Opinion

Trump was the disaster we should have seen coming

We were warned

This disaster was foreseen.

You probably think I'm talking about the coronavirus pandemic — and if so, well, you're half-right. Each week brings us new evidence that President Trump failed to heed warnings that the COVID-19 virus could bring disaster, missing an opportunity to prepare for an outbreak that has claimed nearly 70,000 American lives.

But I'm also referring to the president's botched leadership in this crisis. Long before he won his shocking Electoral College victory in 2016, it was obvious that Trump would falter disastrously when faced with an emergency. "Just imagine Donald Trump in the Oval Office facing a real crisis," Hillary Clinton, his Democratic opponent in that election, tweeted in August of that year. "We can't afford that kind of risk." She was right.

Looking back to such forecasts is more than a matter of saying "I told you so." The president and his allies are already busy rewriting history with a mix of happy talk and scapegoating: Everything Trump has done has been a spectacular success, we're to believe, except for all the stuff that is the fault of China, or the responsibility of governors, or caused by the shortcomings of former President Obama. The battle for the historical narrative is under way. We have to act now to preserve the real history — of what went wrong and how it could have been avoided — so that future generations can look at us and hopefully learn from our mistakes.

The first mistake was electing Trump.

It's important to remember that one of the most influential pieces of pro-Trump punditry during the 2016 campaign conceded up front that his election could well end in a disaster for the country. But Michael Anton, the author of "The Flight 93 Election" essay, asserted that Clinton's triumph would somehow be worse.

These are the first two paragraphs of that piece:

2016 is the Flight 93 election: charge the cockpit or you die. You may die anyway. You — or the leader of your party — may make it into the cockpit and not know how to fly or land the plane. There are no guarantees.

Except one: if you don't try, death is certain. To compound the metaphor: a Hillary Clinton presidency is Russian Roulette with a semi-auto. With Trump, at least you can spin the cylinder and take your chances. [Michael Anton, The Flight 93 Election]

Even in hindsight, it is shocking to remember how utterly and nakedly cynical, even suicidal, the pro-Trump position was even before he became president.

"The Trump crisis playbook tends to have three, overlapping tactics," The Atlantic's David Graham wrote in September 2016. "First, he doubles down on anything he said that's getting heat. Second, he insists that he actually was right and/or victorious. Third, he blames a rigged game for any troubles he encounters."

Graham was writing about a political crisis — but it is obvious that Trump sees the pandemic not as a human disaster, but primarily as a political problem for himself and his re-election. And Trump's crisis playbook has been in full effect in recent days.

Doubling down? Trump refused last week to acknowledge the error he made in late February when he said the coronavirus would be quickly contained. "You have 15 people, and the 15 within a couple of days is going to be down to close to zero," he said then. Tuesday, he absurdly wouldn't back down from that assessment. "Well, it will go down to zero, ultimately," he said. Ridiculous.

Insisting he is right, even when the facts suggest he's wrong? The president declares on a near-daily basis that American testing for the coronavirus is exemplary. "We've tested more than every country combined," he said. But that's not true — and in any case, scientific experts say much more testing is needed to track the disease and safely reopen the country for business.

Blaming others for his troubles? "They always said nobody got treated worse than Lincoln," he told Fox News Sunday night. "I believe I am treated worse." In a moment of great crisis for his countrymen, Trump reserves his greatest pity for himself.

So while Americans deal with sickness, death, and the loss of income, the president spends his days obsessing about his poll numbers and insulting rivals. There is little evidence he understands the pandemic's human toll, except in terms of how it affects him and his future.

We can't say we weren't warned. We have another chance in November to heed those warnings. Let's hope we've learned from our 2016 mistakes.

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