We’re two weeks into the Biden administration and a few things are clear. First, President Biden engaged in a certain amount of overpromising about how quickly the pandemic could be brought under control. This is likely to haunt him as a public growing weary of masking, social distancing, and business and school closures loses patience with constantly evolving demands for behavior change and indefinite timelines for getting “back to normal.”
What’s in danger of being forgotten in the shifting public health and political dynamic is just how badly Donald Trump fumbled the opening phase of the pandemic, wasting the critical window the United States had to limit the virus’s damage. The “toxic positivity” of last winter and spring—reckless pronouncements that the pandemic was under control and would soon be extinguished, or could be treated with quack remedies—sowed confusion and sparked social conflict as America’s red and blue teams split over control measures. Trump resolutely failed even to model the behaviors necessary for mitigating the spread of the virus up to and including his own illness and recovery. These are the upstream events that created the disaster plaguing (literally) the Biden administration and the American people.
It is important to stipulate, of course, that the Chinese Communist Party’s lies and stonewalling, at times aided by the World Health Organization, badly inhibited identification of the virus and early control efforts. China has not been forced to admit or acknowledge its role in fomenting the disaster. Settling that account with Xi Jinping and his gang of mafiosi, driving home the lesson that China cannot engage in such subterfuge and irresponsibility while remaining a member in good standing of the global order, must be a top U.S. foreign policy priority. A penalty must be imposed lest the lesson go unlearned.
China’s policy and behavior, however, were beyond America’s ability to influence, much less control. What was within the U.S. government’s ambit was management of the inevitable spread of the disease at home. This is where Trump, his character, and his limitations as a leader allowed the pandemic to slip the leash.
Trump’s narcissism and inability to conceive of interests beyond his own dominated the federal government’s response and strategy. His feral political instincts told him that COVID-19 was a potentially lethal threat to his re-election. As is evident from the recordings of his interviews with Bob Woodward, he was also aware of just how dangerous the virus was.
This presented Trump with a dilemma: encourage masking, social distancing, lockdowns, and other available public health tools, and push governors, other elected officials, and the public to do the same—or play down the dangers and the progress of the disease to try to bend perceptions to his political needs. His complete disinterest in governing or protecting the public foreclosed the former option, while his behavior, training, and life experience were finely honed for the latter. He might have acted differently, but then he wouldn’t have been Donald Trump.
Trump proceeded to push his governing coalition to imitate his own needlessly perilous approach. Over and over, through the spring and summer of 2020, Republican governors either willingly adopted “toxic positivity” as the animating feature of their pandemic policies (banning masks or limiting local authorities in their ability to mandate them) or were forced into those policies by Trump’s constant signaling to Republican voters that governors who departed from his script should be pressured and punished. Trump’s reality-distortion field and the way he encouraged wishful thinking among ordinary citizens and Republican policymakers cleared the way for the massive spike in deaths the country has endured since the fall, and the more than 100,000 deaths in January 2021 alone. His megalomaniacal recklessness last year is, even now, helping to write what could be the most disastrous chapter of COVID-19.
By the summer, it was already clear that one of the best indicators of how much a state would suffer from disease outbreaks, illnesses, and deaths was the make-up of state-level leadership. The more Republican the state and the greater the control of Republicans over state governments, the more likely that state policies would lean toward Trump’s COVID denialism. In these states, restaurants, bars, and schools were more likely to remain open. Mask mandates either didn’t exist or were obstructed by GOP governors and widely flouted. Major businesses flouted guidelines and sought indemnification after deliberately exposing workers to illness. The permission structure for these actions (and inactions) was created by Trump himself. He constructed an alternative reality for himself and his followers, transforming COVID from an urban phenomenon to one deeply embedded in every corner of the nation.
We’re now witnessing the results of this governing malpractice. From late November to early January, we saw seven-day average infections rise from 82,859 (on November 23) to an all-out disaster of 129,212 (on January 4) with single-day infections breaching the 300,000 mark. Between April and January, daily infections rose ten-fold while daily hospitalizations doubled. Until this week, death counts have been stuck at around 4,000 per day.
This is not and should not come as a surprise. We knew last March that without effective mitigation, hundreds of thousands to millions could die. We also knew what we needed to do—mask up and keep our distance—if we wanted to avoid the worst-case scenarios. Trump’s politicization of public health and his refusal to use his platform and the power of the federal government to shape public attitudes and behaviors accelerated the pandemic, creating problems that may linger and worsen in the months to come.
One of the biggest worries now is that widespread infections, enabled by Trump’s fictions and the complacency they bred, are feeding the mutation of the virus. Michael Osterholm of the University of Minnesota, one of the nation’s steadiest and most prescient voices on the pandemic, told the New York Times, “We are not in a race with the variants—the variants have already won. If these variants take off like I think they are very likely to do, by April [the new surge] will have come and possibly gone—and it could be by far the very worst . . . of the entire pandemic.” The new CDC Director, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, reported this week that over 300 cases of the more-contagious British variant had been recorded in the United States. This suggests that thousands have already occurred and are spreading rapidly. A new California variant may be responsible for the recent spike in infections in Los Angeles. We may be about to ascend new heights of infections, hospitalizations, and deaths while also running the risk of yet newer mutations and variants that can efficiently elude our vaccines.
Caseloads have dropped dramatically in the past week, likely the result of behavior change driven by November and December’s sky-high infections and deaths, and, perhaps, expanded use of vaccines. But recent improvement is relative; current rates are more than double the previous peak last summer. If the variants accelerate spread, as the weight of opinion among epidemiologists is betting it will, those cases will be on top of the disease burden from the original strain still in circulation. In that case, denial will carry an even heavier price tag.
Jim Geraghty at National Review made an interesting point about the pandemic blame game. President Biden promised a “ready-on-day-one, hit-the-ground-running, shut-down-the-virus-not-the-economy” approach to the pandemic, with a team to match. As the complexity of the challenge becomes more apparent, he’s now down-shifted, saying it will take months to deliver desperately needed vaccines and control strategies that will, if we’re lucky, help bring the pandemic under control.
We’ve had enough hyperbole. Biden and his team need and deserve accountability for this shift. At the same time, it’s important to remember how we got here, and hold the new president accountable only for his administration’s mistakes—but not the massive failures bequeathed to him.