbent jumped at the opportunity, hoping to replicate the success of his predecessors, Franklyn D Roosevelt and George W Bush, who won, respectively, a fourth and a second term by mobilising the nation under a war flag. If Trump is to secure re-election, however, he will need to stay on the offensive into the summer and beyond in order to maintain the momentum. So, even if the curve of coronavirus infections flattens in the next few months, the US president will likely double down on his inflammatory language, incitement and his America First doctrine as the only way forward for the country.
He will continue to ride the nationalistic wave, by advocating for closed borders and travel bans, reminding everyone it was he, against the advice of most, who shut down travel from China before the coronavirus outbreak became a pandemic, and only he could be trusted with containing China’s economic and military power. Will his strategy work, or will Americans insist on assigning responsibility for their misfortunes?
Since President Harry Truman popularised the phrase, “the buck stops here”, meaning, it is the president who is responsible for his decisions, Americans have not taken kindly to leaders who have tried to “pass the buck”. When the nation emerges from the tragedy of the pandemic amid distressing human loss and an economy in ruins, it will seek to blame someone for the devastation. The performance of the Trump administration will be the first to be dissected. The mainstream liberal media will readily investigate, scrutinise and ultimately provide enough dirt on the president for some of it to actually stick before the November elections.
Already, a New York Times investigation revealed that 430,000 travelled into the US from China including from Wuhan, after Beijing made the coronavirus outbreak public, including 40,000 who arrived in the country after the ban was enforced. If this trend continues, the much-feted spike in the president’s approval ratings could easily transform into a downward jolt. But since Trump has successfully discredited and demonised the mainstream media, especially among his supporters, calling it “the enemy of the people”, it is not clear whether Americans will blame the president for the ill-preparedness, incoherence and mismanagement of the crisis, or accept his justifications and his buck-passing to China, Obama, WHO or whoever else he blames for their misery.
The word “historic” has been overused in analyses of almost every US election in the past two decades, but the vote scheduled for November 3 is indeed slated to go down as a momentous event in US history. How Americans vote on that day will not only determine the future of their democracy, but it will also indicate if indeed the coronavirus pandemic will prove to be that turning point that many predict it to be … for America and for the world.