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Trump in the Time of COVID-19

The president is right: We're all in this together. With him. That's the problem.
March 13, 2020
Trump in the Time of COVID-19
(Digital collage by Hannah Yoest / photos: GettyImages / Shutterstock)

Wednesday night started with 2008 vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin dressed up as a furry neon bear rapping “Baby Got Back” on broadcast television. That was not the strangest thing to happen. Because a few minutes later President Trump gave what was probably the weirdest, most unsettling, Oval Office address, ever.

Trump’s second Oval Office talk lasted 11 minutes—about 40 minutes under his normal speaking time—which was unusual. It also lacked any free-form rapping about Peter Strzok or witch hunts or his historic, landslide Electoral College victory. Also unusual.

As he does on most serious occasions, Trump clung to the teleprompter and did not ad lib. He did not make jokes or call people names. He sounded almost normal—not actually normal, mind you. But normal-like, in the way you sometimes see when crazy people decide they have to lock it down for a few minutes so as to try and pass.

Which is the worrisome part. Because this president only controls his behavior when he’s scared. When Donald Trump acts normal, it’s because he’s cornered and has no other choice.

But it was still Trump giving the speech. So it had to include one of Trump’s favorite ideas, just to keep him interested. There was a new travel ban—this time with Europe. Not with the United Kingdom, though. That’s because even though the U.K. has a lot of coronavirus, it’s headed by Trump’s sort-of bff Boris Johnson.

Then there was Trump’s description of the virus itself, as if it was a terrorist, or a member of ISIS, or AOC. On the one hand, this was silly. But on the other hand, it was nice that, after the weeks of misinformation coming from Rush Limbaugh and Trump’s professional defenders at Fox News, Trump admitted that COVID-19 was a serious problem. And sure, yes, it was a little weird to hear the president obsessing over the fact that this is a foreign-born virus—as if he could get rid of it by getting Italy to pay for a wall. But whatever. Maybe we should just be happy he didn’t use his time to try to sell Trump-brand Silver Sol.

Of course because it was a Trump speech, it also featured some light-duty lying. He can’t help that; it’s like breathing for the poor guy.

“And taking early intense action, we have seen dramatically fewer cases of the virus in the United States than are now present in Europe,” he said. Which isn’t really a thing, since the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in America is driven entirely by a lack of the U.S. government’s ability to test, and thus prove, the existence of COVID-19 cases.

Then there was the part where Trump tried to blame the problem on other people: “The European Union failed to take the same precautions and restrict travel from China and other hotspots. As a result, a large number of new clusters in the United States were seeded by travelers from Europe.”

Finally, Trump assured the public that while this wasn’t in any way a financial crisis, we should probably bail out some companies—because they might need some “extra support.” Just by coincidence.

I assume Trump meant that the government might bail out oil companies and the leisure-service sector, because that’s capitalism, which is totes good. It’s unclear if the forthcoming bailouts would include hospitals, though, since I’m pretty sure that when you do that it’s socialism—which is totes bad.

Even though it was normal-ish, the speech was still a disaster. Not just for the lies and the omissions, but for the fact that it managed to explicitly contradict a number of the administration’s own policies. Within hours, the White House was walking back and clarifying Trump’s words. As he spoke, stock market futures fell by close to a thousand points.

And then Trump decided to buttress the lack of confidence the entire world was showing in him by classifying almost all of the top level COVID-19 meetings. Because if Trump knows anything, it’s that when the fit hits the shan, you break out the NDAs.

Here’s the thing that scared me the most from Wednesday night: The moment when Trump suddenly started urging togetherness, and not lib ownership: “We are all in this together. We must put politics aside, stop the partisanship, and unify together as one nation and one family,” he said.

But you see, that’s the problem. The reason so many Americans have been so alarmed by Donald Trump’s presidency isn’t because they’re obsessed with partisan politics. It’s because they understood that he was manifestly unfit for office and that if a major crisis struck on his watch, he would be a danger to the country. Trump is right: We are all in this together with him. That’s the problem.

As soon as Trump’s speech was over, a sea of pundits tried to untangle his lies and contradictions and figure out why his eyes were half closed and why he kept sniffing and huffing.

And then we found out that Tom Hanks had tested positive for COVID-19. I was worried, because in times of distress we need national treasures like Hanks. But then I realized that he was in Australia. So I didn’t have to worry about Tom Hanks.

It’s the rest of us who are in trouble.

Molly Jong-Fast

Molly Jong-Fast is a contributor to The Bulwark and the author of three books. Follow her on Twitter @MollyJongFast.