The president of the United States suggested that people inject disinfectants into their lungs.
If there was a single moment that clarified everything about Donald Trump and his presidency, and the bargain Republicans made four years earlier when they put him in office and then again early in 2020 when, despite his impeachment, they kept him there, that was it. Thursday, April 23, 2020, at 6:14 p.m. in the evening.
No, it wasn’t the worst thing that Donald Trump did during his pandemic response. It probably doesn’t even make the top ten worst things. In truth, the self-evident stupidity in even suggesting such a thing made it, ironically enough, probably one of the best things in his response, because it revealed ever so much about him and his entire administration, and all in such a few seconds.
Yes, he had said many, many, many idiotic things before, as documented ad nauseam previously, but never about something that was literally killing more than a thousand Americans a day. Suddenly in a span of 200 words over 66 seconds, the emperor’s new clothes disappeared on live television.
No amount of spinning and explaining could undo what was now obvious: Clearly, Donald Trump had no business whatsoever to be in that job.
That April 23 press conference, of course, merely provided the quick and easy sound bite for television networks and, later, the attack ads.
Obviously, no rational human being was going to mainline Lysol on Donald Trump’s say-so. (Just to protect themselves from legal liability from Trump supporters who never got the memo and continue to take him both seriously and literally, manufacturers of Lysol, Dettol, and other cleansers quickly put out warnings to consumers that, no, under no circumstances should they inject, ingest, or otherwise introduce these branded cleaning products into their bodies.)
The inane statement—made complete by the pained efforts of coronavirus coordinator Deborah Birx, a medical doctor, to maintain a neutral expression—was just the final breaking point. The true dereliction of duty on the pandemic had begun four months earlier. As Trump was facing impeachment in the House and then a removal trial in the Senate, what remained of his attention was focused on his trade agreement with China, which he saw as critical to his re-election.
Because while Trump had spoken frequently and with authority about the United States’ trade relationship with the rest of the world for several decades, the fact remained that he had and continues to have a fundamental misunderstanding of the topic. In his mind, if Country X imports more from Country Y than it exports to Country Y, that is proof that Country X is “losing” that trade “battle,” and that Country Y is “ripping off” Country X.
This is, of course, ridiculous on its face. Just about every American has a negative balance of trade with the local supermarket. Does that mean that Wegman’s and Publix and Albertson’s are ripping us all off?
As in so many other areas, Trump sees the world around him as a zero-sum game. There is no such thing as a mutually beneficial partnership. There are only winners and losers. And in Trump’s telling, China had been “ripping us off” for years, because of horrible presidents who had let it happen.
Trump’s views on international trade back when he was a reality game show host or a New York City condo salesman really had no import, one way or the other. But as president, he decided he would get tough on China and imposed huge tariffs on Chinese imports, which had enormous repercussions both for American manufacturers suddenly facing higher costs for raw materials as well as for consumers buying everything from clothes to electronics. What Trump apparently had not counted on was the Chinese retaliating with tariffs of their own—targeted specifically at the people whose support Trump would need to win a second term: farmers in the Midwest.
China’s import tax on American soybeans and pork, among a host of other products, was designed to hit Trump where it hurt, and hurt it did. Yes, he has lied about how he used the billions of dollars “collected from China”—a lie; American tariffs are paid by Americans—to make the farmers whole with bailouts—another lie; the bailouts came nowhere close to making up for their lost earnings.
Generally speaking, farmers have tended to vote Republican, as most people in rural America have done in recent decades. But as the trade war dragged on from the summer of 2018 for a full year and into the autumn before Trump’s re-election year, farmers’ support for Trump began to soften. Michigan and Pennsylvania, two of the three “Blue Wall” states that Trump had unexpectedly won by the narrowest of margins in 2016, were already looking like they would vote against Trump this time. And Wisconsin, the most rural of the three, was suffering from a wave of farm bankruptcies on top of a manufacturing slump with exporters facing retaliatory tariffs, all thanks to Trump’s trade war. What’s more, Iowa, which he had easily won but whose big pork industry had been hammered by Chinese tariffs, was starting to look shaky, as were other agricultural states.
So, as the end of 2019 neared, Trump’s zeal to ink a “deal’ with China and boost farm exports began rising exponentially, until it essentially became all-consuming. So all-consuming, in fact, that when China in the final stages of the negotiations insisted on a provision triggering a reopening of talks in the event of a natural disaster or other unforeseen event, Trump’s team either didn’t notice or didn’t care.
Imagine if George W. Bush had downplayed not just one warning in one intelligence briefing about al Qaeda wanting to hit the United States, but more than a dozen of them. Now imagine that rather than downplaying the warnings in his intelligence briefings, he had simply refused to take the briefings in the first place.
Starting in mid-December, with that odd demand by China for force majeure language in a trade agreement, through alarms from Taiwanese authorities in late December about a mysterious outbreak of pneumonia-like cases on the mainland through explicit warnings from U.S. national security agencies starting in early January, Donald Trump ignored it all.
International trade agreements between major countries are not like business contracts between two companies. “Act of God” provisions are not generally included in them, because nations, particularly large ones like China, are big enough that a flood or a drought in one region is likely not going to affect the country’s ability to import or export as a whole. The massive Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiated under Barack Obama did not have one, for example. Nor the deal with South Korea updated under Trump.
The fact China was demanding one should have been a clue that something was up. And, of course, something was up. In late October or November, strange cases of a SARS-like respiratory illness were cropping up in Wuhan. Reports about it were circulating in the area by late November and more broadly by mid-December. One person close to the White House told me the United States had an extremely good idea what was happening and when, because one of our intelligence agencies had a source actually working in Wuhan’s virology lab.
By the end of December, the new disease was out in the open, with Taiwanese health officials warning the world that China was experiencing a bad outbreak. Both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Department of Health and Human Services were on high alert over the New Year’s break. The Washington Post reported that the disease and its risk to America made its first appearance in Trump’s “President’s Daily Brief” in the first days of January.
It was followed by multiple additional warnings throughout that month in the package of intelligence reports of threats from around the world collated each morning specifically for the president’s eyes, with the warnings getting more dire as the weeks progressed.
Of course, a “President’s Daily Brief” is only useful if the president reads it.
During the first five days of January, Trump was wrapping up his two-week golf vacation at his Palm Beach resort, Mar-a-Lago. Not a single intelligence briefing was scheduled during that entire stretch. The first one on his schedule in 2020 was January 6. Indeed, in a month that saw the explosion of the world’s worst health crisis since 1918, Donald Trump received just nine intelligence briefings.
To be clear, getting intelligence briefings and taking appropriate action based on them is not a minor, if-there’s-time-for-it sort of thing for a president. It is literally his damned job.
Not for Donald Trump. He has loads of time for watching television, hours and hours of it, each morning, and then tweeting about what he has just seen. He has time to call his various rich friends from New York, the members of his various golf clubs, to solicit their thoughts on everything from Kim Jong Un’s intentions to the actions of the Federal Reserve, but he doesn’t have time for the singular responsibility that a president, and no one else in the federal government, is entrusted with?
Every previous president going back to the start of the PDB has taken the role seriously. George W. Bush received his early each morning. Barack Obama preferred to have it loaded onto his iPad by 6 a.m. each day and would have read it by the time of his in-person briefing later in the morning. Trump, on a good week, will receive two briefings, and even those, as The New York Times reported in an extraordinary warning to the public from the intelligence community, are contentious affairs, with Trump frequently telling briefers that they are wrong and going off on random, time-wasting tangents.
And as January proceeded, Trump made it plain that he was not interested in hearing about a deadly viral outbreak in China, particularly since asking questions about it could jeopardize his all-important trade deal. And so it was that on January 13, 14, and 15, with top Chinese officials on White House grounds for the signing of his trade agreement, no one in the Trump administration pressed them for details about the worsening situation in Wuhan.
In fact, Trump’s fixation with the agreement, which rolled back some tariffs in exchange for China agreeing to purchase large quantities of farm goods, continued even past the signing. When asked about the virus in the coming weeks, Trump continually praised China and its leader, Xi Jinping, personally.
On Jan. 22, the first day Trump spoke publicly about the coronavirus, he told Fox News there was nothing to worry about. “It’s all taken care of. And China is working very hard on the problem. We spoke about it and China is working very hard on it.”
“China has been working very hard to contain the Coronavirus,” Trump wrote two days later in a Twitter post. “The United States greatly appreciates their efforts and transparency. It will all work out well. In particular, on behalf of the American People, I want to thank President Xi!”
Even two months later, Trump still had only kind words for China’s dictator. “Look, I have a very good relationship with President Xi and they went through a lot. You know some people say other things. They went through a lot. They lost thousands of people. They’ve been through hell,” he told reporters on March 24.
And when he was not praising China, he was pretending that the virus wasn’t a problem at all, or that it might have been a problem if he hadn’t successfully stopped it from coming into the country with his China travel ban that he instituted despite opposition from other countries, the Democrats, and even many in his own administration.
“We’re doing an awfully good job, I think, with what we’re doing,” he said in late March.
It was only later in the spring, as the U.S. death toll started climbing dramatically, that Trump changed tacks and began attacking Xi. “They should have never let this happen,” Trump said in a May 13 Fox Business interview. “I make a great trade deal and now I say this doesn’t feel the same to me. The ink was barely dry and the plague came over. And it doesn’t feel the same to me…. Right now I don’t want to speak to him.”
Unsurprisingly, virtually all of his claims were false. By the time he finally imposed restrictions on people entering the United States who had been in China during the previous two weeks, nearly fifty other nations had by that point taken that action. U.S.-flagged airlines had already stopped flying from China on their own because of the outbreak. And his own experts were not only telling him to institute travel restrictions from China, but from Europe as well, where the disease was rapidly spreading by mid-January. Trump and some of his Cabinet members resisted the European restrictions because of the shock they would send through the markets.
Indeed, Trump’s entire response from January 22, when he first mentioned the outbreak, right through March 16, when he finally appeared to take it seriously, seemed guided by just two motivations. The first was to avoid spooking the stock market, which Trump seemed convinced was going to bring him a second term with its historically high valuations. And the other was to avoid angering Xi Jinping, who could on a moment’s notice renege on his promise to buy American farm products, which would threaten Trump’s standing in several key states.
The heights of absurdity to which Trump took this became manifest in late February, when he lost his mind over comments by the CDCs’ Nancy Messonnier on a conference call with reporters. She matter-of-factly stated that she had discussed the near-certain arrival of the disease in the United States with her children, and the changes it would require in all of their daily lives, and how she thought all Americans needed to similarly prepare.
Trump was on his way back from a visit to India when he heard of her statements and the stock market’s resulting plummet, its second in as many days. He demanded that his top aides get out and retract her warning. Upon his return on February 26, still unhappy that his “all is well” message was not taking hold, he made his first very foray into the White House briefing room since taking office for an unplanned news conference, where among many other things, he offered this prognosis: “When you have 15 people, and the 15 within a couple of days is going to be down to close to zero, that’s a pretty good job we’ve done.”
Over the coming two weeks, Trump was in the briefing room on a near daily basis. He continued to claim that the virus was under control, that he had done a phenomenal job, and that all would soon be back to normal, with the soaring economy he had created with record-low unemployment and a record-high stock market, and that he would roll to an easy re-election. In this time, he continued his rallies—including one in South Carolina where he claimed that all the concern about the virus was another Democratic/news media “hoax” ginned up to hurt his re-election—and hosted gatherings of hundreds at Mar-a-Lago. (One of those wound up an impromptu coronavirus party, with a number of people in the entourage of visiting Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro testing positive in the coming days.)
It was only on March 16 that his attitude seemed to change, following both an in-person plea from Fox News’ Tucker Carlson to take the pandemic seriously followed a week later by estimates from his top health officials showing that, in the absence of any preventative measures, as many as 2.2 million Americans would die. So it was on that Monday that a noticeably sober Trump finally endorsed the “15 Days to Slow the Spread” guidelines produced by his CDC, finally acknowledged the seriousness of the threat, and conceded that it was not, in fact, “a hoax.”
It did not have to be this way.
In fact, with any somewhat normally functioning adult—someone chosen at random from a convenience store checkout queue, say, or a subway car—anyone willing to listen to basic facts and make reasonable decisions based on those facts, things could have been dramatically different.
If the president had bothered to take his intelligence reports seriously in the first days of January, the United States could have prepared for the arrival of the virus rather than just belatedly react to it. The production of face masks, surgical gowns, and gloves could have been ramped up immediately. Hospitals could have been warned to prepare for a flood of respiratory cases. Even more important, a functioning test could have been developed and mass produced, allowing early cases to be found and isolated. Their contacts could have been traced and monitored. Most important of all, the public could have been put on guard early and enlisted in a national effort to contain the disease to the handful of cities where it had made its first appearance.
These are not hypothetical steps. They were taken by other countries: South Korea and Germany, for example. The South Korean model was probably not replicable here. The MERS outbreak there in 2015 had given its government valuable recent experience, and the coronavirus outbreak was largely confined to a particular religious community, making it easier to isolate. On the other hand, there was no reason that the United States could not have had an experience similar to Germany’s. There, as of mid-summer, 109 people per million had died compared to 428 in the United States.
And it was not as if the necessary expertise to do these things did not reside in our country. It did. On February 4, 2020, Jeremy Konyndyk, who worked on the Obama administration’s widely praised Ebola response in 2014, wrote in the Washington Post that the time to prepare for a possible pandemic was now. A week earlier, on January 28, Scott Gottlieb, Trump’s former head of the Food and Drug Administration, wrote a similar piece with nearly identical recommendations for the Wall Street Journal. Tom Bossert, Trump’s former homeland security adviser, was sounding those same alarms to anyone who would listen.
That universe of listeners, however, did not include the one person who mattered most: the occupant of the Oval Office.
To the contrary, Trump made it clear that he was not remotely interested in the virus and was absolutely opposed to taking any steps that could hurt the stock market or the economy. For three years he had rebranded the steadily growing economy that Obama had left him as the best economy in the history of the world and was certain that it would carry him to a second term. Acknowledging that there was a genuine danger in this disease risked spooking investors, and therefore stock prices and, in his mind, hurting his chances for a second term.
This real-time aversion to the facts came atop the underlying damage Trump had already done to the nation’s pandemic response infrastructure that had been built up by his predecessors, George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
Bush in his second term, having dealt with a bird-flu scare, said one of his biggest fears was a pandemic that the world simply was not prepared for. Obama, dealing with the financial crisis as he took office in January 2009, was immediately hit with the H1N1 swine flu that spring. In his second term there was a major Ebola outbreak in West Africa, which he responded to by sending help to the affected areas to contain the disease there. The lessons learned in that crisis led him to institutionalize the response protocol, so it would not have to be re-engineered the next time. A pandemic coordinator was added to the National Security Council, overseeing a team that resided within the various federal agencies, from Health and Human Services to the United States Agency for International Development. Officials put together a “playbook” detailing the steps to take in the event of a pandemic. During the transition to the Trump administration, Obama’s public health officials even staged a “table-top” pandemic exercise for their incoming counterparts.
Trump and his people had no use for any of this. Under Trump’s third national security adviser, John Bolton, he eliminated the pandemic response position from the NSC, thereby degrading the profile and efficacy of the entire team. And during 2018 and 2019, Trump eliminated two-thirds of the Beijing-based CDC officials whose job it was specifically to monitor for potential outbreaks in China. And when the coronavirus began its spread, Trump and his top aides ignored the pandemic playbook as well as the lessons from the transition training session.
The rationale behind most of these decisions was simple: If Obama did it, it must be bad. That was the foundational principle to Trump’s rise within the GOP, and he continued living it in the White House, from climate change to trade to Iran to, as it turns out, our ability to cope with a deadly pandemic.
The wholesale trashing of previously acquired knowledge and expertise was bad enough, but the Trump team then compounded that with additional failures. Choosing not to ramp up the production of protective gear or to alert hospitals was a function of Trump’s message that the virus was nothing to fear. But the deadliest mistake of all was likely the CDC’s failure to adopt a functioning coronavirus test when it became available in late January, and its insistence instead on developing its own. When that process was badly bungled, the result was a crucial, one-month delay before a test was in widespread use across the country.
Why this happened remains unexplained. German researchers made the protocol for a working test available to the world on January 16. That became the test the World Health Organization began giving to countries without the medical infrastructure to produce their own. Trump administration officials, though, refused to use that test, even as an interim measure, and pushed ahead to develop one independently. It is true the CDC has long been proud of its reputation as the world leader in public health, and perhaps the decision to wait for its own test was merely a function of that institutional pride. At the same time, Trump’s simmering feud and irritation with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and his overarching “America First” rhetoric was obviously well known at the agency, and certainly within its top ranks of political appointees. Their reluctance to explain why they went with a German test to their boss at the White House may well explain their decision to accept a short delay.
As it turned out, unfortunately, the delay was not short. The original CDC test, shipped out three weeks after the German protocol was published but hyped as more precise because it tested for three pieces of the virus’s genetic code, rather than the German test’s two, contained a fatal flaw. The component of the test for that third piece of code was repeatedly producing erroneous results. Finally, nearly a month later, the CDC announced a fix: ignore that third component, and just go with the other two—meaning the Trump administration’s America First test wound up no more precise than the one the rest of the world had been using for five weeks.
The consequences of this delay were nothing short of catastrophic. Had public officials been able to test for the virus widely across the country in late January, they would have been able to isolate those places where “community spread” was already taking place and acted accordingly. Elder care facilities, where nearly half of all the coronavirus fatalities have come from, could have been locked down early. Quarantines of individuals exposed to those infected might have been possible, with adequate and early testing.
But through most of February, our country had none of that. Our public health officials were flying blind. Anthony Fauci, head of the infectious disease program at the National Institutes of Health, conceded afterward that not taking the German test was a mistake. “If you look back and Monday morning quarterback, it would have been nice to have had a backup,” he told CNN in March.
By the time our own test was widely available, the damage was done. The virus had spread from New York and Seattle and Los Angeles, those cities where the early cases had started, all over the country. It was too late to isolate individual cases and trace their contacts. Too many people were already infected. The only recourse left was to mandate large-scale stay-at-home orders in order to slow the spread of the disease and prevent the pandemic from overwhelming all of the nation’s hospitals at once.
Where America wound up by late summer, with 180,000 dead and millions sickened, was not a pre-determined outcome. Again, things did not have to go this way. They did not go this way in Germany. Indeed, had Trump handled the outbreak the way Merkel did, well over a hundred thousand who have died from the disease would be alive right now.
More of interest to Trump and a significant chunk of his supporters is that having effectively dealt with the virus would have also allowed the country to minimize the damage to the economy. Had it actually been contained in a few major cities, the rest of the nation could have largely gone about its business. We would not have needed to endure double-digit unemployment and a deep hit to gross domestic product, all while adding several trillions to the national debt.
But that economic pain—which will continue, by the way, for years to come—was a direct and predictable result of Trump’s spending a full month ignoring the virus entirely, and then seven additional weeks pretending it was not really serious or that his actions had prevented it from coming into the country.
This incompetence bordering on criminal malfeasance continued largely apace after a brief pause in the days following that March 16 news conference. Trump’s insecurities and vanities turned what should have been a daily briefing by experts into a two-hour monologue cum political rally cum therapy session, starring himself. It was from there that he pushed his public health experts to embrace a malaria drug as a coronavirus cure. It was from there he elevated son-in-law Jared Kushner, fresh off a failed mission to deliver Middle East peace, to run the White House coronavirus response. And it was from there where he riffed on his various medical theories, including, most famously, about injecting disinfectants and bringing “very powerful light” into the body as possible cures.
The practical effect of this nonsense was that there was no national leadership at all. Whether you and your family lived or died from this disease had far more to do with the governor your state happened to have elected, and how much that particular person needed Donald Trump’s support going forward. With a few exceptions—Idaho, Ohio, for example—this meant that Republican-led states were far less likely to have adopted meaningful stay-at-home directives early on, when they would have done the most good.
Trump himself, meanwhile, quickly grew bored of the pandemic, particularly after his advisers eventually persuaded him that his marathon news conferences were the cause of his slipping poll numbers. Trump had believed that his daily on-camera performances were giving him a huge advantage over Democrat Joe Biden, and frequently cited the ratings they were getting. But Americans, after initially rallying around their president, as they are wont to do in a crisis, began bailing on him as his inanity became obvious.
So it was that by late April, Trump essentially declared victory over the disease and decided to move on. The White House coronavirus task force ended its daily meetings. Top aides, following his cue, switched their focus to “re-opening” the economy and talking up favorable employment and retail sales statistics. Trump personally insisted on resuming the only part of politics or the presidency that appeared to give him any real joy, his campaign rallies. Even as Oklahoma’s coronavirus numbers increased, Trump scheduled a rally in Tulsa for mid-June.
In terms of political strategy, the location was mystifying. The state’s voters had favored him over Clinton by 36 points in 2016. It was nearly completely surrounded by equally Republican states. It didn’t matter. The campaign and Trump himself bragged about receiving over a million requests for tickets to a 19,000-seat venue, only to have just 6,200 turn up.
In a telling Fox Business interview just days later, Trump claimed the virus would “just disappear” and that the economy would soon take off and recover all the jobs it had lost—language nearly identical to what he was saying about the pandemic in March and April.
More broadly, his message was simple : The virus was the fault of China, Obama, Biden, Democratic governors and mayors, the news media, Nancy Pelosi, anyone and everyone other than him, who, the way he told it, had done everything correctly even when facing naysayers, and whose actions prevented millions of American deaths, perhaps even “billions,” as he once claimed. And by mid-June, with less than five months to go before election day, coronavirus was officially somebody else’s problem. He was done with it.
As Maryland’s Republican governor, Larry Hogan, described it in a mid-July Washington Post op-ed, Trump’s failure to lead left every state on its own. “It was clear that waiting around for the president to run the nation’s response was hopeless,” Hogan wrote. “If we delayed any longer, we’d be condemning more of our citizens to suffering and death. So every governor went their own way, which is how the United States ended up with such a patchwork response.”
When the virus has finally receded, as eventually it will, perhaps it will leave behind a chastened electorate.
Back in 2015 and 2016, one of the most common things I heard from Trump supporters was that he would shake things up. They didn’t care that he had no experience in government or in running a large organization—in fact, this lack of experience was a tremendous attribute. They wanted him to be the bull in the china shop. They wanted him to overturn tables and break things.
Well, they got what they wanted, and all the rest of us have to live with the mess.
As it turns out, there are real-world consequences to mocking and driving off expertise. Oil and gas companies, pipeline companies, industries of all sorts, and Republicans generally, in fact, loved that Trump ignored the scientific consensus on climate change to make it easier for them to make money. What they didn’t anticipate, perhaps, was that his disdain of science went well beyond areas where it stood to benefit them personally.
Trump offered as clear a warning as can be imagined when he took his Sharpie to that hurricane forecast map. He had no respect for trained meteorologists who had spent years and years studying tropical revolving cyclones—in his view, his judgment about the hurricane’s likely path was just as valid as theirs.
So it was with the pandemic. He was fine with eliminating the Obama-era response measures because if Obama had done them, they were, by definition, bad. As to subsequent warnings by his own public health officials about the threats posed by a pandemic… well, what did experts really know, anyway? Since he never takes anything seriously until it directly threatens him, he was not at all concerned when his administration failed to rebuild the national medical supplies stockpile. He didn’t pay attention when reports started circulating about a new disease in China. He didn’t bother taking intelligence briefings that specifically warned him of the virus’s unique dangers. In short, he failed to do any of the basic things that any even half-way competent leader would have and should have done.
This is what the know-nothings inflicted upon us all when they supported a man who was both profoundly ignorant yet proudly opinionated. The rationale behind this was that only such a person would be able to take on “the establishment” and return power to “the people.”
Burn it all down, they said, and then cheered Trump on as he did so, and put all of our lives at risk.
This rage against the system is understandable, on some level. People see economic inequality and social injustice and the simple answer is that it’s all corrupt, that it truly is all rigged. Indeed, if there’s any single factor explaining Trump’s success with a segment of voters who supported Obama previously, it’s the persistence of these ideas.
It’s such an easy charge to toss out, if you’re a politician running to “shake things” up. People who spend a normal amount of time thinking about politics—which is to say, very little—are receptive to this message, and those who don’t pay attention to politics at all are downright hungry for it. Trump sensed this and played on it, claiming, amazingly, that only he could end the corruption because he had so often taken advantage of it in years past. That by giving campaign contributions to politicians over all those years, he had bought their loyalty for the day he needed a favor.
This argument, in fact, meshed perfectly with the message that Bernie Sanders had been selling to Democratic voters. The political system was stacked against them, and the average American had no voice.
It was an effective message, for both Sanders and Trump. It also happened to be false.
While it is true that there is occasionally corruption at all levels of government, there is nowhere near the systemic rot that so many Americans seem to want to believe exists. Maybe this is a function of better access to campaign-finance data—it is now easier than ever to determine how much campaign money Politician X has received from Special Interest Y, and journalists as well as opposing candidates are quick to draw a connection from a particular vote to a particular set of campaign contributions.
What most Americans don’t realize is just how many competing interests there are, and just how expensive even House races have become. A typical re-election campaign can run several million dollars. A contested race in a competitive district can run over $10 million. Are there people who honestly believe that bundled donations of $10,000 or even $50,000 are going to put a member of Congress in the back pocket of any given interest group? If you had to raise $1,000 for a charity event, are you going to be forever beholden to someone who gives you $10?
It is true that being a longtime fundraiser or a prodigious “bundler” gets your calls answered, often by the members’ chiefs of staff or even the members themselves. What is not true is that those answered calls always get the desired action.
Because here is the dirty little secret behind the Washington lobbying game that those with a vested interest—the registered lobbyists—don’t want anyone to know: Angry constituents are already the most feared group on Capitol Hill.
The Bernie Bros and the conspiracy theorists don’t want to believe it’s true, because it takes away all manner of excuses rooted basically in apathy or laziness. But all you have to do is watch how closely a member of Congress monitors phone calls and emails logged in the Washington and district offices. Individual notes and unscripted calls are weighted more heavily, but every contact from the district is recorded and tallied. If there are enough of them to indicate that voters back home feel strongly about any given issue, that almost always outweighs the desire of a “special interest” asking for a contrary position.
Granted, most issues are not going to generate much or perhaps even any interest from the typical voter. Most issues Congress deals with—other than ceremonial things like naming post offices—are about one business interest trying to tweak rules to gain a small advantage over a competing business interest or to obtain some public benefit at less than market cost. And most voters are quite understandably uninterested in those skirmishes.
It’s in situations like those that lawmakers are most likely to side with that lobbyist who has been the prodigious fundraiser or the loyal campaign contributor. Yet in those cases where the prodigious fundraiser or loyal contributor is asking for a vote on something that a vocal group back home opposes, the answer from the member or the chief of staff is almost always: “Sorry, I can’t help you on this one.”
A perfect example of the limits of campaign contributions is abortion. Notwithstanding the claims from the most committed activists on both sides—and setting aside the paychecks many of these activists derive from their activism—abortion is not “big business” for anyone involved. Performing abortions, or referring patients to doctors and clinics who perform them, is not really a profit center. Nor are “crisis pregnancy centers” or adoption agencies.
Despite this, there is hardly a more contentious issue or one that sees more grassroots lobbying. If the model of Congress as a completely corrupt entity serving only the business elites was correct, abortion would get virtually no attention from lawmakers at all.
Yet it does. That should tell us something.
On top of that, the converse is also often true. Well connected people who want something and try to use their connections frequently get squat for their efforts. Exhibit A for this could well be one Donald J. Trump, who for years in Florida paid one of Tallahassee’s top lobbyists tens of thousands of dollars per year to get the state government to permit him to open a casino. The idea never moved an inch, despite the lobbying, despite all of Trump’s campaign contributions to Florida Republicans. They were happy to take his money, but casino gambling was not a popular idea in Florida, and they weren’t about to use even an ounce of capital just to please Trump.
In other words, and unsurprisingly, Trump lied about his ability to get politicians to do “whatever the hell you want them to do,” as he famously told the Wall Street Journal back in the summer of 2015, a claim he repeated days later in that first Republican debate.
But that has been part and parcel of his entire con in politics. His campaign adopted the slogan “Drain the Swamp,” but Trump has done no such thing. He has openly funneled millions of both tax dollars and campaign dollars into his own pocket. He has put his daughter and son-in-law in unprecedented positions of power. He and his staff routinely campaign from White House grounds and during “official” visits around the country, using taxpayer resources.
He is, hands down, the most openly corrupt president in a century, and quite possibly since the founding. And the way he tries to hide that corruption? By claiming that this is normal, that everyone is just as corrupt and just as dishonest as he is.
More important, it is also how he hides the trait that, in the end, has proven fatal to so many Americans: his fundamental incompetence and lack of judgment. Trump failed to take the basic, obvious steps than any rational adult—and even most rational children—would have taken in his position. That’s the main point about being president. You don’t have to be a renowned meteorologist or macroeconomist or epidemiologist. You just have to listen to them and base your decisions on their advice when the time comes.
Trump has failed to do that, time after time in any number of areas, but most consequentially for most Americans in his handling of the coronavirus pandemic. And while in some cases his failures have been due to his lack of interest, in the instance of the pandemic, it was because taking the appropriate actions would have gone against his personal interest, which was to maintain the economy and stock market through November 3 to assure himself a second term. That was the reason he didn’t want to upset China’s dictator, whom he was relying upon to buy more farm products to undo the effects of Trump’s own trade war. It was also the reason he didn’t aggressively push coronavirus testing early on. To do so would have uncovered more cases, which would have spooked consumers and investors alike.
Astonishingly, Trump even admitted all this at his fiasco of a rally in Tulsa: “When you do testing to that extent you’re going to find more people, you’re going to find cases. So I said to my people, ‘Slow the testing down, please.’”
His staff later said he was only joking. More than two hundred thousand dead Americans, and counting, say otherwise.
Any other politician—scratch that; any other human being would have seen the pandemic as both a responsibility and an opportunity.
As president, it is literally your job to lead the country through something like this, whether you want to or not. Americans were expecting this and hoping Trump would rise to the occasion. That is the reason his approval ratings initially went up—not because they thought he had done a good job to that point, but because they wanted him, and the country, to do well and be safe.
Trump, naturally, drew exactly the wrong lessons from that polling bump, attributing it instead to his marathon “news conferences” he had been staging from the White House briefing room in lieu of the rallies that he could no longer hold. And, naturally, the more he talked, the more average Americans realized just how ignorant and dangerous he truly was, peaking with that famous April 23 medical advice to inject disinfectants into the lungs and get ultraviolet or “very powerful light” into the body. Somehow.
The great irony is that had Trump been capable of leading, and had done even a halfway competent job, he could have cruised to re-election as the nation’s savior, without ever leaving the White House. It could have been a straightforward Rose Garden strategy, with minimal campaigning, leading to another four years.
It’s what any of the other candidates running in 2016, in either party, would have done. It’s what any normal, adult human being would have done.
That Trump was unwilling and unable even to try tells Americans everything they need to know.
Excerpted and adapted from The Useful Idiot and published with permission.