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10 April 2020

Trump's Pandemic Failure: A Missed Opportunity

By: Alon Ben-Meir
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For a man who is a self-absorbed, power hungry narcissist who wants to be recognized as one of the greatest presidents of the United States while desperately trying to be reelected, Trump failed miserably to rise to the occasion precipitated by the unfortunate advent and spread of the coronavirus. Instead of minimizing the ominous danger of the virus and ignoring the warning of top scientists about the prospective disastrous consequences it could unleash, he could have mobilized from the onset of this pandemic every national resource to tackle the virus head on. This includes the military, the National Guards, and thousands of companies and medical institutions to produce critical equipment and testing on a national scale, and creating an aggressive national program to fight this virus as a war on all fronts.

Had he done that, he could have realized just about everything he wanted. In fact, he would have been able to emerge from this tragic outbreak as a hero. The public would have forgiven him for his incessant lies, deliberate misleading statements, idiosyncrasies, and corruption. I also believe that Trump would have been able to handedly beat any prospective Democratic nominee, including Joe Biden, come November.

The question is, why didn’t Trump pursue this logical course of action? There are a number of reasons that explain his bizarre behavior, albeit none should have obscured the gravity of the situation—if he only wasn’t so immersed with himself. From his vantage point, everything starts first and foremost with what can serve his personal interests.

From the onset, Trump sought to disassociate himself from the outbreak of the virus by denying that he failed to prepare the country for such epidemic, when in fact he greatly contributed to the country’s unpreparedness. In the spring of 2018, he dismantled the team in charge of responding to pandemics, including the departure of its head, Rear Adm. Timothy Ziemer. In addition, he cut funding for the CDC and continues to push for reducing US funding of the World Health Organization. Moreover, he seem to be unwilling to embrace testing on a national scale because he does not want to show that the number of those infected is exponentially increasing, leaving the country more vulnerable that it has ever been.

Trump’s concern with the economy was first and foremost in his mind. As he sees it, the continuing economic boom was central to his reelection campaign, and he rebuffed anything that could adversely impact the health of the economy. Thus, he had to minimize the dire implications of the coronavirus, even though he knew about the virus early in January and dismissed the scientific evidence suggesting that the impact of the virus would be catastrophic if the country was not fully mobilized to deal with the epidemic.

As customary for Trump, he never takes responsibility for anything that turns sour, but he rushes in and relishes taking credit for anything good, perceived or real, like the record-breaking stock market or the lowest unemployment rate in a generation which, in fact, was largely precipitated by Obama’s economic recovery plans.  In this case, he put blame for the lack of essential medical supplies squarely on the Obama administration, and various governors who were told that they are on their own: not only because it was convenient, but because it would also distinguish himself from the “failings” of his predecessor whom he intensely disliked.

Being totally consumed by his reelection campaign is an understatement. For Trump, nothing else matters. He was determined to treat Covid-19 as a side distraction and not allow the rapid spread of the virus to interfere in his reelection efforts. Having finally realized the severity of the pandemic, as the number of deaths and those infected rose exponentially, Trump was quick to capitalize on it by conducting a daily press conference, which has become a replacement for his campaign rallies.

Finally, Trump was quick to take full credit for the passage of the largest economic stimulus bill, to the tune of $2.2 trillion. For him, the bill is essential in order to keep unemployment—which has exploded in recent weeks—as low as possible and allow the stock market to regain some of its substantial losses. To be sure, Trump wants to present himself as the savior of the economy, knowing that short of a significantly improved economic outlook in the immediate future, his reelection prospects will be dim at best.

While Trump was focusing on what serves his personal interests, Covid-19 was claiming the lives of tens of thousands of Americans and infecting hundreds of thousands more (14,696 deaths and 427,460 cases at the time of writing). Much of this tragic infliction could have been prevented had his administration been better prepared, and had Trump himself acted in good faith. Instead, he sought to push unproven and under-tested pharmaceuticals in the hopes that they would prove beneficial, so that he could present it to the nation as another sign of his great success in handling the pandemic.

The problem with Trump though is his obsession with himself, which blinds him from seeing the larger picture. Trump’s ignorance prevented him from realizing that one can engender a breakthrough from a breakdown. Had he been honest with himself and with the American public, he could have simply admitted that the country was unprepared and that he will fight this deadly virus with all of America’s might. He could have also offered assistance to other countries in need, restoring some of America’s global leadership.

Indeed, assuming responsibility and rising to the occasion to right the wrongs would have put Trump in a completely different light. He could have emerged from this historic pandemic a truly decisive, strong, and visionary leader—attributes that have only eluded him when they were at his very grasp.

* Alon Ben-Meir is a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies. - alon@alonben-meir.com

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