On Wednesday morning, Republican Senator Tom Cotton tweeted out an encomium to former President Donald Trump that contained an odd bit of praise: “When Donald Trump was president, America was safe, strong, and prosperous.”
This is a bit like asking Mary Todd Lincoln, “Other than that, how was the play?”
For those of us who were sentient in 2020 and remember the final months of Trump’s presidency, Cotton is leaving out something rather important — the coronavirus pandemic.
In 2020, the US economy contracted by 3.5 percent, the largest decline since after World War II. From April onward, tens of thousands of Americans died every week from Covid. Millions more were stuck at home, unable to see friends and family. The basic rhythms of life were completely upended. “Safe, strong, and prosperous” are not the three adjectives that most Americans would have used to describe the United States in 2020.
Much of this was the fault of Donald Trump, whose handling of Covid was one of extreme, comical and almost sociopathic incompetence. He ignored the warning signs of a possible pandemic, even forbidding members of his administration from talking about it publicly. In fact, we now know from interviews released by The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward that Trump knew as early as February 2020 that Covid was “deadly” but purposely played it down. After Covid arrived on American shores, he resisted public health measures until it was too late — and then pushed for a reopening of the economy that undoubtedly and needlessly sickened millions of Americans.
He endorsed the anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine as a Covid cure, which, according to a study out this week, may have caused the deaths of 17,000 people worldwide. Perhaps most famously, he suggested that people could inject disinfectant or shine bright lights inside the body as a way to fight the virus. His incompetence and indifference led to super-spreader events at the White House, and he even contracted Covid himself, nearly dying as a result.
Though Trump survived Covid, hundreds of thousands ofAmericans did not. As of the fall of 2020, the The Washington Post reported that “the number of deaths in the United States is the highest in the world, and among the highest when controlling for population.” A report from the Lancet Commission published in Feb. 2021, estimated that 40% of Covid deaths in the U.S. up to that point were avoidable. According to researchers at Stanford University, Trump’s 2020 campaign rallies alone are estimated to have led to more than 30,000 Covid cases.
By nearly any standard, Trump’s presidential leadership made Covid worse and led to countless preventable deaths. Rather than making America “safe, strong, and prosperous” in 2020, he made it deadlier, weaker and generally worse off.
But while collective amnesia is a requirement for any Trump supporter, Cotton has plenty of company in forgetting Covid. Indeed, the global pandemic that completely upended our lives less than four years ago and Trump’s mishandling of it has largely been flushed down the country’s collective memory hole.
To the extent that Covid is talked about on the campaign trail, it’s Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis bragging about his indifference to Covid’s plight in his home state and attacking Dr. Anthony Fauci for supposedly scaremongering about a virus that killed more than 1.1 million Americans.
When President Joe Biden released a campaign video announcing his bid for reelection earlier this year, it didn’t mention Covid at all — even though during his presidency life-saving vaccines were rolled out that saved millions of lives and returned our lives to normalcy. Rather than run on the most obvious success of his administration, Biden appears to be going out of his way not to talk about it.
That’s perhaps not surprising when one considers that most Americans have also moved on from the virus. Right now, the country is in the midst of yet another Covid wave. In the week that ended on December 23rd, there was a 17% increase in hospitalizations. An estimated 1,200 lives are lost every week from Covid-related illnesses. Yet, only one in five Americans have received the most recent Covid booster. Even roughly 2/3rds of elderly Americans, who are at greatest risk from Covid, haven’t bothered to get the latest vaccine.
This collective forgetting is easy to fathom. The pandemic was a nightmare. Our lives are back to where they were pre-Covid, and, understandably, Americans don’t want to dwell on the past.
But Trump’s mishandling of Covid was perhaps the greatest fiasco of his presidency. This isn’t meant to minimize his many other failings, but crisis management, especially during a health emergency, is an essential element of presidential leadership. And Trump didn’t just let the proverbial horses out of the barn, he also burned the barn to the ground…and killed the horses.
Much of the discussion about a second Trump presidency is focused on what he might do to undermine American democracy. All that is important, but so, too, is reminding ourselves what actually happened when Trump was president — and how he handled the most significant crisis of his time in office. Yet, if current indications are any guide, it will largely be forgotten once the election rolls around — just like the virus itself.
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