With Trump, the buck stops… somewhere else
During crises Americans need moral leaders who tell the truth and inspire citizens to come together to address challenges. Abraham Lincoln provided such leadership in his “malice toward none, charity for all” Second Inaugural Address during the Civil War. So did Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in “Fireside Chats” and the “Four Freedoms” he identified as worth fighting for during World War II.
As he has confronted (and evaded) the coronavirus pandemic, Donald Trump has, well, fallen quite a bit short of this standard.
Trump’s tone, body language, false claims, and blanket denials of responsibility for anything that has gone wrong on his watch, reflect his “enough about you” approach to his presidency. He has created a vacuum in moral leadership in the United States.
Here are just a few examples:
In late February, the president declared “We’re very ready… for anything.” He claimed that cases of coronavirus were declining in the United States; fatality rates from the disease were lower than for the flu; and a vaccine would be available soon.
When testing proceeded far more slowly than it has in other countries (South Korea conducts 10,000-15,000 tests a day, while the United States has not completed that many tests in total), Trump stated, “The testing has gone very well. And when people need a test, they can get a test.” And again, “Frankly, the testing has been going very smooth. We’ve done a good job on testing.” At the same time, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, testified in the House of Representatives that “the system is not really geared to what we need right now [i.e. testing]. That is a failing. Let’s admit it.”
The day after Trump opined “It will go away” and “It’s really working out,” Fauci predicted “The bottom line: It’s going to get worse.” It’s worth noting that according to Marc Lipsitch, director of the Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics at Harvard’s School of Public Health, “We’re flying almost completely blind right now. We have a lot of uncertainty about whether we have 10 times more or 100 times more cases than we know about.” Michael Mina, associate medical director of virology at Brigham and Women’s hospital in Boston, wishes “we had really begun to take this problem seriously as a country two months ago.”
Faced with criticism of his handling of the crisis (including an 80 percent reduction of funding for the CDC for global pandemics and a 2021 proposed cut of 16 percent in CDC funding and $3 billion in global health programs), the distractor-in-chief has placed the blame (as usual) on the Obama Administration. “I don’t take responsibility at all” for defective testing kits, he said. “Because we were given a different set of circumstances.”
He tweeted: “For decades the @CDC gov looked at, and studied, its testing system, but did nothing about it.” He tweeted: “President Obama made changes that only complicated things further.” He tweeted that the Obama Administration’s response to H1N1 swine flu “was a full scale disaster, with thousands dying, and nothing meaningful done to fix the testing problem, until now.” And on March 12 he tweeted: “Sleepy Joe Biden was in charge of the H1N1 epidemic which killed thousands of people… the response was one of the worst on record.”
On March 13, when PBS correspondent Yamiche Alcindor asked Trump about his responsibility for the decision in 2018 to disband the White House pandemic preparedness office, he replied: “Well, I think that’s a nasty question… And when you say me, I didn’t do it… but perhaps we could ask Tony about that, because I don’t know anything about it. I mean, you say we did that, I don’t know anything about it. Disbanding, no, I don’t know anything about it… It’s the administration, perhaps they do that.”
As Alcindor began to ask a follow up question, her microphone was shut off.
So much for “the buck stops here.”
And alas, it appears that our country, which has a smaller per capita number of hospital beds than Italy and is scrambling to increase its supply of ventilators, is flying to who knows where — without a pilot.
Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University. He is the co-author (with Stuart Blumin) of Rude Republic: Americans and Their Politics in the Nineteenth Century.