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200,000 Dead Isn’t a Statistic. It’s a Tragedy.

You cannot put a “best face” on this.
September 23, 2020
200,000 Dead Isn’t a Statistic. It’s a Tragedy.
Rep. Tom O'Halleran (D-AZ) visits a COVID Memorial Project installation of 20,000 American flags on the National Mall as the United States crosses the 200,000 lives lost in the COVID-19 pandemic September 22, 2020 in Washington, DC. The flags are displayed on the grounds of the Washington Monument facing the White House. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

I feel sorry for the GOP staffers who do rapid response for Donald Trump. I did similar work at various times in the past, writing talking points for the House Republicans and the Republican National Committee. Back then, I responded to attacks by putting the best face on the events of the Reagan-Bush years. My successors have a challenge that I never had to worry about: In 2020, there is no best face.

The central fact of this election is that more than 200,000 Americans have died because of COVID-19. President Trump himself set that number as a benchmark for judging his response. On March 29, he said: “And so, if we can hold that down, as we’re saying, to 100,000—that’s a horrible number—maybe even less, but to 100,000; so we have between 100- and 200,000—we all, together, have done a very good job.”

Well, we are now over 200,000 and the pandemic is still killing more than 5,000 Americans a week. By his own standard, Trump has done a very bad job.

No amount of spinning will make the bodies disappear. And yet, Trump and his minions have tried to dodge this basic fact.

A few weeks ago, Trump retweeted a claim that the Centers for Disease Control had “quietly” revised its numbers. According to the tweet, “only 6%” of the deaths were due to COVID and the rest involved other serious conditions. Twitter removed Trump’s retweet because its assertion was bogus. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government’s top expert on infectious diseases, said a preexisting condition “does not mean that someone who has hypertension or diabetes who dies of COVID didn’t die of COVID-19. They did.”

As any communications person will tell you, messaging will fail without having at least roots in reality.

At a Michigan rally, Trump said: “You see how good we’re doing relative to other countries.”

Nope. This claim flunks both the eyeball test and the smell test. The United States has more COVID deaths per 100,000 than most other nations. Our death rate is twice as great as Canada’s, five times greater than Germany’s, and 18 times greater than Australia’s.

Another thing Trump does is claim that he acted boldly and early. Well, he did cut off some travel from China—but that “ban” was porous and allowed the virus to come in from other nations. Touting the China ban is like taking credit for closing one porthole on the Titanic.

And even mentioning China calls to mind Trump’s fawning praise of the regime: “China has been working very hard to contain the Coronavirus. The United States greatly appreciates their efforts and transparency,” he tweeted. “It will all work out well. In particular, on behalf of the American People, I want to thank President Xi!”

Any way you look at it, COVID is a losing issue for Trump. His only alternative is distraction, getting voters to focus on anything other than death and disease.

But what else is there to talk about? The Trump people like to say how well the economy was doing before the pandemic. “The economy was good before it was bad.” Go slap that bumper sticker on your truck.

For a few weeks Trump tried to divert attention to crime. But this tactic had a couple of problems, too. Until a few months ago, Trump was proudly pointing to falling crime rates. But now he was warning that crime is rising. Even in politics, you need a little consistency: If Trump is responsible for the one, then it follows that he’s responsible for the other, too.

Of course, crime is a problem. But it’s not as urgent as COVID. Rhetoric about “American carnage” will only remind people that the real carnage has taken place in hospital rooms where gasping patients die alone. Think about this for a moment:

The COVID death count in the eight months of 2020 (so far) exceeds the total number of murders in the United States between 2008 and 2018.

Maybe some miracle will save the country and thereby revive Trump’s prospects. But that miracle will have to come from a higher power than a political staff.

As Trump has said, it is what it is.

John J. Pitney, Jr.

John J. Pitney, Jr., professor of government at Claremont McKenna College, is the author of Un-American: The Fake Patriotism of Donald J. Trump.