President Trump has a point. It is a serious situation. People are being injured. The property damage runs into the millions. Americans are frightened. Things are out of control. We cannot have a country if people think they can run riot like this. Local governments are not able to handle this on their own. It demands a federal response. If it requires the full mobilization of federal forces to deal with the crisis, that’s what we should do. And there’s a psychological cost as well. When sacred things are desecrated, it takes a toll on the national spirit.
Trump thinks this applies to rioters and protesters in Portland and other cities “run by very liberal Democrats . . . really by the radical left.” He thinks the sacred things are Confederate monuments. In truth, it’s the coronavirus that demands a response—and when it comes to that, the president is AWOL. Dave Carney, a Republican strategist who advises Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, summed it up in words that will be chapter headings in history textbooks of the future: “The President got bored with it.”
Trump is incapable of doing the basics of his job as president, and he is undone by a crisis that requires more than the basics. Flailing and floundering in an emergency that requires sustained attention, comprehension, and teamwork, he is resorting to the magician’s trick of misdirection. He is hoping he can get the nation to focus on the lesser problem of mayhem in Portland and other cities (partially by escalating it) to distract from the crushing, monumental screw-up of public health and the economy.
Yes, the economy. The president claimed credit a thousand times for the strong economy that prevailed during the first three and a half years of his tenure, and perhaps some of that is deserved. It’s possible that the corporate tax cuts stimulated growth, though there are many doubters, and many critics who note the immense price tag handed to our children in terms of increasing deficits. Some believe the deregulation push may have boosted productivity. But it’s also possible that Trump’s economy was just the continuation of the expansion that began in 2009. In fact, the average annual GDP growth rate in Trump’s first three years was 2.5 percent, which is just 0.2 percent higher than Obama’s average (which included the last months of the Great Recession).
Stewardship of the economy requires more than signing a tax cut bill and discouraging over-regulation. It requires peering out over the bow and spinning the wheel hard when you see an enormous iceberg. Trump saw the iceberg. Or at least he should have: It was included in his security briefings for weeks. His first officer was mumbling nervously about it. But Trump refused to take action to save the ship. He told the crew it wasn’t an iceberg, just an ice floe. He said it would go away.
The two actions Trump constantly cites to prove that he took the virus seriously were two orders: One to restrict travel to and from China and one to restrict travel to and from Europe. Those may have bought a little time—if he had been planning next steps. But that’s all it did. Obviously it didn’t prevent the virus from reaching our shores. It couldn’t. COVID-19 has now been registered in 193 countries around the globe. That’s why it’s called a pandemic. The only places that have escaped infection thus far are remote islands like Samoa and Tonga and mountainous enclaves like Turkmenistan. And it will reach those redoubts eventually. “I’ve felt it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic,” Trump claimed in one of his gaslighting “task force” briefings. No, he said the opposite.
By denying the dire threat, Trump discouraged a systematic response from the departments and agencies tasked with public health. When he did eventually turn his gaze toward the problem, he saw hospitals struggling to cope with shortages of masks, gloves, and testing materials, and tens of thousands of Americans dying, and he shrugged, saying governors should handle it. “We’re not a shipping clerk.”
Now, the average daily rate of new infections is 60,000, on the way to a predicted 100,000. The entire European Union, plus Britain—which together have about 200 million more people than the United States—have roughly 2,500 new daily cases.
President Trump is confused. He thinks the reason we’re leading the world in cases and deaths is that we’re doing so much testing. “If we stop testing right now, we’d have very few cases, if any,” Trump suggested in June.
He made mask-wearing part of the culture war, encouraging millions to believe that declining to show consideration for themselves and others was a mark of virility. The CDC wasn’t perfect. But when Dr. Robert Redfield, finally got around to recommending masks, saying “If we could get everybody to wear a mask right now, I really do think over the next four, six, eight weeks, we could bring this epidemic under control,” Trump contradicted him. He said “No. I want people to have a certain freedom, and I don’t believe in that, no. And I don’t agree with the statement that if everybody would wear a mask, everything disappears.” A few days later, he tweeted that wearing a mask was “Patriotic,” but too late to undo the damage already inflicted. How many mask avoiders transmitted the virus to others? How many died after contracting COVID-19? We’ll never know.
But a bunch of people in Portland are spraying graffiti on buildings, starting some fires, and throwing feces at police (which, to be clear, is wrong and should be punished), and the president is sending in the feds. In force. Not only that, but these border patrol officers, wearing fatigues without identifying insignia, are grabbing people off the street and hustling them away in unmarked vehicles. Like in Venezuela.
The president threatens to do the same in Chicago, Detroit, Baltimore, New York, and Philadelphia. Why? Because it’s a crisis. It demands presidential action. “We’re not going to let this happen to our country,” the leader explained.
Mona Charen is a nationally syndicated columnist, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a contributor to The Bulwark, and host of The Bulwark’s Beg to Differ podcast.