How Trump Missed His, and America’s, Best Chance on Coronavirus

There is another world out there. There is another world, with another President Donald J. Trump.

There is another world in which President Trump saw coronavirus sweeping through China and grasped how powerfully and elegantly his claims about the authoritarian and deceptive nature of the Chinese state had been illustrated. The government had reprimanded the doctor who had warned of the virus, and, tragically, the doctor had become its victim. How could anybody doubt him on the Chinese question after its government had displayed such selfish negligence?

Simultaneously, Trump could have realised how much a novel and aggressive virus demonstrated the fact that strong national borders are a necessity. He could have ended travel between China and the US—temporarily, of course—and hurried to quarantine people who had travelled near Wuhan. How could anybody query his stance on national self-interest as migration carried a pandemic round the world?

Seeing that this crisis was about to demonstrate the perils of relying on foreign imports for essential supplies, Trump could have restated the case for economic nationalism. Indeed, he could have demonstrated his commitment to the cause by working to release all the funds required for tests, treatment and containment.

As a noted germaphobe, Trump would have been well-placed to insist, in his humorous but assertive way, that Americans should practice more and better hygiene. Cancelling his rallies would have been a blow, but he could have swung it to his advantage. “You’ve always come out to support me,” he could have said, “And I’m going to support you by saying that you should take a night off. I’ll have plenty of time to meet you later.”

Sure, the Democrats and the media would have attacked him. He would have been lambasted as an opportunist and an authoritarian. But who cares? He would have been right! And as coronavirus would have torn out of China and through Iran and Italy he could have said, with justice, that he was trying to keep Americans safe.

Trump need not have thought coronavirus was a cataclysmic if not apocalyptic angel of death to do this. He need not have shattered the economy. “Seriously, folks, this is not the end of the world, but we have to be smart to get through it, okay?”

Sadly, the Other Trump does not exist. In our timeline, the White House has stubbornly maintained a “business as usual” attitude and the president has repeatedly compared coronavirus to the flu. More people die of the flu, he confidently trumpets, sounding like a pre-ISIS era liberal announcing that more people die in swimming pools than from terrorism and forgetting that the government does not have to spend hundreds of millions of dollars containing the threat of swimming pools. Trump’s rallies—and Trump, let’s not forget, is a president whose average supporter is older than the average American adult—are going ahead. It is difficult to overstate the short-sighted recklessness of this.

To be fair to the president, the downright pathetic institutional response to the virus in the US is by no means all his responsibility. The Centre for Disease Control (CDC) has spectacularly botched what should have been the smooth and swift rollout of testing kits. Americans have been left to plead to be tested, with one mother saying on Twitter:

Also, in the president’s defence, he might be proved correct that the death toll from coronavirus is significantly below 3.4 percent of its carriers. Nations which have had more testing, like South Korea, have had fewer deaths, suggesting that many people have had milder forms of coronavirus but have not been factored in. Nations with better healthcare have also had better results. Just two people have died in Germany, while more than 200 deaths have been announced in Iran. For all the problems with the American healthcare system, no one would claim it is more comparable with the latter than the former.

Again, then, I want to restate that President Trump should not have been expected to announce that the world was ending and that all economic activity should cease. Coronavirus is not the black death, and as irritating as people who solemnly announce that the fear of the virus is more dangerous than the virus has become, it is at least potentially true. While conservatives can make a fetish of “the economy,” it is important to remember that behind the sterile term are people’s businesses, and people’s homes, and people’s hopes and dreams. An awful shock to the economy means an awful shock to American lives. Minimising panic, then, is a worthwhile aim, and not just for the sake of the nation’s blood pressure.

But the tragedy is that the Other Trump could have done this as well! “Folks, there’s no need to be scared. This nation saw off Hitler and the Soviet Union, and we’re going to see this off as well, believe me. We’ve got the smartest people working on it and we’re going to be okay. But China, wow—let me tell you something…”

How has the president misjudged the situation so dramatically? Does he think the media are trying to overshadow what should be a cheerful and optimistic election campaign? In general, despite his gloomy proclamations about his own predicament as a serially slandered and persecuted leader, Trump has tried to present an image of the United States as a nation perpetually improving under his watch. Even in a press conference with CDC officials he wore a hat that read “Keep America Great.” Perhaps he thinks his enemies are trying to rain on his parade.

No doubt, journalists will attack Trump for his reaction—or lack thereof—to the virus and sometimes unfairly. Take Dana Milbank, who clipped a portion of one of Trump’s speeches in which he called the idea that he was responsible for the spread of coronavirus a “hoax” and presented the clip as if he was calling the virus itself a hoax. Thousands of people spread the lie. One can understand the president being aggrieved about this kind of behaviour.

Yet Trump has handed his critics this opportunity on a gold-plated, Trump-branded platter. After all, journalists spent weeks downplaying the problem and wringing their hands over the nebulous threat of “stigma.” (The Other Trump could have made note of this.) Meanwhile, China has been locking down its cities and Israel has been establishing a two-week quarantine for all arrivals. These are not nations, I think that it is fair to say, which are typically characterised by their soft-headedness or failure to rationally pursue their own self-interest. The Italians have closed down their entire country, which may or may not turn out to be a sensible decision but which is inspired by something more than the seasonal flu. For Trump advocates to think this is a manufactured media controversy takes a spectacular unwillingness to look beyond their borders or a terrifyingly monomaniacal view of the world.

Let us consider a presidential response from a peer of Trump’s who might not leap to mind. Paul Kagame of Rwanda is a genuinely authoritarian and anti-democratic leader, with a keen sense of the importance of public image. Like the late Lee Kwan Yew of Singapore, he is also ruthlessly intelligent, and one must respect his swift but calm response to the coronavirus outbreak, which has included sacking ministers who are said to have lied to him about Rwanda’s preparedness, cancelling mass gatherings, installing public sanitation facilities and discouraging Rwanda’s traditionally intimate forms of greeting, such as shaking hands and hugging. Trump can’t even stop himself from shaking people’s hands. Of course, it is far too early to suggest that Rwanda will not have serious problems with the virus, but Kagame has minimised risk without inspiring panic, and Trump could have done the same.

One hopes that the lowest projections for coronavirus victims will be proved correct, or, indeed, be proved to be overestimates. With so much that is unknown about the virus—its different forms, how it spreads and how it might be treated—only time will tell.

Nonetheless, Trump cannot hesitate. Testing must be expanded. Events must be cancelled. People must be given the confidence to seek medical treatment without the fear of financial ruin. Trump showed signs of an improvement on the issue yesterday when he announced that his administration would ask Congress to pass payroll tax relief for workers who are impacted by the disease. This is at least a shuffle in the right direction.

Of course, as I have said, the crisis is not just the president’s responsibility, but even where it is not he must be seen to be encouraging progress and holding authorities to account. None of this means that the country must grind to a halt and the economy must plunge into a bottomless pit. But it does mean that the president must understand that some problems are bigger than his domestic conflicts, and cannot be overwhelmed by personality alone.


Ben Sixsmith is an English writer living in Poland. Follow him on Twitter @BDSixsmith

Feature image: United States President Donald Trump sits next to Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, as he meets with the Coronavirus Task Force and pharmaceutical executives, at the White House in Washington, D.C. on March 2nd, 2020. Kevin Dietsch/Alamy Live News

Correction: The doctor who warned about the coronavirus was reprimanded not arrested. Apologies for the error.


  1. I wish this was another world where imbeciles do not politicize everything.

  2. a Fine example of Trump Derangement Syndrome in all its glory.

  3. I have to agree with this article. This pandemic justifies a lot of what Trump has been saying, but he hasn’t taken advantage of it, and has instead allowed Democrats to drive the narrative. It’s a good reminder that while it was fun to see Trump beat the Democrats at their propaganda game so many times over the past few years, the game still sucks, and we can’t always count on winning it.

  4. I’d first like to congratulate Quillette for an article that takes the time to properly criticise Trump, instead of the typical one-sentence drive-by sniping.

    In times of fear, people look to their leaders. We need Trump to be at his best, and constructive criticism is warranted for this. The outbreak is in its early stages in the US, so there is plenty of time to adopt the necessary approach. What will not help is injecting mindless TDS into the conversation (looking at you @rodmclaughlin, try engaging more productively).

    I also think Trump could have much better capitalized on the crisis, as it does vindicate many of his policy positions. He’s been telling businesses to get out of China for a long time, don’t they wish they had listened!

    At what point should a country go on lockdown? I’d like to hear from a public health expert.

  5. An English writer living in Poland… takes the time to criticize the American president…

    This about sums it up:

    with one mother saying on Twitter

    So in depth! Oh the humanity!

  6. My children’s teachers do not allow students to cite Wikipedia on research assignments. I’d like an agreement put in place which states that no legitimate journalist be able to cite anything posted on Twitter.

  7. A man who, in 2020, still professes admiration for Fidel Castro is pretty near demented.

  8. I disagree. Dementia is a tragedy commonly caused by old age.

    Bernie’s lunacy was life-long, and is not a mere illness.

    Evil is a part of our world.

  9. I can’t tell whether or not you meant this ironically, but it caused me to guffaw pretty damn hard. So hard that: some of the Canadian rye whiskey and water that I was drinking at the time rapidly exited my proboscis. In fact, I can still feel the Bern!

  10. Castro did some good things, which is obviously true

    No it isn’t.

  11. And the net result is? Poverty, death and destruction. What good did the ‘good’ do? Did Chavez do good things? Who cares, Venezuelans are eating cats and dogs to survive.

  12. Great speech. I like the slap at Europe. What a hilarious man.

    Forcing the insurance companies to cover treatment, providing tax relief and emergency bailouts for small businesses is a great idea. I expect removing barriers to self-quarantining will help slow the progression of the virus.

    From what I understand, the main way the federal government has fumbled the response so far is that the CDC and FDA bureaucracy has stood in the way of local response. I hope the red tape Trump says they’re cutting pertains to this.

  13. Denominators are fun. Here’s a peek at cases per million population, European countries vs. the U.S., with the world-wide ranking as the first column. (Note - U.S. is at the bottom, that’s where I cut things off):

    1 Italy 206.1
    3 Norway 129.7
    6 Denmark 106.2
    7 Switzerland 100.2
    9 Spain 64.2
    10 Sweden 62.9
    12 Slovenia 42.8
    13 Netherlands 35.8
    14 France 34.9
    15 Belgium 34.4
    16 Austria 33.5
    18 Germany 27.7
    19 Finland 19.7
    22 Estonia 12.8
    25 Greece 9.5
    26 Czechia 9.0
    27 Ireland 8.7
    29 Latvia 8.5
    30 Albania 8.0
    31 Portugal 7.6
    32 UK 6.8
    38 Croatia 4.6
    41 North Macedonia 4.3
    42 USA 4.1

    Looks like maybe Trump’s got a point. Unless you really hate him, in that case feel free to criticize him and not leaders in Europe.

  14. I work at a hospital about 20 miles from the Kirkland nursing home facility that appears to have been a (the?) first major U.S. epicenter. Guess what - the floodgates have already broken. The numbers nationwide will skyrocket over then next few weeks, as people who are already infected start showing symptoms. In the interim they will be infecting new people. Basic epidemiology.

    Minimizing personal contact and curtailing travel are great steps, but all they will do is flatten the curve. That in and of itself is good, it stretches out the volume, allowing for better care, relief for care givers, and development of missing infrastructure (expanding lab test capacity to meet the expanded number of test kits, for example). But we’re in for a ride.

  15. Not hard to do. It’s scaling it up.

    Step one is to find an antigen. You need some part of the coat proteins that is hard to mutate, and that is easy for the immune system to see. Once you have that, the trick is producing it in large amounts and making it injectable into the human body.

    The companies that make vaccines can do this with, if I recall correctly, about 6 months of lead time. They may be able to get it done quicker, and they can probably get small batches out a little earlier for people in critical positions. This may have sped up with the Advent of some of these recent pandemics. I am not familiar with the most recent protocols in vaccine production.

    The tricky part is going to be figuring out which part of the coat protein you need. That is going to take the research. That will take a fair bit of time, although I do know that they are Expediting it as much as possible. Once they have it, they can begin the normal method of manufacture, which as I have said can take about six months. I am pretty sure that they will be able to do that part in less, though.

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