We know now that Trump understood the threat of the new coronavirus very early on, a full month before he abruptly declared a national emergency (on March 13). In his own words spoken to Bob Woodward on February 7, “You just breathe the air and that’s how it’s passed. And so that’s a very tricky one. That’s a very delicate one. It’s also more deadly than even your strenuous flus.”
A month later, on March 9th, Trump continued to mislead his followers, tweeting: “So last year 37,000 Americans died from the common Flu. It averages between 27,000 and 70,000 per year. Nothing is shut down, life & the economy go on. At this moment there are 546 confirmed cases of CoronaVirus, with 22 deaths. Think about that!”
He knew in February the virus was airborne. He knew by February 26 there was already community spread in the United States. He knew virus had spread wildly in Italy despite efforts to control it. Italy announced a lockdown on February 23, yet Trump continued to expose his followers at his campaign rallies and publicly muse that the problem would “miraculously” disappear. On April 3, the CDC recommended the use of face masks. Trump undercut the recommendation, emphasizing that wearing a face mask was optional and he wouldn’t wear one, even though he told Woodward two months earlier that the virus was airborne. (Meanwhile, he protected himself with rapid testing procedures at the White House, testing that was unavailable to most of the country.)
Quietly, he was “honest” with his interviewer, Bob Woodward, in a statement recorded on March 19th (with Trump’s approval): “I think, Bob, really to be honest with you…I wanted to always play it down. I still like playing it down…Because I don’t want to create a panic.” (A transcript of a series of Trump’s statements to Woodward about the virus can be read here.)
Trump did not just play down the virus to avoid a panic. He actively mis-led the American people, stoking resistance to the very measures that would have helped control the spread of the virus. He encouraged his followers to march on state capitols to protest lockdown orders, to whine and protest about mask mandates even as he encouraged governors and schools to re-open prematurely in defiance of prevailing scientific advice..
Woodward’s disclosures from his new book “Rage” have ignited a media firestorm over lying, but lying is not Trump’s cardinal sin. He lies and mis-leads daily. Trump’s cardinal sin, revealed in his recorded voice, is disrespect. His persistent lying about the threat posed by the coronavirus shows disrespect for the intelligence and resilience of the American people–especially disrespect for the intelligence of his most devoted followers. Trump evidently considers himself uber-smart, the protective daddy figure. He believes we shouldn’t hear the truth because we can’t handle it without panic, so instead of leading us to do the relatively simple things that, taken together, would have helped, instead, he stokes division and discord. His disrespect has cost us untold lives, misery, standing in the world community, and economic ruin.
He holds the American people in contempt, including his own supporters. He kept us all in the dark as he muddied the waters rather than clearing them.
Imagine for a moment what could have been. Imagine a real leader who, on the heels of the impeachment trial in January, had said to us, “Look, I know this country is politically divided and I understand many of you are not fond of me, but we have a crisis on the horizon with this virus spreading in China. This is not time to panic, but a time to pull together and fight this thing.”
This man and his Republicans are not the leaders we need to face these crises. Vote this November and cast them off. We need a leaders who actually respect the intelligence of the American people, a people who listen and level with us.
Keep to the high ground,
P.S. Of course, Trump defends the recordings of his own admissions with his usual bluster, bullying, and demeaning: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-IN8rnX0H8Q .
P.P.S. The timeline shows that Trump and his administration were actually trying to mobilize a federal response–a response that was too little, too late–a response for which we might even have had the grace to forgive him had he leveled with us about the gravity of the threat that he actually understood.
P.P.P.S. Feeling disrespected and humiliated is a powerful driving force. The humiliation and disrespect perceived in Hiliary Clinton’s use of the word “deplorables,” (of which Steve Bannon frequently reminds his listeners) and the humiliation and disrespect perceived in Mitt Romney’s infamous “47% comment,” contributed to the electoral failure of both candidates.
Humiliation, as Thomas Friedman recently pointed out, is a powerful driver:
Humiliation, in my view, is the most underestimated force in politics and international relations. The poverty of dignity explains so much more behavior than the poverty of money.