Just after his Inauguration, I wrote a piece that asked — and not facetiously— whether Trump was “a genius.” Not, as I said, in a Yo-Yo Ma sense of genius, but rather in the sense of an idiot savant: Did Trump have an uncanny ability to “see just the right move,” as I asked, “even when that move is ‘obviously the wrong move’ according to everyone else?”
The catastrophic mistakes of these past three months —what Jennifer Rubin calls the “biggest blunder in presidential history”—have answered this question, finally and firmly. Indeed, the stupidity in Trump’s response shows precisely how limited his mind and administration have become.
COVID-19 could have been the greatest political gift that the President received—at least since the gift of the quirky Electoral College that selected him. Had he accepted that gift with humility and tenacity, tens of thousands of Americans would have been saved. (It sounds glib to view this crisis through the lens of political opportunities, I get it. But our only hope in the age of government is when the interests of the governing align with the interests of the governed.) If in January, Trump had “declared war” on this virus with the resolve of FDR, or Churchill, or even President Thomas J. Whitmore (Independence Day), he would have united the world against this common foe, and for once, the world could wage a war as one, without hesitation, and without regret.
Yet so tiny is the mind of our Idiot King that he could not even glimpse this extraordinary gift. His single focus was on the single indicator that seemed to say that he was, indeed, a genius — the stock market. And so he dissembled and obstructed to the end of faking the market out. Who knows if the man is really stupid enough to have believed that a virus that had brought China to its knees, once discovered to have infected 15 Americans, would “within a couple days [go] down to close to zero.” It doesn’t matter. The political system had taught Trump that he had the power to distort reality. The economic system has now taught Trump that he can’t distort economic reality. America’s economy — and the worlds’ economy— will now collapse. The election in November will be in midst of a great recession, compounded by unimaginable loss of human life. No President gets re-elected in times like that. Not the good ones. Not even the buffoons.
Except, perhaps, one good one: FDR. Roosevelt had been elected by a wide margin in 1932 because America was so exhausted by the principled reluctance of Herbert Hoover to engage the government to end the suffering caused by the Great Depression. He was reelected in 1936, to the surprise of many, but actually not surprisingly given the partial economic recovery America had enjoyed between 1932 and 1936. Then America entered a new recession, and if economics determined everything, he should have lost in 1940. But in the shadow of a growing World War, Roosevelt inspired America with his confidence and courage — and most of all (and finally), competence — tied to a fierce resolve to steer America through the greatest threat to freedom the modern world had seen.
We needed an FDR in January 2020. We got a Donald Trump.
The Right will insist that this is not the time to criticize the President. We’re in a crisis. We should come together.
That’s right: we should come together. But we should also never forget. Because this crisis is not just the product of a single virus and an incompetent President. This crisis is the product of a political culture that has all but given up on what made free societies flourish.
There are two styles of modern leadership—authoritarian and democratic. Trudeau, Merkel, Jakobsdóttir, even Macron are democratic. Trump, Xi, Putin, and especially Erdoğan are authoritarian.
The most important lesson to (re)learn from this crisis is that it is almost completely the product of authoritarian leadership. When China discovered the virus, it reacted as every authoritarian does — by silencing those who were warning the world, enforcing discipline over truth. That response proved catastrophic. Some estimates suggest that 95% of the spread of COVID-19 could have been avoided if China had acted responsibly.
Trump’s response copied China’s. Though he acted quickly and effectively in banning flights from China, his initial instincts more broadly were authoritarian. He turned management of the crisis over to trusted political insiders (Pence, Kushner) rather than tested and practiced experts. He initially silenced information coming out of the government. (For a period, CDC removed testing data from its website.) He overruled health experts on, for example, whether seniors should be flying. He openly defended leaving sick citizens to die on a cruise ship so his “numbers” would not go down. He was through it all convinced of his own genius (“People are surprised that I understand it. Every one of these doctors say, ‘How do you know so much about this?’ Maybe I have a natural ability. Maybe I should’ve done that instead of running for president.”), led by his own “hunch[es],” and a dying (so to speak) belief in “miracles.” The consequence was at least 6 weeks of dithering, allowing a disease almost twice as contagious as the flu and at least ten times as deadly to spread across America almost unchecked.
The real measure of health in a government is whether the words “that’s just bullshit, Mr. President” can ever be uttered. Democratic leaders encourage such words. Authoritarians banish them. No one working for Obama or Clinton or even George Bush and certainly George H.W. Bush would ever have imagined they could lose their job for raising a question or challenging a decision. Yet the Trump administration is filled with people terrified that if they step too close to uncomfortable facts, they will be disappeared.
It is literally astonishing that we must learn this lesson again. The story told in the HBO series Chernobyl (2019) is familiar and expected — of the Soviet Union, not us. Yet that the culture of leadership in the White House would so obviously mimic it is unbelievable. The great political mistake of the 20th century was not socialism, it was authoritarianism. And yet here we are now governed by a President who practices authoritarian leadership while trashing the “socialists” — at least until a self-exacerbated crisis leads him to embrace socialism (especially for the rich) with abandon.
The sensible response upon recognizing the threat of this virus was not hard to see — and indeed, at the time, it was seen. Trump was right to shut down the border with China. He then needed to move aggressively to minimize the ongoing threat. We knew this was a virus that spread without symptoms. So we knew testing only the sick was not an effective way to avoid its spread. That meant the nation needed to ramp up the capacity to test, immediately, and to encourage everyone to test and isolate, regardless of the result.
Yet a clumsy and outdated bureaucracy blocked these obvious steps. The CDC would not tolerate other tests, even from the WHO; then the FDA was slow in approving other tests. (There are stories that even I can’t believe about this hesitation being connected to enabling a company that Jared Kushner had an interest in. Maybe after the Senate investigates Hunter, and those emails, they can turn to Jared.) Other countries were innovating quickly and effectively. Who could have imagined that a Republican administration would allow bureaucrats to stifle American innovators struggling to address a catastrophic threat? The President should have found a way to liberate American innovators, immediately. And no doubt, while the tests may have been imperfect, better to be improving on imperfect tests than living with the consequences of no tests at all. (When the administration first and finally acknowledged the threat (March 13) and promised an expanded program of testing (with a flowchart apparently inspired by Kushner’s company, and a fake story about Google stepping into the mix), Dr. Deborah Birx was proud that the tests we were finally deploying did not have as high a “positivity rate” as the South Korean tests — as if avoiding false positives justified 6 weeks of no testing at all.)
We need to focus these facts now, because we need to find a way to spread this truth to every American between now and November. Whether or not “Wall Street is toast,” as David Stockman recently predicted, Trump is toast.
But it is not enough to defeat the Idiot King. We must also (re)defeat the idea of authoritarian leadership. There are lots of reasons to wonder whether the American system of checks and balances can work anymore. Fukuyama is convincing. But in the age of untethered catastrophes, we will not survive with authoritarian leaders. These are the truths that conservatives were once so good at teaching: for obvious Hayekian reasons, we know no President could be genius enough; for obvious Montesquieuian realities, we know the rule of men must yield to the rule of law. Somehow, ordinary Republicans must be convinced to see this again. Somehow, they must come to see the difference between Trumpicans (or is it Trumpicrats?) and Republicans — and discover again how the good in the latter teaches the wrong in the former. Somehow, ordinary Republicans must come to understand the need to hold not just Trump to account, but every apologist and enabler of him as well. November must defeat not just Donald Trump, but the culture of authoritarian leadership that he practices, and his lackeys enable.
That happens, as Bill Kristol has argued repeatedly, only with a devastating defeat of the Trumpicans — by real Republicans (maybe Lincoln Republicans) and Democrats alike.
It’s fine that those Democrats are not lecturing America on the meaning of “democratic socialism.” We can get back to that work soon. It’s enough right now that Democrats remind America of a government that was at least competent, and sometimes, maybe often, inspiring. We need to return that image of government. And if this sentiment is spreading, maybe there is hope: