Trump needs to stop making the coronavirus about himself

  • President Trump’s response to the coronavirus has been to downplay the risks and worry about his own reelection chances.
  • This is dangerous for the country.
  • Trump should worry about responding adequately to the health crisis, not his political fortunes.
  • Michael Gordon is a longtime Democratic strategist, a former spokesperson for the Justice Department, and the principal for the strategic-communications firm Group Gordon.
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

In an era when we can’t agree on basic facts, when science is out of fashion, and a president values loyalty over truth, the threat of a pandemic tests a nation’s foundation.

We all pray for the best with the percolating public health crisis, but hope is insufficient. Pandemics span partisanship and geography. And regardless of what you may hear from the acolyte chorus, a national crisis sits on President Trump’s desk. For the good of our collective health, team Trump needs to be less reality show and more reality.  

Prioritizing politics over the public

Trump’s view of the coronavirus likely has been amplified by conspiracy theories and misinformation touted by the likes of Tom Cotton and Rush Limbaugh. He also doesn’t seem to fully grasp or remains willfully ignorant of the severity of the situation from a public health perspective, which has contributed to his downplaying of the issue. 

But he does grasp his personal political standing and the stock market’s impact. When COVID-19 began to take a toll on financial markets, Trump began to seize the mantle. Because the nation’s literal health and the corresponding economic impact presents a threat to his reelection, he’s even more incentivized to downplay the severity of the outbreak publicly. He’s betting that his “version” of the facts can allay investor and voter fears – but the virus may have a different spin.

Trump also has a history of surrounding himself not with experts and people who tell the truth but with yes-people who deny facts and weaponize intelligence for partisan gain, including Mike Pence. There are even claims that Trump’s staff hides critical information from him for fear of what he’ll do with it. This may be status quo for 2020 Washington, but in this case in particular, the President’s unhinged management style poses an existential test for us all.

In a public health matter, the President’s dusty playbook of distraction and deception also hurts both our safety and our economy. When the President tries to calm markets with his patented “nothing to see here” strategy, the boomerang appears because he has no credibility. Both his near-constant stream of lies and the actual facts get in the way. The strategy has saved him time and again from having crises stick, but this time it may be the reason he finally acquires some Velcro.

Bipartisan condemnation

There has been bipartisan condemnation of Trump’s response to date.  We may have finally discovered the line for Congressional Republicans that remained invisible during the Kavanaugh hearings, impeachment trial, and the daily assault on our values.

But with conservative media falling in line with the President’s reaction to the virus, Republicans with a conscience may be muted once again – and worse, a swath of America may be unprepared for a disaster ahead.

We’re already starting the race to contain COVID-19 several crucial steps behind. Many of the safeguards the Obama administration put in place during the Ebola outbreak are gone now. The Trump administration cut funding to the Center for Disease Control and Complex Crisis Fund and reduced National Security Council staffing that handled outbreaks in the past.

But Trump does deserve credit for his decision to appoint one person at a high level to coordinate all of the agencies and oversee the response to the outbreak. And hopefully we’ll have a chance for both teams in Washington to put the games on hold for a nanosecond and fund the fight.

Everyone’s interests are aligned

Trump and Fox claim that the media and Democrats are overplaying the seriousness of the coronavirus to hurt him politically. There is a seamy element to playing politics when it comes to crises of national import – and I don’t have sympathy when someone cries, “Politics!” while there’s plenty of blame and responsibility to go around.

The impact of the virus in the US to date hasn’t been as severe as in other countries. Part of the hysteria is the simple fact that COVID-19 is new and untested. And because of questions around the denominator of corona cases, you can make an argument that it is less deadly than the flu.

The good news is that everybody’s interests are aligned. We want this President to succeed. But for that to happen Trump and the cheerleaders that follow his every word need to deal with the crisis at hand. The politics will take care of itself.

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