The president is unwell
The only thing worse than a pandemic is having Donald Trump as your president during a pandemic. Tens of thousands of Americans have died. Tens of millions have lost their jobs. President Trump, meanwhile, has indulged in self-pity, touted an unproven drug, bragged about the TV ratings of his press briefings, and expressed interest in the idea of people injecting disinfectants into their lungs — or, as we used to call it, committing suicide.
Every day, we have to worry about the president's mental health when he should be worrying about our physical health.
After saying he wanted "the governors to be running things," Trump said his authority was "total." "The president of the United States calls the shots," he explained. Three days later, he told governors, "You're going to call your own shots."
To the extent that Trump has a plan, it is to take credit for everything the governors do well and to blame them for everything he does poorly. On Wednesday, he faulted Georgia's Republican governor for reopening businesses too soon. This was five days after Trump called for several states to be "liberated" from the guidelines he himself had issued the day before. Governors can't do anything right. If they reopen businesses, Trump will blame them for deaths. If they keep businesses closed, he will blame them for a bad economy as well as deaths. By doing nothing, Trump hopes to be blamed for nothing.
Too late. He failed to prepare for the pandemic even though — and also because — there was a book outlining how to prepare for a pandemic. Trump doesn't read much, know much, or learn much. He feels much and talks much.
"I'm not a doctor," Trump said, "but I'm a person with common sense."
Apparently, it's common sense to call hydroxychloroquine "a very special thing" and to say that "a lot of people are saying" that patients should take the unproven drug. According to a White House official, these people include "so many people in New York — friends, Wall Street guys, real estate guys."
When not heeding the medical advice of real estate guys, Trump relies on his own epidemiological clairvoyance. He told Fox News' Sean Hannity he had a "hunch" about the coronavirus death rate. "Personally, I would say the number is way under 1 percent," he said, adding, "I don't believe you need 40,000 or 30,000 ventilators." As Joel Stein said, "Sometimes you just know in your gut how many ventilators each hospital will need in a pandemic."
Trump's "war against the invisible enemy" is a war against the scientific method. We cannot attack the coronavirus. We can only hide from it and defend ourselves with gloves, masks, and hand sanitizer. This takes time. The only way to win is to wait.
Trump doesn't want to wait. Just six days after he called himself "a wartime president," he said the war had "been going for a while" and that it should end by Easter (19 days later). Why Easter? Because, he said, "Easter is a very special day ... for me." Trump makes everything about him, even the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
The president's subordinates are tasked with protecting his ego first and Americans' lives second. His trade advisor Peter Navarro said on Fox & Friends, "I bet on President Trump's intuition on this." He said "this" because hydroxychloroquine was too hard to pronounce. Dr. Deborah Birx, coordinator of the White House's coronavirus task force, said that Trump is "so attentive to the scientific literature and the details and the data." This is true if Fox News chyrons count as scientific literature.
In the Trump administration, telling the truth is a fireable offense. Dr. Rick Bright, the director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, was removed for questioning the president's recommendation of hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for the coronavirus. Now medical researchers have to worry about getting fired for not recommending ingesting bleach.
While visiting the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last month, Trump boasted, "I really get it. People are surprised that I understand it. Every one of these doctors said, 'How do you know so much about this?' Maybe I have a natural ability. Maybe I should have done that instead of running for president."
He should have. Our hospitals would be in much better shape if Trump were in one of them.
Want more essential commentary and analysis like this delivered straight to your inbox? Sign up for The Week's "Today's best articles" newsletter here.