Back in 1992, while running for re-election, President George H.W. Bush was speaking at a New Hampshire town hall and accidentally read aloud some stage directions handed to him by his staff: “Message: I care.”
But Donald Trump, your message is that you don’t care, do you? All cognizant Americans, even many Republicans, know this to be true, even if they pretend they don’t. Stop lying about the illness that is striking down thousands around the world. Stop obsessing with how thousands of sick people are affecting your blessed stock market and reelection chances and do something that will help make them well and keep this contagion from spreading further. Travel bans and economic stimulus won’t do it; increased access to testing and medical help might.
In contrast to Trump, crazy Mike Pence, vice president and head of the so-called Coronavirus Task Force, seems a paragon of sanity, especially when he’s briefing the press. If he could just stop the sycophantic praise of Dear Leader and cease covering for him.
Granted, it’s a very low bar, but at the moment, Pence is like a walking billboard for the 25th Amendment. He could take over as acting president, get Trump out of the Oval Office until the November election and maybe even start to let those grownups who have some idea of what they’re doing speak freely and candidly. Maybe.
Awful as Pence is and as inadequate as the government’s response has been, in comparison to you, Trump, he’s Honest Abe—especially in light of continuing chaos and yet more reports of private meltdowns on Trump’s part as he rages against this deux ex machina threat to his presidency.
Wednesday morning, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the veteran director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and other public health officials testified before the House Oversight and Reform Committee. Fauci was characteristically blunt:“We have got to assume it is going to get worse and worse and worse,” he said. “… We must be much more serious as a country about what we might expect. We cannot look at it and say, ‘Well, there are only a couple of cases here, that’s good.’ Because a couple of cases today are going to be many, many cases tomorrow.”
This completely contradicts Trump’s constant “all is well”-style prevarication. “It will go away,” he insists. “… Be calm. It’s really working out. And a lot of good things are going to happen.” Not.
Meanwhile. shortly after Fauci’s remarks, Reuters reported, “The White House has ordered federal health officials to treat top-level coronavirus meetings as classified, an unusual step that has restricted information and hampered the U.S. government’s response to the contagion, according to four Trump administration officials…
“The White House insistence on secrecy at the nation’s premier public health organization, which has not been previously disclosed, has put a lid on certain information—and potentially delayed the response to the crisis.”
In his affectless and ineffective address to the nation Wednesday evening, Trump did little to calm fears—he’s like the bad parent who, unable to love, throws useless expensive presents at his kids instead of wisdom and affection. Increasingly, I hear additional stories from friends and colleagues with personal experience of other government attempts to squelch information or downplay the severity of the situation.
Here’s Dr. Irwin Redlener, director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University, speaking on MSNBC this past Friday: “This is the most egregious level of incompetence in an administration that I think we’ve witnessed, at least in my memory… [Hurricane] Katrina… was minor league… It’s actually stunning… Preparedness is not just about developing a vaccine and giving it to people. It’s also about, are we prepared for a major national, international emergency in terms of preserving our economic stability and confidence of the public.”
We’re in an existential crisis and it seems truer and worse with each moment of these sad and frustrating Trump years, whether it’s cornonavirus, the downward, disastrous decline of the planet’s climate or our increasing withdrawal from the real world—literally and metaphorically.
What does this mean? Just that we’re living from moment to moment, questioning the meaning of our very existence, passengers on a rudderless ship that at any given moment could slam into the rocks and throw us to our deaths, that’s all.
The current pandemic reveals even more starkly the lack of preparedness and overall life-threatening incompetence of the Cheeto Benito in charge. So as we dive into various degrees of self-quarantine, many of us with lots of time to read, who better to go to during all this than one of the greatest existential writers of them all—French novelist and Nobel Prize winner Albert Camus?
In 1947, Albert Camus published a novel, The Plague, about a fatal outbreak of disease in French Algeria. The local government is slow to act, downplays the seriousness of what rapidly becomes an enormous epidemic, confusion reigns and officials fight among themselves as how best to respond. Meanwhile, the body count mounts. Familiar?
Camus wrote, “Stupidity has a knack of getting its way.” Yes, stupidity has been getting its way since the day Trump took that ride down his golden escalator in 2015 and announced his candidacy. “The evil in the world comes almost always from ignorance… People are more often good than bad, though in fact that is not the question. But they are more or less ignorant and this is what one calls vice or virtue, the most appalling vice being the ignorance that thinks it knows everything and which consequently authorizes itself to kill.”
And yet Trump has become so bad, especially in this moment of crisis, that more and more of us can clearly see his idiocy, unless we’re such obsessed members of his cult that nothing said or done will break the spell.
Even The Washington Examiner, our second most popular conservative website after FoxNews.com, has gone on the attack, which, to steal a line from JFK, is a little like L’Osservatore Romano, the official Vatican newspaper, criticizing the Pope.
In a Sunday opinion piece, executive editor Philip Klein wrote that the president is, “deeply unsuited… to deal with a genuine crisis that he can’t bluff his way through.
“… Trump appears to be more concerned with numbers that might make him look bad in the short-term than he is with actually taking the most prudent measures to save lives over time. The current crisis is revealing what many critics feared in a potential Trump presidency. He simply has not shown an ability to break out of his typical antics and treat the moment with the seriousness with which it deserves.”
My friend Carol says that in some ways this whole thing is a metaphor and she has a point. The physical sickness that sweeps our nation is like the virus that had infected the body politic since that day Trump rode the golden escalator down to our doom.
And while we’re at this business of slinging metaphors, let’s just say that our ship of state is a ship of fools. Looks like we’re going to have to rely on ourselves to get out of this disaster.
That may be the good news, for the American people have proven in the past an ability to rise above those who would govern us with appalling avarice and ineptitude. But this may just be wishful thinking on my part, especially given that crazy recent survey indicating that 38% of Americans won’t order a Corona beer for fear of catching the coronavirus—an ignorant percentage, I note, roughly equivalent to Donald J. Trump’s base of support.
In the end it may come down to the fundamental existential sentiment that Albert Camus offers us in The Plague: “I have no idea what’s awaiting me,” his narrator says, “or what will happen when this all ends. For the moment I know this: there are sick people and they need curing.”
That’s all you need to know, Donald Trump. Start telling the truth. Start curing. Start caring.
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Michael Winship is the Schumann Senior Writing Fellow for Common Dreams. Previously, he was the Emmy Award-winning senior writer for Moyers & Company and BillMoyers.com, a past senior writing fellow at the policy and advocacy group Demos, and former president of the Writers Guild of America East. Follow him on Twitter: @MichaelWinship.