Presenting only one side of an argument “doesn’t mean that your premises are false or irrelevant,” the philosopher Peter Suber wrote, “only that they are incomplete.” By that standard President Trump’s defenders—and some of his critics, too—have made only partial attempts to identify culprits for the extent of the coronavirus pandemic in the United States. Trump’s defenders point their fingers at China’s dictator, Xi Jinping, whose regime censored information about the virus, including about its transmissibility, thereby immensely worsening the pandemic. Meanwhile, some of Trump’s critics single him out for downplaying the pathogen’s threat to Americans, even as the consensus of public health experts and the horror stories out of Wuhan and then Lombardy made it untenable to do so.
Both groups are right. Trump’s negligence, willful ignorance, and devotion to his public image—recall that he said “I don’t take responsibility at all” for the U.S. testing shortage—undoubtedly has cost American lives. So, too, has Xi’s drawing of the Chinese Communist Party line and censoring or “disappearing” prominent figures who don’t toe it.
The cases against both world leaders are damning—and ultimately not in tension with one another. Rather, they are complementary parts of a lesson: that blame for the U.S. contagion is owed not necessarily to a man but a method. That method is “authoritarianism,” a term that may strike American ears as unobjectionable for Xi but exaggerated for Trump, since he isn’t peremptorily locking up his political enemies or otherwise curtailing Americans’ freedoms. But as the world has witnessed, both pure autocracy and the relatively diluted rule of a strongman—Trump, who called alarm about the coronavirus a “hoax,” who continues to bully governors and reporters, and who claimed on Monday that state and local governments “can’t do anything without the approval of the president”—result in calamity.
First consider the Chinese government’s efforts to hide the truth, which were not confined to the early days of the epidemic. On March 29, 60 Minutes Australia reported the following: “As China now tries to rewrite history and claim it was transparent all along, a final nail in the coffin of their lie. Just two weeks ago, the head of emergency at Wuhan Central Hospital, Dr. Ai Fen, went public, saying authorities had stopped her and her colleagues from warning the world. She has now disappeared. Whereabouts: unknown.” Even much more prominent Chinese people have been silenced, like Ren Zhiqiang, a famous and outspoken property magnate who was “disappeared” for a month, before the regime announced that he is alive, under detention, and being investigated.
But such overt suppression is not the only effective tactic for concealing reality from the public. There is also the fog of misinformation, with which President Trump beclouded the nation in January, February, and even March. “We have it very well under control,” Trump said during a speech in Michigan on January 30. “We have very little problem in this country at this moment, five [confirmed cases]. And those people are all recuperating successfully.” More than three weeks later, on February 23, he said that “we had 12 [confirmed cases], at one point. And now they’ve gotten very much better.” Three days later, he said that “we’re going very substantially down, not up.” In fact, America was obviously going very substantially up and has continued to do so in the weeks since—during which time he compared the disease that the coronavirus causes to the flu, lied about the availability of tests, said that he “really get[s]” the science of infectious diseases, and eventually said on March 17 that “I’ve felt it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic.” The record quite clearly shows that is not true: The World Health Organization declared the outbreak a pandemic on March 11, just two days after Trump rosily compared the low number of deaths from COVID-19 to the annual average from the seasonal flu.
Such revisionist history is a hallmark of authoritarians, who are incapable of admitting they’re wrong when they’re wrong and are guaranteed to claim they’re correct when they’re not. This inclination jettisons reason and replaces it with deadly fabrication. Chinese propaganda claiming that its regime is guiltless and has controlled the virus effectively from the get-go will continue to cause preventable losses of life in China and abroad. A University of Southampton study estimated that China could have reduced cases by two-thirds if it had introduced interventions just a week before it did. And there is every reason to believe that the Xi ring is spinning the world with its implausibly low tallies of infections and deaths.
Trump, too, has prioritized his public image over public safety. He said he did not want to allow infected cruise ship passengers to disembark on American shores for the reason that “I like the numbers [of cases] being where they are. I don’t need to have the numbers double because of one ship.” He has politicized the federal government’s assistance to states, getting into public beefs with Democratic governors who have accused Washington of slowly and unevenly distributing desperately needed medical equipment. His recent response was to demand that these governors instead be more “appreciative” of the administration’s benevolence. And he said that he advised the head of his coronavirus task force, Vice President Mike Pence, not to engage with those who don’t pay tribute. “If they don’t treat you right,” Trump said of his bedside manner, “I don’t call.” There is no universe in which this attitude helps the federal government contain the virus.
Today we are seeing what happens when a despotic crime boss rules over the world’s most populous country at the same time a shallow, self-obsessed president leads the country with the world’s biggest economy.
We can only imagine how China and the United States could have stunted the coronavirus outbreak if the former were a free society with a transparent government and if the latter had a president who was competent and honest and not a narcissist. The world would have known much sooner of the germ’s contagiousness, and the United States would have reacted proactively, aggressively, and cohesively. The infection would have been opposed by the formidable combination of human cooperation and scientific ingenuity. The manufacturing might of the two countries could have minimized the worldwide shortage of testing kits and protective equipment for health care providers. In short, the two countries could have gotten in front of the problem instead of in their own way—the result of leadership whose success is measured by how well the needs of the people are met, not by how soothingly the egos of the men in charge are stroked.