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The Coronavirus Is Trump’s Worst Nightmare

How a serious epidemic could wreck his presidency

Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty

Donald Trump is not known for his steely calm. In the face of a seemingly endless string of legal scrapes and existential crises—impeachment, a special counsel investigation, a potentially mortifying presidential election looming over it all—he has responded with his signature mix of rage and panic, spraying Twitter with cries of “fake news” and blaming his woes on enemies, real or imagined, in the Democratic Party, in the deep state, even in Fox News. This is what we have come to expect from the president, and the easiest, sanest response is to shut it out, to let the mad old man shake his fist at whatever shape he might see in the clouds crossing his ever-darkening sky. 

Yet there has been something particularly jumpy about Trump’s response to the coronavirus, which, having claimed the lives of nearly 3,000 people worldwide, has now gained a toehold in the United States. At a press conference on Wednesday, he said, “The risk to the American people remains very low.” He claimed that more cases in America are not “inevitable,” even though moments earlier, Anne Schuchat, the principal deputy director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, had said, “We do expect more cases.” (The Washington Post broke the news of the first confirmed coronavirus case in California during the press conference.) He insisted that his administration is “very, very ready for this,” that Johns Hopkins had deemed America “No. 1 for being prepared” for epidemics, and that “this will end.” There was a strong whiff of wish fulfillment in all these strenuous assertions, just as when Trump earlier maintained, with zero evidence, that the coronavirus “miraculously goes away” when warmer weather arrives.

You could argue that this is typical Trump, spreading disinformation and spin like so much ink from a startled squid. But his response also reveals a deep unease, a recognition on Trump’s part, through the apocalyptic swirl of his own paranoia, that the coronavirus represents a very real threat to his presidency.

The biggest advantage that Trump has, in terms of getting reelected, is that the economy is doing well. The coronavirus has already brought the Chinese economy, the world’s second-largest, to its knees as authorities try to keep a swelling epidemic in check. Janet Yellen, the former head of the Federal Reserve, says the coronavirus could very well “throw the United States into a recession.” Moody’s Analytics says there’s a 40 percent chance of a coronavirus-related recession occurring. American stocks are tanking over fears that the virus could become a global pandemic, throwing sand in the gears of the world economy. The stock market has long stopped being a gauge of anything other than wealth capture by the well-to-do, and so naturally Donald Trump is watching: He tweeted on Wednesday that CNN and MSNBC “are doing everything possible to make the Caronavirus [sic] look as bad as possible, including panicking markets.”

The health of the economy, as well as the possibility of a second term for Trump, may depend on his administration responding efficiently and competently to the crisis. Suffice it to say, efficiency and competence are not exactly his administration’s strong suits. As Laurie Garrett noted in Foreign Policy, the Trump administration has essentially set itself up for failure: “In 2018, the Trump administration fired the government’s entire pandemic response chain of command, including the White House management infrastructure. In numerous phone calls and emails with key agencies across the U.S. government, the only consistent response I encountered was distressed confusion.” The best Trump could do for a coronavirus czar, scanning the sycophants and ghouls who populate his Cabinet, was Mike Pence, whose last attempt to contain a health crisis, an AIDS outbreak in his home state of Indiana, was compromised by his cruel and stupid opposition to a clean needle exchange program, on the premise that the needles would encourage more drug use. 

Pence’s record in turn reminds us that the administration has a problem with basic literacy when it comes to issues of health and science, which will become only more strikingly apparent in the event of an epidemic. The Trump administration had previously proposed cuts to the CDC that would have been “unsafe at any level of enactment,” according to former CDC head Tom Frieden.

In worse news for Trump, the Democratic front-runner is basing a large part of his candidacy on overthrowing America’s tattered health care system. In fact, the outbreak had barely touched these shores before the current setup began to reveal its myriad holes. When Osmel Azcue, a Florida resident who came down with symptoms similar to the coronavirus, sought to do the responsible thing by getting himself tested at a local hospital, he was rewarded for doing his civic duty with an invoice for $3,000, of which he was expected to pay roughly half.

In a statement, Bernie Sanders attacked Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, a former Big Pharma executive who doubled the price of insulin during his time at Eli Lilly, for refusing to guarantee that a vaccine for the coronavirus would be affordable for all. “Under the Trump doctrine,” Sanders said, “if you are wealthy, you can buy a vaccine and not succumb to the sickness. If you are poor or working class, you may have to get sick and even die.”

Perhaps most distressing for Trump is the sheer unpredictability of an outbreak, which, like a natural disaster, would require him to be sufficiently nimble and cool-headed to make a series of high-wire decisions in which even one poor choice, one bad photo-op, one clumsy sound bite, could send him falling into the abyss (c.f., George W. Bush’s maladroit response to Hurricane Katrina). Above all, if he wants to remain in passably good stead with voters, he will have to show empathy for those who suffer and possibly die—a problem for a president who has proven to be constitutionally incapable of showing any feeling at all for other people. In his press conference, Trump encouraged Americans to wash their hands and practice basic hygiene using a Parasite-esque anecdote about his encounter with a sick man:  

“I said, ‘Are you well?’ He says, ‘No,’” Mr. Trump said. “He said, ‘I have the worst fever, and the worst flu.’ He’s hugging and kissing me. I said, ‘Excuse me,’ I went and started washing my hands.”

It must trouble Trump that the latest case of coronavirus in the U.S. involves a person who had not visited any of the countries where the virus is rampant, nor come into contact with anyone who had. “That raised the prospect that the virus was spreading through unknown means,” The New York Times reported. This is Trump’s worst nightmare: an invisible, changeable foe whose potential destruction of his presidency cannot be blamed on political enemies or written off as fake news. He will likely feel it as a manifestation of the universe’s unfounded hostility toward him, but if there is any justice, he will learn that, in the end, there’s no escaping facing yourself.