Donald Trump’s attempt to depict a staggering 200,000-person coronavirus death toll in the U.S. as a crowning success presents the country’s tattered political institutions with their ultimate test.
“If we have between 100,000 and 200,000 we’ve all together done a very good job,” he told reporters Sunday at the White House. On Monday, Dr. Deborah Birx—a reliable Trump mouthpiece and member of the White House coronavirus task force—said that a death toll in that range would be the result of “do[ing] things together well, almost perfectly.” At Tuesday’s coronavirus propaganda briefing, he displayed a chart that portrayed a death toll in the 100,000-240,000 range as a “goal.”
Just 30 days ago, Trump declared that the number of U.S. cases would quickly drop from 15 to “close to zero.” Before then, his single-minded obsession with his own election prospects, and thus with lying about and under-reacting to the risk of pandemic, hobbled the country’s ability to respond once the virus arrived. There is abundant evidence—uttered from Trump’s own mouth, acknowledged by members of his administration, printed in the pages of America’s marquee newspapers—that, under his watch, the U.S. missed its opportunity to contain the virus. That failure in turn has forced us to endure more death and economic misery than we would have suffered if the government had responded competently.
It is a matter of universal consensus among experts, journalists, career officials, and people of good faith generally that Trump botched the response in tragic fashion. His desire to dramatically recalibrate public expectations of what constitutes success reflects an awareness of his own failures and a desperation to deceive people about them, all to minimize political harm to himself.
Mass deception is second nature to Trump. It is essentially impossible to imagine him acknowledging early errors, committing himself to fixing them, adopting best practices going forward, and campaigning for re-election on the second-half of his coronavirus response. He will instead ask Americans to judge his leadership from a baseline where nobody in the United States—no governors, no mayors, no hospital chiefs, no superintendents—did anything to mitigate the catastrophe while he fiddled, and two million Americans died. By this warped standard, setting the bar low enough to span a mass grave, he will argue that he saved millions of lives—that America should be grateful to him—and obedient Republicans at all levels of the party will parrot his ghoulish line. He boasts about the television ratings of his nightly propaganda briefings, which he uses to erase the history of the past two months and blame others for his failures, so that if the death toll exceeds his “goal” it will only be because some under-resourced Democratic governors failed him.
The test here is not just whether he can game allied and broken institutions to present this falsified history as truth, or a matter of legitimate debate. It’s whether he can exploit a mass forgetting of the very thing that made the idea of a Trump presidency so unacceptable in the first place, now that one of the great warnings has come to pass.
During the 2016 election, the notion that Trump was too narcissistic, autocratic, vindictive, incompetent, and corrupt to be president was genuinely uncontroversial. Hillary Clinton was the one who said, “a man you can bait with a tweet is not a man we can trust with nuclear weapons,” and she was right, but she wasn’t first. Months before that, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) warned the country not to give “the nuclear codes of the United States to an erratic individual,” and never retracted his criticism. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) called Trump an “utterly amoral” “narcissist” and a “pathological liar.” Nothing about Trump’s low character, nor his fitness for office, changed when he became president, but other things did. Republicans in Congress decided it was in their interest to paper over and ignore the risks, to take steps to contain him only when his conduct threatened their power. Mainstream media organizations came under immense pressure to stop emphasizing Trump’s aberrance and unfitness for office, and shoehorn all the weird things about him into their existing frameworks for covering the presidency.
In a way, American elites set about reconfiguring their entire environment—bureaucratic processes and news coverage and oversight and legislative priorities—to allow the role of president to be filled by someone without the capacity to do the job, and then ignored all the risk inherent in jerry-rigging our political system.
Early in the transition, Trump’s pampered son-in-law Jared Kushner marveled at the intensity of President Obama’s West Wing operation and asked, “How many of these people stay?” seemingly unaware that Trump would have to staff up the seat of government all by himself. Presidents’ children have never been required to fully grasp the immensity of the job their fathers have entered; Kushner stands apart for both the depth of his naivety and the fact that the president gave him the title of senior adviser, and a vast, high-stakes governing portfolio. By year four, Kushner would reportedly convince his wife’s father that the media had overhyped the risk of coronavirus, and that Trump should thus keep downplaying it and accusing those who characterized it accurately of perpetrating a “hoax.”
In the intervening years, we read of the endless palace intrigue surrounding Kushner, and were given enough information to piece together the truth of his polished mediocrity for ourselves. We learned that career intelligence officials believed giving him a security clearance would constitute a national security threat, but that Trump overrode them. We learned that he used unsecured channels to communicate with the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, who would then, under the cover of the administration, murder a U.S. newspaper columnist. In spite of all this, career lawmakers of both parties invited Kushner to participate in sensitive legislative negotiations, and he became a fixture in gossipy capital newsletters and at black-tie affairs for the bipartisan elite. The fact that his very presence in the president’s ear was a source of profound corruption and danger to the country receded into the background almost immediately after inauguration day drew to a close, and now tens of thousands of people will die.
This pattern of Trump inviting loyalists and sycophants to pantomime competency in positions of great power, and facing no pushback for it, has repeated itself over and over again. In the brief course of the crisis we’re living through today, Trump’s top economic adviser, Larry Kudlow, advised the viewing public to buy stocks, and insisted the coronavirus had been contained, and egged Trump to withdraw social distancing guidelines so that people could congregate in workplaces and get the economy moving again while spreading COVID-19 to one another. His conduct has been roundly criticized, but what the criticism has missed is the enormous prefatory scandal that Larry Fucking Kudlow, a well-known charlatan cable-news talking head, is the chairman of the National Economic Council. That appointment, like many others, exemplifies all the things we once knew collectively about why Trump being president threatened to immiserate the country. But Republicans weren’t going to stop it, and reporters couldn’t hound the administration with questions about the fitness of Trump’s inner circle to run the government without seeming partisan, so everyone just moved on.
In an environment like this, it’s hard to blame Trump for thinking he could preside catastrophically over the preventable deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans, the loss of millions of jobs, and claim it as a victory, confident that those who know better will eventually begin treating reality itself as unknowable and move on once more. Trump abandoned thousands of Americans to die in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, then brazened and bullshitted his way out of any accountability for it by staging photo ops and lying about the extent of the death. When Democrats won control of the House of Representatives in 2018, it came with the power to expose the scope of that failure, and make the administration’s culpability for the deaths of thousands of our countrymen a matter of federal record. To this day there has been no concerted congressional investigation of the administration’s response to that storm.
Now, as Trump heaps congratulations upon himself and threatens to harm citizens whose governors don’t also praise him, as he caters to states with electoral votes he needs and forces blue-state hot zones to compete with one another in hunger games for lifesaving federal resources, the House stands adjourned until April 20. Politico reports that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi “has promised robust oversight but has also signaled that any probes into early failures by the administration would likely have to wait until after the immediate emergency subsides; she has called repeatedly for an ‘after-action review.’” In the meantime, “Democrats have sought to tailor their document requests to target the most immediately accessible information. They’ve also offered only limited pushback to the administration’s embargo on senior officials testifying, wary of looking overly aggressive—or too political—in the midst of a global crisis.”
It would seem to defy natural law that a man could do so much manifest harm, in such a well-documented way, with such horrendous consequences, and yet gain the lasting faith of one-time skeptics, while losing none of his supporters. But there are no fundamental properties of politics that consign failed leaders to defeat; they have to be defeated. Trump will exploit all the weaknesses he’s exposed in our systems of accountability to prevent that from happening, and he’ll do it shamelessly, because this is a final test for him, too. Whether he prevails or not is up to the very people whose power to spread truth and shape public opinion he undermines largely unchallenged every day.