Trump's incompetent virus response was decades in the making
The coronavirus news is beyond horrible. Outside of a handful of states in the Northeast, the virus is out of control across the country. Florida, Texas, Arizona, Louisiana, and South Carolina are suffering full-blown galloping outbreaks, and several more states are not far behind. As predicted, after a long decline from the initial peak, recorded COVID-19 deaths are starting to tick back up.
This weekend President Trump finally took the easiest possible step to help contain the virus: put on a mask in public, which he did while visiting the Walter Reed military hospital. Yet his administration also started an anonymous smear campaign against Dr. Anthony Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, apparently because he has been raising the alarm about the pandemic and making Trump look bad. On Monday morning Trump was back to his usual conspiratorial fulmination, retweeting a post alleging that "CDC, Media, Democrats, our Doctors" are lying about the pandemic. Later he nonsensically blamed the Obama administration for "stopping testing."
Even after three and a half years of living under Trump's misrule, it is still sometimes hard to believe that this guy is actually the president. The mind instinctively tries to reject it, like some gangrenous organ transplant. But he is. Trump is what happens when a political movement gets so drunk on its own ideological moonshine that it dissolves its own ability to think or act.
It's worth thinking about some history to contextualize our current dire situation. A key factor in how societies have risen and fallen is how they dealt with external threats. In 1415, for instance, a French army was defeated handily by a smaller English force because French military doctrine relied on heavily-armored cavalry and infantry that was vulnerable to longbow fire. In 1453, Constantinople was not prepared to defend itself from heavy cannons, and so it fell to the Ottomans. Similarly, the Antonine Plague (possibly measles or smallpox) badly destabilized the Roman Empire between 165-180, and helped cause the Crisis of the Third Century which nearly broke the empire apart. It took a tremendous effort under Emperor Diocletian to knit it back together.
A necessary precondition for confronting some external crisis is the willingness to actually do something about it. This is so obvious that it probably wouldn't even occur to most historians to mention it, but that is clearly what is missing from the United States today. Chauvinistic American myths hold that the U.S. is some kind of exceptional, God-chosen nation that stands outside time and history, but the plain fact is that the main distinguishing thing about the country today is the staggering incapacity of its leadership.
America is sailing into the coronavirus abyss primarily because Donald Trump is an incompetent fool who couldn't do his job if his life depended on it, which it very well might. But his rise to power is rather unusual in a democracy. All societies have stupid and incompetent people. In monarchies, they might become top political leaders when a tragic product of inbreeding happens to inherit the throne. But Trump is not only astoundingly inept, he climbed to the top of a modern political party virtually from a standing start. Before becoming president, he had never held elected office of any kind, nor had any military experience — the first person ever to do so. How did this happen?
Trump defeated and absorbed the Republican establishment because he exploited the despicable irresponsibility of previous generations of Republican elites and the right-wing press. As Alex Pareene has written, for years Republicans whipped their base into ever-greater paroxysms of frantic rage with paranoia, lies, and denialism. In the Fox News universe, all good Americans are under constant threat from ravening brown hordes, all Democrats are criminals and traitors, and all inconvenient problems are fake or somebody else's fault.
That was an effective tactic for a while. It provided not only the constant political sugar high of ideological frenzy, but also absolved Republican elites from having to grapple with any uncomfortable threats (like climate change). But when Trump came along in 2015, the other Republican presidential primary candidates could not effectively confront his crackpot campaign because it was just a more shameless version of the same garbage they had been selling for years. As Josh Marshall wrote back in 2016, they built "a massive trap door under the notional GOP leadership with a lever that a canny huckster like Trump could come in and pull pretty much whenever. This is the downside of building party identity around a package of calculated nonsense and comically unrealizable goals."
Meanwhile, Trump also relied on the disgusting selfishness of the Republican donor class. As Evan Osnos writes at The New Yorker, he got an eager hearing among a critical mass of the ultra-rich Republicans of Greenwich, Connecticut, because they correctly sensed that his brand of racist screeching and fraudulent populist politics was the only way they were going to further increase their vast fortunes. Sure enough, once taking office he quickly delivered a giant tax cut for the rich.
But Trump is not just a corrupt cynic, he is also completely addicted to conservative propaganda, and therefore indescribably ignorant — just like about three-quarters of the Republican congressional caucus these days. From the start of the pandemic, he has treated it as a public relations problem, because that is the only thing he knows how to do. Instead of mobilizing a serious containment effort, he has denied it was happening, promised it would vanish by magic, and suggested testing be reduced so the outbreak would be less visible.
It has been obvious from the start that Trump would be helpless before any serious emergency, as Michael Lewis wrote in his 2018 book The Fifth Risk. Republicans could have removed him from office during the impeachment trial back in February. Yet they refused either to hold Trump accountable for his monumental corruption and abuse of power, or to confront the danger of him remaining in office — just one single GOP senator, Mitt Romney of Utah, voted to convict.
Now, it is not just Republicans who have coddled Trump over the years. The largely-Democratic New York elite also welcomed him into its good graces long after his business failures and gutter racism should have made him persona non grata, because he was still rich and had a knack for getting media attention. Trump is just the most visible pustule on a gigantic suppurating infection of impunity — from President Ford's pardon of Nixon, to President George H.W. Bush doing the same for Iran-Contra criminals to stop the investigation leading to himself, to President Obama's refusal to prosecute either CIA torturers or foreclosure fraudsters, to the prolonged careers of Harvey Weinstein and Jeffrey Epstein long after their sexual abuses were common knowledge. The rule of law virtually does not exist in this country for the rich and powerful.
So now we have a president who is utterly incapable of dealing with any real problems, and a political movement behind him that has lobotomized itself so thoroughly that it cannot think at all. Just like Trump, tendentious debating tricks and propaganda are all it has left. But the coronavirus does not care about hypocrisy gotchas or media coverage. It just needs an available host — and Trump has served up about 3.5 million of them, at least 138,000 of whom have died so far. When a governing political party refuses out of hand to confront reality, it catches up to them sooner or later.