Do liberals want Trump to spark a panic?

There are thousands of valid grounds upon which Trump can be criticized. His administration's sober response to coronavirus is not one of them.

President Trump.
(Image credit: Illustrated | Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images, vitalik19111992/iStock)

I am old enough to remember a time when President Trump's response to coronavirus was decried as heavy handed and authoritarian by observers who thought that restricting air travel to and from China and the imposition of a quarantine were over-the-top responses to a disease that posed less of a threat to the health of the average American than seasonal influenza. These impressions were preceded by sweeping assurances that the assassination of Qassem Soleimani was about to spark war with Iran and that the new U.S.-Mexico-Canada agreement quietly approved by Democratic leaders in the middle of the failed impeachment process would actually worsen our trade relations, to name only a handful of the alas so-far unrealized crises into which L’Éminence orange was confidently assumed to have plunged us in the first month and a half or so of the new year. Perhaps a national moment of silence in acknowledgement of the various dooms to which we have managed not to succumb individually or collectively in the ensuing days would be in order. We are certainly lucky.

As of this writing, roughly 60 Americans have been diagnosed with coronavirus, which is about the same as the number who own copies of Out of the Bachs, an obscure 1968 garage rock album often considered among the rarest and most valuable in the world. A whopping one of them appears to have contracted the disease on these shores. This seems to me about the best one could hope for given the reality of globalized commerce and the unwillingness of millions around the world to forego travel or subject themselves to inconvenient screening processes. (I for one would be happy to see far more stringent restrictions in place.)

You would not know this from reading the headlines or watching television news. On Thursday morning our paper of record greeted us with the following invitation: "Let's Call It Trumpvirus." Let's not, maybe? I am reliably informed that Gail Collins' readers consider her something of a humorist. (Given her audience, one wonders why she did not suggest "covfefevirus," which, no pun intended, would really have knocked them dead.) Her column was painfully unfunny, not because this president never lends himself to mockery but because it assumed that a plague of well-nigh biblical proportions has been visited upon the American people while their feckless commander-in-chief conducts a propaganda campaign meant to distract us from the wagon loads of corpses being carried through the streets.

Subscribe to The Week

Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.


Sign up for The Week's Free Newsletters

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up

This item is of a piece with hundreds of articles and late-night comedy rants now accusing Trump in some vague manner of downplaying the significance of coronavirus. The impression one gets is that instead of what he is doing now (i.e., taking advice from relevant officials; declaring a public health emergency; instituting the first Centers for Disease Control quarantine in half a century; coordinating a response among an almost uncountable number of federal, state, and local bodies charged with everything from screening travelers and contacting Americans abroad to educating doctors and the general public) he should spend hours a day on television engaged in an omnidirectional attempt to induce panic in as many people as possible.

What else would these people prefer to Trump's calm, decisive action here? If he had taken more sweeping measures — restricting business travel by executive order, for example, rather than with the tacit cooperation of Apple and hundreds of other firms — he would have been called a fascist. If he had gone to the airwaves (or his favorite social media platform) to warn everyone of an imminent outbreak, he would be dismissed as an uninformed crank whose scare-mongering posed a more serious threat to global peace and health than the disease itself. Fact-checkers are handing him Pinocchios for saying that the situation is "very much under control." What would have been more accurate? Him declaring that coronavirus is on the verge of destroying civilization as we know it and suggesting the average American family stock up on masks, food, and gasoline and pray that the end, when it comes, be swift and painless? The mind reels.

The cynicism of the president's critics here is boundless. There are thousands of valid grounds upon which Trump can be criticized. His administration's sober response to coronavirus is not one of them. To quote The New York Times again: "If you're feeling awful, you know who to blame."

I have no trouble believing that millions of my fellow citizens really do feel this way. But their bizarre emotional needs are their own problem, not Trump’s.

Continue reading for free

We hope you're enjoying The Week's refreshingly open-minded journalism.

Subscribed to The Week? Register your account with the same email as your subscription.

Matthew Walther

Matthew Walther is a national correspondent at The Week. His work has also appeared in First Things, The Spectator of London, The Catholic Herald, National Review, and other publications. He is currently writing a biography of the Rev. Montague Summers. He is also a Robert Novak Journalism Fellow.