America rudderless amid pandemic

“A special Providence protects fools, drunkards, small children and the United States of America” — attributed to Otto von Bismarck.

Has America’s providential luck run out? Throughout our history, at moments of supreme danger, our country has managed to find leaders of extraordinary character and ability to steer us through the storm.

Now, if you tune into the White House’s daily pandemic “briefing,” you’d think Captain Queeg was at the helm.


Great presidents are forged in the crucible of great crises. America’s struggle for independence, the Civil War, the Great Depression and World War II gave rise to George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt, respectively.

Donald J. Trump won’t be joining them in the presidential pantheon. He has failed abysmally to rise to what history will record as the defining test of his presidency. Some responsibility for that failure falls on Senate Republicans, who abdicated their constitutional duty during impeachment to remove a clearly unfit president from office. 

Trump’s inept handling of the pandemic has helped to make America number one at something: Coronavirus infections (430,000 people at this writing.) And with nearly 15,000 deaths, we are closing in on the fatality frontrunners, Spain (15,238) and Italy (17,669). 

The president ignored early warning signs, including, we learned this week, a January 29 memo from a top White House adviser estimating that, in the worst case, the virus could kill a half-million Americans. He claims not to have read the memo, which is plausible since he fills his days with “executive time” (watching Fox and other cable shows) and rage-tweeting anyone who rubs him the wrong way. In any event, Trump responded to the imminent danger of contagion the way he always responds to unwelcome realities — with denial and bluster.

First, the coronavirus was no big deal, hardly worse than the flu, and would disappear soon. Then it became a Democratic hoax to deny Trump reelection by destroying the “beautiful” economy he had hoped to ride to reelection. By the time he finally realized you can’t spin a lethal infectious disease, the federal government had lost six precious weeks when it should have been preparing for the onslaught.


As it leaps from country to country, the pandemic shines an unsparing light on the quality of political leadership and the competence of national governments. Sadly, but not surprisingly, America hasn’t measured up. It turns out that political experience and competence matter, and that elections are serious business, and that if you hand power to an amateurish demagogue you’ll get lousy government.   

Many other countries were better prepared and are handling the pandemic more capably than we are. The “best in class” performers include South Korea, Japan, Singapore and Hong Kong. South Korea, which tests extensively, only has just over 10,000 confirmed cases, and 204 deaths. These Asian nations also use cellphone and Bluetooth data to trace peoples’ movements to identify “hot spots” and determine who may have been exposed to the virus and should be quarantined.

Even China, where the coronavirus originated, reports far fewer confirmed cases (81,865) and deaths (3,335) than the United States, even though it has roughly a billion more people. Given the fog of lies and disinformation generated by Chinese authorities since the outbreak, however, those figures should be viewed with skepticism. 

It’s not just Asian countries; Germany also is a star performer. It reports 113,296 confirmed cases and 2,349 deaths, a fatality rate (2.07 percent) about the same as South Korea’s. Sweden is getting a lot of attention because, thanks to rigorous contact tracing, it can apply social distancing more selectively and keep more people working.

Meanwhile, back in the USA, face masks and other personal protection gear, coronavirus tests and ventilators are scarce in many places. Nor do we engage as systematically in geo-locating people’s movements to determine who might have been exposed to the virus. As a result, public authorities have little choice but to order everyone into social isolation, locking down most of the U.S. economy. 


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declined to invoke his full powers to mobilize the national government to end these shortages swiftly. His daily media performances are a parody of real political leadership, rife with misinformation, self-promotion and diatribes against reporters who ask pertinent questions rather than praising him for the “great job” he’s doing.

No wonder a slew of polls out this week show that, unlike previous presidents in national emergencies, Trump hasn’t benefitted from a “rally ‘round the flag” effect. Trump is very good at polarizing the nation, but he cannot unite America in a crisis.

When the pandemic subsides and normal life starts to resume, we will need a full accounting of why the Trump administration failed so dismally to rally a focused national response. If after losing tens of thousands of lives, idling millions of workers and nearly wrecking our economy we fail to learn from this experience, it will be the biggest tragedy of all.

Congress should waste no time in setting up a 9-11 Commission-style inquiry to lay the facts before the public this fall. If U.S. elections are still about democratic accountability, President Trump and Republican senators will have a lot to answer for in November.

Will Marshall is president and founder of the Progressive Policy Institute (PPI).