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A Death Toll That Cannot Be Forgotten

Trump has blood on his hands, and America must not wash it away.

Angela Weiss/Getty Images

On Tuesday, the number of American coronavirus casualties reached a grim milestone. Over 4,000 deaths had been recorded, officially surpassing the number of Americans killed on September 11. The shock of those nearly 3,000 dead led to nearly 20 years of war, which killed hundreds of thousands abroad and reordered politics and the habits of daily life here at home. As of today, April 3, the pandemic has taken over 6,000 American lives, more than double that number.

The most influential projection of American coronavirus casualties remains last month’s epidemiological report from Imperial College London, which estimated that 2.2 million Americans would die if nothing at all was done to slow the spread of the virus and that over a million would die if, as the president proposed as recently as last week, American life proceeded mostly as normal with limited mitigation efforts aimed at protecting the most vulnerable. In recent days, those figures have been cited by the White House less to illustrate how grave the situation is than to anchor rhetoric about how well the administration has handled the response. “Think of the number: 2.2—potentially 2.2 million people if we did nothing,” Trump said at Sunday’s press briefing. “If we didn’t do the distancing, if we didn’t do all of the things that we’re doing.”

Trump went on to mention a lower potential death toll repeated by Drs. Deborah Birx and Anthony Fauci: Given the measures already taken, the White House believes America could see 100,000 to 200,000 deaths before the virus runs its course. “If we can hold that down, as we’re saying, to 100,000,” the president said, “maybe even less, but to 100,000; so we have between 100 and 200,000—we all, together, have done a very good job.” A similar projection of 100,000 to 240,000 dead appeared on a chart that outlined the administration’s “goals of community mitigation” at Tuesday’s press conference. “We don’t accept that number, that that’s what it’s going to be,” Fauci stressed. “We are going to be doing everything we can to get it even significantly below that.” But the president characterized the estimate differently. “When you see 100,000 people,” he said, “that’s a minimum number.”

Trump’s public attitude now is miles from his attitude in late February, when he tweeted that the coronavirus was “very much under control in the USA” and claimed at a press briefing that the then 15 active cases in the country would soon decline “down to close to zero.” Since then, the number of cases has exploded to over a quarter of a million. Casualties will continue to mount, partially as a consequence of the administration’s mismanagement of the crisis—from the catastrophic testing failures to the White House’s inability and outright refusals to provide states with equipment. On Thursday, Jared Kushner chided those expecting a distribution of resources from strategic federal stockpiles. “The notion of the federal stockpile was, it’s supposed to be our stockpile,” he said. “It’s not supposed to be state stockpiles that they then use.”

Beyond the White House’s maladministration, the president’s mixed messaging has affected behavior on the ground. It should never be forgotten that Donald Trump is one of the most respected people in America. Somewhere between one-third and almost half the country hangs on his every word, as amplified by one of the country’s two major political parties and a vast media infrastructure committed to defending and lauding everything he says and does. His nonchalance about the virus in its early days mattered. This was confirmed again in a survey conducted by political scientists Shana Kushner Gadarian, Sara Wallace Goodman, and Thomas Pepinsky that was released this week, which found that partisanship predicted individual responses to the virus more than any other factor, with Republicans reportedly “less likely than Democrats to report responding with CDC-recommended behavior” and consistently “less concerned about the pandemic.”

The facts at hand should make it easy to say what former Vice President Joe Biden didn’t on Sunday: The president has blood on his hands—an amount that defies comprehension. The White House’s lowball estimate of 100,000 dead is over 33 times the number of victims killed on 9/11 and over 54 times the number of recorded deaths from Hurricane Katrina. It is over 14 times the number of American personnel killed during the War on Terror, almost double those killed in Vietnam, and almost triple the number killed in Korea. The president’s minimum—his best-case scenario—surpasses the number of Americans killed by any single, novel event since World War II. Every national tragedy of the last several generations will be surpassed many times over.

Will this tragedy reshape us? Were this some other kind of catastrophe, we’d see Americans take to the streets in large numbers; we may still after the pandemic ends. We are good, as a country, at catharsis. But none of the strong but fleeting responses to the other horrors inflicted on this country by this president—the Muslim ban, the ICE raids and deportations, the family separations, the administration’s response to Hurricane Maria, and all the reststretched into action commensurate with all that is awry in this period in American life or all that has always been awry with America.

There is hope all around that the scale of this new situation will bring more out of us—that a crisis already touching every American one way or another will yield, finally, some kind of awakening. But just over a decade ago, we were hit by a deep recession that upended millions of lives without upending the basic premises and structures underpinning the American economy. For all the comfort they provide, the praises sung for American resilience in times of turmoil are ultimately paeans to the strength of American inertia. There is an itch already for a return to something like normalcy: not after the crisis has passed, but now, even as the bodies pile up in overfilled morgues, as though it were possible.

Belatedly, Trump is now trying to rustle the skeptics into a different frame of mind. He’s calling himself a wartime president. Even his critics have utilized this frame, evaluating him on how well or how poorly he’s managed to put the nation on a war footing against the virus. War is always the natural metaphor because war is the only kind of existential threat comprehensible to the public mind. As climate activists have learned, there is great rhetorical power in framing diffuse, complex problems and systemic failures in these terms. A pandemic and the dynamics underpinning climate change are categorically different kinds of threats than those signaled by a Pearl Harbor or a 9/11. But this is the way you get the public’s attention. In this particular case, the war metaphor has both elevated the president’s stature, however briefly, in the eyes of American voters and extended further the extraordinary amount of respectful deference already granted him by certain members of the press, who noted his shift to a more presidential register in recent days.

It was reported this week that the Biden campaign is setting up a call with the White House to offer Trump more pointers on how he might better manage the crisis. On Thursday, Biden explained his reasoning to attendees of a virtual fundraiser. “The president is the commander in chief,” he said. “He should act like a commander in chief now. He can in fact make the whole federal government function and help the states coordinate everything.” It’s unlikely that Biden would actually say anything to Trump that he doesn’t already know or isn’t being told. But the intent, on Biden’s part, seems clear. The pitch for a return to normalcy will not be as convincing if the campaign doesn’t have the normal, expected interactions with Trump—interactions that in themselves imply that Trump is a normal president.

As difficult as it is to remember now, all the energy expended by Democrats early in the administration—the days of safety pins and pussy hats—was spent to avoid exactly this, and one struggles to imagine how anyone back then would have accepted the state of things now: a political situation in which the president can concede 100,000 or more Americans will die on his watch without his resignation being seriously discussed. Whatever happens in November, Trump has won, even in what ought to be his darkest hour, at least a meaningful amount of acquiescence. And this, perhaps more than any other reason, is cause for pessimism about the aftermath of all this—a cause for suspicion that things will recover without being remade.