Was President Trump bragging about his television ratings? Or was it his polling? Maybe it was that he wanted credit for New York governor Andrew Cuomo’s high marks. Forgive me for not remembering or even caring. There’s only enough bandwidth for one number at the moment—the national COVID-19 death toll that stalks a new record high each day.
As of the evening of March 31, the Johns Hopkins COVID-19 counter reported over 189,600 cases in the United States and over 4,000 dead. FEMA is sending refrigerated trucks to transport corpses from New York hospitals. Gymnasiums and parks have become makeshift emergency hospitals. Medical professionals, many reporting to the frontlines without proper personal protective equipment, are risking their lives to treat patients who carry the deadly infection. By one count, more than 260 million Americans are now under some kind of stay-at-home orders. Businesses, big and small alike, are fighting to survive. More than 30 million American children can’t go to school.
Already concerned about scraping a victory from the ashes, Trump said over the weekend that he thinks the final death toll will be 100,000 or “maybe even less” and that he and his team have so far done a “very good job.”
On Tuesday, in a presentation that was more sober than his usual performances, Trump told Americans during a two-hour marathon White House press conference that “we’re going to go through a very tough two weeks.” Still, he couldn’t refrain from again praising his own performance. “I think only good things can be said when you look at the job that’s been done,” he said.
At Tuesday’s briefing, Trump stood in front of a screen presenting a slide that showed the “goals” of community mitigation would result in deaths totaling between 100,000 and 240,000. Citing the possibility of more than 2 million deaths had the government taken no action, Trump reiterated “I think we’ve done a fantastic job . . . I think we’ve done a great job . . . I think I’ve done a really good job of mobilizing”—as if 75,000, 90,000, or even 230,000 dead should provide him a grand “Mission Accomplished” moment. He can probably see himself now standing on the deck of USNS Comfort docked in New York basking in the gratitude of a thankful nation—when in reality, millions of people would be in mourning.
President Trump’s often-bizarre press conferences are reminders that he is concerned first and foremost about how COVID-19 affects his image and his re-election chances.
Over the weekend, he tweeted about his TV ratings:
“President Trump is a ratings hit. Since reviving the daily White House briefing Mr. Trump and his coronavirus updates have attracted an average audience of 8.5 million on cable news, roughly the viewership of the season finale of ‘The Bachelor.’ Numbers are continuing to rise…
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 29, 2020
He vainly believes that he is getting stratospheric television ratings because of his leadership appeal and not because millions of people are trapped in their houses in the middle of a pandemic desperate for clues about what happens next.
Meanwhile, those who question his approach are scolded because, as he said on Sunday, “When they disrespect me, they’re disrespecting our government.” (This sounded better in the original French: “L’etat c’est moi.”)
Instead of focusing all their energy and attention on the pandemic, Trump and his allies are picking many of the same kinds of vapid fights they always have.
Think back to what he has said over just the last six weeks. In late February, Trump accused the Democrats of politicizing the virus and described it as “their new hoax.” When he couldn’t downplay COVID-19 anymore, he and his allies labeled it the “Chinese virus” and stoked a debate about the political correctness or racism of that term. In just the last few days, his allies have gone back to denigrating Democrats, saying they diverted the president’s attention from the emerging crisis with the impeachment proceedings.
It’s all so tiresome to keep up with, mainly because of how pointless the blame-shifting is.
Anyone with access to Google can see how wrong he’s gotten it. Roll the tape of how he promised back in January that “We have it totally under control. It’s one person coming in from China, and we have it under control. It’s going to be just fine.” Find the transcript where he told Fox News’s Sean Hannity, “Well, we pretty much shut it down coming in from China.” Look at his February 26 remarks, when there were only 15 known cases of COVID-19 in the United States and he claimed that “within a couple of days” that number “is going to be down to close to zero, that’s a pretty good job we’ve done.”
When it finally became apparent that the number wasn’t going down, Trump pivoted. He implied a vaccine would be available soon. He said, “anyone who wants a test can get a test,” and it would be coordinated through an easy-to-use, Google-designed website that would be rolled out “very quickly.” All of it was a firehose of falsehood, an avalanche of lies.
Is there any point in proving how much he lies anymore? Because right here before us all, there is a far more critical number than his TV ratings, polling, or the Dow Jones Industrial Average: the tally of the sick and the dead. As the president crows about his TV ratings, a black cloud looms over every American household—the dread that comes of knowing that you or someone you care about could be next. It could be a family member, a teacher, a doctor, or that lady at the gas station who calls you, and everyone else, “sweetheart” when you go inside to buy snacks. It’s an invisible terror, ruthless and random. There’s no telling who it will strike down or when.
But we will know their names. They will be recorded in a terrible ledger. And there would be far fewer names in that grim list if our president had acted differently.