Trump wants praise for his coronavirus response. Here it is.
I have come to praise President Trump, not to bury him.
The U.S. has more coronavirus cases and deaths than any other country, but Trump is doing his best. What Trump does best is marketing, not management; showmanship, not the traditional performance of leadership. In his new nightly show, he has been saying some pretty nutty things — including inappropriately demanding praise from White House reporters — but if you look past his words and tweets, Trump has done some things right. Why not make a good-faith effort to recognize his positive actions?
For example, Trump closed off most travel to and from China on Jan. 31, overruling objections from Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and other economic advisers and despite trade negotiations with Beijing he considered very important. The reduction in visitors from China plausibly bought the U.S. some time to prepare for the pandemic.
So far, Trump has been admirably willing to step back when others were better suited to take the lead. He has delegated responsibility — wisely to Vice President Mike Pence and his medical advisers, less wisely to son-in-law Jared Kushner, whose hubristic attempt to reinvent the wheel will likely be viewed darkly by history. He sent Mnuchin to negotiate coronavirus rescue packages with Senate and House Democrats, the result being huge amounts of money being pushed out in a remarkably short time, probably boosting both the economy and Trump's re-election hopes.
Also, many of the governors Trump has left to their own devices have risen to the occasion, instituting aggressive COVID-19 mitigation measures that have saved lives and appear to have slowed the spread of the coronavirus to at least a manageable level.
Trump himself may not have been quick to embrace social distancing, but he did agree to his health team's "15 Days to Slow the Spread" guidelines and unveiled them himself on March 16. For reference, that's the same day five counties in the San Francisco Bay area issued the nation's first stay-at-home orders. California didn't impose the country's first statewide order until March 19, a day after Trump tweeted out a video urging various coronavirus mitigation strategies including working from home and avoiding unnecessary travel.
Trump knows his audience. His imprimatur of the social distancing rules, inconsistent as it may be, was still essential in getting his hard-core fan base to accept the hardship of quarantine and inconvenience of masks and social distance. Just imagine how much worse the anti-social-distancing protests would be if Trump went full freedom-to-infect?
Trump has signaled publicly and privately that he is eager for business activity to resume in the U.S., but the White House's advice for states seeking to lift their social distancing rules remains fairly cautious and conservative. Trump's instincts appeared to urge him to gamble on COVID-19 miraculously disappearing, but he has not put all his chips on the economy. Even he thinks some states have gone too far, too fast.
It can be hard to give Trump his due because he is so thirsty for praise. His "primary focus" these days, The New York Times reports, "is assessing how his performance on the virus is measured in the news media, and the extent to which history will blame him."
"Let us now praise famous men" is best known as the ironic title of the 1941 James Agee-Walker Evans dive into the lives of impoverished white subsistence farmers in the Great Depression South. But it comes from the Book of Sirach in the Old Testament. In the translation I have, Sirach 44:1 reads: "Now will I praise those godly men, our ancestors, each in his own time."
Those godly men Sirach praises include not just the Hebrew patriarchs but also "subduers of the land in kingly fashion, men of renown for their might," prophets and prudent thinkers, "resolute princes of the folk, and governors with the staves," skilled authors, melodious composers and lyricists, and "stalwart men, solidly established and at peace in their own estates."
All of these men "were glorious in their time, each illustrious in his day," the verse continues. "Some of them have left behind a name and men recount their praiseworthy deeds; But of others there is no memory, for when they ceased, they ceased. And they are as though they had not lived, they and their children after them."
Which is to say: History will judge how Trump handled this plague, not now but once it is long over. It may judge his actions above-average, it may deem him a disaster, or it may ignore his role entirely. Do you remember hearing anything about how Woodrow Wilson managed the Spanish Influenza pandemic of 1918-19? Me neither.
When students study this moment in the future, they will look at the death toll in the U.S. and the world, how long the pandemic lasted, and how it affected the way we lived. Hopefully, history will record that America and the world learned valuable lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic and put in place measures to make sure no virus would be so disruptive and destructive again.
So let us now praise Donald Trump, a famous man. Honestly, nobody else will care as much as him.
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