Listening to Trump’s rosy assessments of the covid-19 pandemic, for example, that the U.S. economy could reopen by Easter, made me pull another book off my shelf. This time it was Voltaire’s 1759 satire Candide. Trump’s constant flow of wishful thinking echoes Voltaire’s character Professor Pangloss, who relentlessly proclaims optimistic platitudes mixed with a malign indifference to human suffering. Trump’s obvious resemblance had me wondering, what does it mean that a Pangloss is in the White House and how does it affect America’s ability to deal with a serious social and economic crisis?
Trickster in Chief
Although he has known since January that a pandemic was likely, Trump choose to down play the health risks of the virus, punish those who were telling the truth about the growing epidemic, undermine his own administration’s efforts to combat its spread, politicize the global crisis by way of a selective travel ban on Europe and scapegoat when things started to look bad by labeling covid-19 the “Chinese virus.” He did all of these things despite being told in early January and February by U.S. intelligence that a global crisis was in the making and that America would not be spared. He did all of these things despite a growing amount of evidence that he was constantly wrong.
The result of Trump’s minimizing and creating a false sense of security was that the virus spread more rapidly than if control measures had been implemented when experts in his own administration advocated such actions. A faster moving virus through the population, in turn, meant that more Americans died and will die.
Trump’s blatant disregard for intelligence reports and the advice of medical experts is additionally worrying because his supporters continue to believe him and not medical experts. Moreover, a growing number of non-Republicans support Trump’s approach to the crisis.
And why not prefer the rosier picture, when dealing with the possibility of having covid-19 poses a bigger problem for Americans than for most citizens in other western, industrialized countries. The average American must face a prohibitively costly health-care system and the prospects of little to no pay when they are sick. One time direct payments of $1,200 to people who are not high earners will not get very far when a visit to the Emergency Room (ER) might cost thousands, which insurance will likely refuse to pay.
The latest unprecedented number of Americans applying for unemployment insurance (3.28 million) portends that many more Americans will soon be without any health insurance. When a huge section of America cannot afford health care, the whole of society ends up paying after the pandemic reaches inside the borders of the United States.
The stock market does not equal society
Trump is not the only one arguing that the cure of a pervasive shutdown might be worse than the disease. For example, the former chairman of Wells Fargo said that to avoid a deep economic calamity, healthy, younger workers should be allowed back to work in late April. However, Trump’s estimation is not only much sooner but it is clear that his electoral fortunes are uniquely correlated with the U.S. economy, in particular, the ups and downs of the stock market. While the United States and even its economy is much more than the stock market, Trump’s personal success inordinately rests upon what investors are doing on Wall Street.
Trump’s relationship to profitable outcomes on the stock market is also why he lashes out at anyone who might question his fantasies about the coronavirus, such as that it will disappear “like a miracle.” Trump does not spend his days contemplating how to stop Americans from suffering and dying. Instead, Trump’s responses show that he is obsessed with how the crisis affects him electorally and whether the state of the stock market reflects badly on him.
Just the facts, ma’am
What we need instead of panglossian, wishful thinking is honest information delivered with compassion. The sort I heard from U.S. Senate Majority Whip, John Thune from South Dakota. When asked on PBS Newshour about Trump’s statements that seem to favor ‘business over health,” Thune said he wanted “to listen to the medical experts,” that his office was “tracking every day the numbers in South Dakota,” and that he preferred to “error on protecting life” in making decisions on whether to get back to business as usual.
I am proud of my senator from South Dakota. He is taking my aging, vulnerable parents into account as they shelter in place on the Great Plains in the middle of America. I am doubly glad that they continue to live in the state where I grew up and did not become a Snowbird in Texas, a state where the Lieutenant Governor suggested vulnerable senior citizens may be willing to sacrifice their lives for the good of the economy.
One year ago, I wrote a column that evaluated the Pros and Cons of Trump’s Foreign Policy in which I noted that we did not know how Trump will react to a 9/11 type world event. Nevertheless, I speculated that based on what we did know about his leadership, Trump’s negatives outweighed his positives.
A year on, my assessment has not changed with knowing how Trump reacts in a time of crisis. As one Republican commentator recently put it, what Trump has said about the covid-19 pandemic “is not just useless; it is downright injurious.” In 1759, Voltaire wanted honesty and thoughtfulness at a time when he saw suffering and indifference—a candid world where facts and solutions reigned rather than self-centered, deceitful panglossian fantasies. Today is no different: we need more politicians like Senator Thune and fewer like Donald J. Trump.