President Trump is about to fail his big coronavirus test — the test of leadership — for a second time.
His original failures in the weeks and months leading up to the COVID-19 outbreak in America are by now well-documented. He was slow to take real steps to slow the spread of the virus, got angry at officials who warned the public to be prepared, and then seemed more interested in the ratings for his news conferences — or in finding a scapegoat for his failures — than in taking effective action.
If we're feeling charitable, some of these failures might be understandable. Global pandemics don't come along every day, and the United States is far from the only advanced nation to get caught short by the outbreak. But Trump is about to make everything worse, because he cares more about his own needs — to bask in applause, to be re-elected, to appear "strong" — than he does about the lives of Americans.
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If Trump were a compassionate commander-in-chief, he wouldn't have called West Point cadets back to campus, compounding their risk of exposure to the coronavirus, just so he could give them a graduation speech. If he cared about the lives of his followers, he wouldn't be cramming 19,000 of them together in Tulsa this week for a campaign rally, creating a potential superspreader event. And if he cared about his duty more than the demands of his ego, he would be urging caution as states reopen and COVID-19 cases rise dramatically. Instead, he's rooting for a return to normal, even though normal is long gone.
The West Point speech was an unnecessary risk to the cadets, who had already dispersed from campus in order to avoid an outbreak. The president's planned rally Saturday in Tulsa looms as a much greater danger: Trump's campaign expects a packed house — officials claim hundreds of thousands of tickets have been distributed, even though the event center can hold fewer than 20,000 people. Meanwhile, the city's COVID-19 case trends are already on the rise, and local officials are worried that any new outbreak might overwhelm Tulsa hospitals.
"COVID is here in Tulsa, it is transmitting very efficiently," the city's health director said over the weekend. "I wish we could postpone this to a time when the virus isn't as large a concern as it is today."
Perhaps the president will change his mind: He has already moved the day of the rally from its original Juneteenth date after an outcry from critics and supporters. But the dangers of convening inside have been obvious for months. The Centers for Disease Control classifies "large in-person gatherings" in its "highest risk" category for spreading the virus. The president decided he wants a rally anyway. He simply doesn't care about the health risks he is imposing on his most devoted followers.
This is in keeping with Trump's overall approach to the virus, which has been to ignore it until he can't, and then to try to wish it away — through quack cures, premature proclamations of victory, or by sidestepping his own government's health recommendations to push for a reopening. When all that doesn't work, he favors appearance over substance — refusing to wear a mask in public, for example, due to fears it makes him look weak.
Despite his claims of success, though, the coronavirus isn't going away. Cases are spiking in 22 states, and at least one health expert says we can't worry about a "second wave" in the fall — the first wave hasn't receded yet. Several states are now warning their hospitals may not be able to handle all the patients headed their way.
Instead of working to stop the virus — or at least contain it — Trump is throwing a party for himself. The inaction is terrible enough, but proceeding with a rally at this point might exacerbate the outbreak in and around Tulsa. The president is endangering the health of his supporters, and everybody who comes in contact with them, so he can relive his glory days.
How irresponsible. How selfish. How wrong.
It's true that Trump isn't the only American ignoring safety precautions. There are worries that the "Black Lives Matter" protests could create new outbreaks across the nation, and some people are ignoring social distancing guidelines to have fun.
The president, however, is supposed to be more responsible. He is supposed to set an example. If only for his own political survival, one might think Trump would do more to curb the virus and less to put his own supporters at risk. This president, though, doesn't have the patience or foresight for enlightened self-interest — all he knows to do is what he thinks he can get away with. Trump famously believes himself immune to the forces that modify the behavior of other, less-accomplished politicians. "I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn't lose any voters," he said in 2016. This week, in Tulsa, Trump won't do any shooting, but it's very possible many people could end up dead as a result of his actions.
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