President Trump is finally starting to take the novel coronavirus pandemic seriously, America's top political reporters inform us. At a grim briefing Monday evening, he showed projections estimating between 100,000-240,000 deaths, and said "We're going to go through a very tough two weeks."
"Trump sounding different today. Scale of death appears to have changed his tone, at least," says Eric Lipton of The New York Times. He is "coming to grips with a reality he had long refused to accept," writes his colleague Peter Baker. "This is an absolutely new message and new tone from Trump," says Politico's Jake Sherman.
I have only one question: Have these people been locked in a bunker for the past three years? Donald Trump has not magically discovered an ability to care about other people, nor has he found some hitherto unused reserves of competence.
To begin with, Trump has still not taken the kind of sweeping action that would put force behind this new "serious" pose. He has not demanded recalcitrant Republican governors implement lockdowns to keep the virus from spreading — especially in Florida, where the outbreak is spreading fast and its elderly population is at extreme risk. He has refused to re-open ObamaCare enrollment so millions of uninsured Americans can try to get health insurance. He has not used Defense Production Act powers to take control of the medical supply chain and stop the ongoing bidding war over protective gear and ventilators. As a result, states are wasting scarce cash trying to secure supplies for their doctors and nurses, and millions of N95 masks are still being exported to other countries. He has not demanded Congress set up remote voting measures so they can pass more vitally-needed legislation.
In other words, Trump is continuing to botch the coronavirus response just as he has from the start. He frittered away a critical six weeks insisting that nothing bad would happen, and blaming Democrats and the media for exaggerating bad news. On Tuesday, Jim Tankersly reported at the Times (where the non-political outbreak coverage has generally been excellent) that back in September White House economists published a study warning "a pandemic disease could kill a half million Americans and devastate the economy." Trump ignored it even as the coronavirus pandemic took hold.
This isn't even the first time in the last two weeks that Trump has pretended to take the pandemic seriously. Back on March 16, Trump suddenly stopped downplaying the virus and endorsed social-distancing measures, warning things could get very bad. Then he quickly got frustrated and bored and started arguing that the lockdown measures were maybe worse than the disease itself, that perhaps chloroquine could cure it (leading to at least one overdose death), and that perhaps the economy should be reopened by Easter. He reportedly only changed his tune because someone he knew personally fell ill, and more importantly bad polls started to come in from red states.
I would bet quite a lot of money he is going to do the exact same thing again this time. The economy will continue to collapse, the daily COVID-19 death toll will rise from the hundreds into the thousands, and Trump will start lashing out and searching for scapegoats. This latest shift in tone is beyond question only an attempt to move the goalposts and claim victory if the death toll is "only" in the low six figures — which seems rather improbable given how the U.S. is still not on full-scale national lockdown — but Trump doesn't have the attention span or discipline to maintain that kind of strategy, or any strategy, over the long run.
And that is because of who Trump is: by far the most ignorant, deluded, shameless, and incompetent person ever to serve as president. Former Deadspin writer David J. Roth, who has the unfortunate superpower of seeing clearly into Trump's malformed Play-Doh lump of a brain, has been telling us this for years: "In the most basic sense, just in terms of getting off his ass to do the basic boring things presidents do, Trump can't do the job," he wrote back in 2018. Trump cannot take the pandemic seriously because he is much, much more stupid than your average 3rd-grader, and because he cares about nothing but himself. "The rest of the world is an abstraction to him, a market to exploit; there is no other person in it who is real to him," Roth wrote in 2017.
But the sheer enormity of the Trump presidency — the world's most powerful office being filled by a gormless reality-TV halfwit — clearly cannot fit into the minds of America's important political reporters. They cannot see what Trump is because of what it would imply about America as a country, and by extension their own position as "neutral" political observers. An accurate description of Trump sounds leftist and biased, and so they keep trying to jam him into the usual presidential coverage frame, like someone trying to pass off a freaked-out emu as a professional tap dancer. As Alex Pareene writes, "They don't want Donald Trump to fail. They want him to 'pivot' and 'act presidential.'"
So we'll probably have to go through this preposterous routine several more times, as the president continues to fail, and the elite political press continues to seize on any possible excuse to present him as something other than what he is. If anyone needs to "come to grips" with unpleasant facts, it is the political press and the monstrous reality of Trump.
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