By Umair Haque
It almost seems like a lifetime ago, given the untimely and tragic passing of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. And yet, as the U.S. passes the grim milestone of 200,000 Covid deaths, it must be understood and carefully considered just how badly Donald Trump’s White House failed on Covid.
Americans appear paralysed, literally in shock, by what’s happened to their country. Which is understandable. But they are going to need to recover their wits if they want to save their democracy.
The story that we know now begins like this. While Covid was making its way to America’s shores, it had ample time to prepare. It was one of the last countries to be hit by Covid. And during those critical months and weeks, nothing — let me repeat — nothing was done.
But nothing was not done for a reason: the Trump Administration. It recently emerged that the Postal Service had a plan to send face masks to every American. That is precisely the kind of thing that would and should have happened in a sane and rational country. And it was the Trump Administration that stopped this plan dead in its tracks.
It’s impossible to overstate what a difference that made. “We’ll never know the impact” is dead wrong.
It’s quite easy to calculate the impact of such a thing. In nations that put such policies in place — attacking Covid early and hard, by making people wear masks, the death toll was one to two orders of magnitude less than it was in America.
So. Let me sum that up. There was actually a plan to do something about Covid — a plan that could have made a crucial difference. But Donald Trump deep-sixed it. It is no overstatement to say that he is responsible for mass death, not in an abstract way, but in a direct one. His choice resulted in the exponential growth of a lethal pandemic.
Now, the Post Office’s plan was to send five reusable facemasks to Americans. Doesn’t sound like a lot. But it could have been built on, as emergent plans in emergencies often are. America could have found itself in a situation like this: the Postal Service sent Americans facemasks every week, and the government mandating wearing them, in any public place.
That alone, epidemiologists suggest, would have massively reduced the incidence of Covid. Dropping deaths, probably, from the 200,000 they’re at to half that — and that’s in a conservative scenario.
But that would have taken a President who was sane, rational, and most all, not a moral black hole.
Unfortunately for Americans, they were about to find out what human monstrosity means, the hard way.
The next chapter in the emerging story goes like this. Publicly, Trump minimised Covid’s impact. He denied it was a problem, pretended it wouldn’t be a big deal, and then, finally, told people to drink bleach and inject Lysol. But privately, Trump knew something very, very different. He said — literally — “This is deadly stuff.” How deadly? He called it a “great and powerful plague.” And he didn’t just know how lethal it was. He knew how viral it was, too. He noted that it’s “so easily transmissible, you wouldn’t even believe it.”
In other words, Trump knew. All that’s on tape, by the way, thanks to Bob Woodward.
And now we come to a part of the story that’s hard to tell, at least to Americans. Americans have no real experience with their leaders telling them Big Lies that result in their own deaths. They have experience in just the opposite: their leaders telling them Big Lies that result in the deaths of poor, dirty brown people, somewhere across a globe they’ve never visited and don’t know. Think of Bush and Iraq having WMDs, or the whole idea of the Cold War, that communism was some kind of global threat, so America needed to install dictators everywhere from Latin America to Africa. Those were all Big Lies. But Americans — at least many of them — still believe them.
And so they find it almost impossible to process the scale and impact of Trump’s Biggest Lie so far: that Covid wasn’t a big deal. That is why you barely see anything written on this subject now, apart from a brief initial burst of outrage. That is a sociocultural sign that Americans are simply not processing, understanding, taking in what really happened.
What really happened was simple, but so horrific that it’s almost impossible to believe. Trump knew in great detail just how deadly Covid was. And he told Americans precisely the opposite story. And then he acted to put in place policies that reflected his lie, like stopping facemasks being distributed, not mandating wearing them, refusing to wear one himself.
So what we know now is that there wasn’t a national-level strategy for Coronavirus for a reason: not because Trump was incompetent, stupid, misinformed, or foolish. But for a reason that almost impossible to fully process, even if you say you believe it. Because Trump knew — but didn’t care. Care enough to take the slightest action to save hundreds of thousands of lives. In fact, he went above and beyond not caring. He went in the other direction, which was to try and cover up his inaction with lies.
What the? Like I said, that’s almost impossible to process. Because it is human monstrosity on the lowest level possible. Your garden variety thief? Even your average…serial killer? They’re nothing compared to this moral vacuum. Really. They might hurt or kill a few people. But hundreds of thousands? Left to die?
That’s an act so profoundly incredible that we don’t have a word to even describe it. Negligence — the failure to care properly for something — is the only one there is, but that falls so far short it might as well barely exist at all. Negligence is something you charge a house builder or doctor with, maybe.
But a head of state?
And yet that’s precisely the magnitude of this failure. A head of state has at least this responsibility: not to simply shrug and walk away from catastrophe. Then there’s this one: not to grin and lie about catastrophe. My friend, that is the lowest of all possible bars. When a head of state can get away with such things, then a bitter truth must be understood. You are not really living in a democracy anymore. In a democracy, a leader that fails at this most set of responsibilities — and remains in office — is above…everything. The moral law, basic accountability, the fundamental ideas of equality and truth and decency.
The only kinds of societies in which such awful failings are tolerated are authoritarian states, really. And in that sense, America is a pre-authoritarian state. Americans seem to have shrugged and given up on all this. They don’t seem to understand — or even care to understand — the unbelievable scale and depth of Trump’s failure on Covid.
The reasons for that are both complex and straightforward. America is still a racist and classist country, and Covid hit the poor and minorities hardest. America is also the home of the Darwinian logic of self-reliance — the strong should survive, and the weak perish, and so Americans have had a cultural tendency not to care about Covid the way that nearly every other country on earth has.
Still, whatever the reasons, to the rest of the world, the final chapter of the story looks like this. And then he gets away with it. Chapter one, Trump knows — but he lies — about how deadly Covid is. Chapter two, he deep-sixes any attempt to contain the pandemic, and thwarts any possibility of a national strategy. Chapter three, he gets away with it.
In any other developed nation, by now, a leader would have been held accountable for such crass negligence. The streets in the capital would be one giant protest, for months on end, until the leader stepped down. (Yes, some Americans are protesting. And I applaud them. But it isn’t close enough yet to a mass movement, with the stamina to challenge Trump.) But when faced with this improbable and horrific fact — Trump lied, and 200,000 died — Americans seem to be paralyzed. Resigned.
Plenty of leaders have gotten away with terrible things. Stalin, Mao, Saddam — the list is endless. But thanks to its misplaced feeling of exceptionalism, Americans think of themselves as above such nations. They look down their noses at such countries. But the truth is they have become one. A place where an authoritarian’s negligence results in mass death — and terrorized, traumatized, timid, fearful people cannot hold him accountable for it, and so he simply gets away with it. Just like Russians, Chinese, Iraqis, Americans cannot really fully process the scale of the horror — a kind of denial and wilful ignorance kicks in, even among the good people. They become a silent majority this way — because who can really sit down and think the thought: “hundred of thousands of people died just because of one man’s maliciousness?” It’s too terrible to bear.
And yet it must be borne, if a nation is to rouse itself from the slumber of apathy. In this way, Americans have become arrogant people. They think they could never become a place where mass death happened, just because an authoritarian led them to it — that only happened in those other dirty, poor countries. But unfortunately, they are now a country like that. Two hundred thousand Americans are dead.
A thousand die a day. That’s another hundred thousand by the end of the year. All because — we now know — of Donald Trump’s malicious indifference. No ground should be given on this score. Democracy dies with the tolerance and silent acceptance of abuses of power this grave, this vast, this unbelievable.
I don’t know how to wake Americans up from their paralysis. But I hope they do wake up, en masse. Because until then, they’re going to keep living this nightmare.
*Umair Haque first published this article in Medium