No statistic ever lay gasping for air, feeling as though their chest were being “crushed by an anvil.” No one ever wept for a statistic that died alone beyond the touch of family or friends. No one ever mourned a statistic.
And yet at this moment of national trauma, our president can’t seem to muster even a poor imitation of compassion for the victims. What is more, rather than waging a war against the disease that is causing such pain, he is waging one against the statistics, fearing—and quite rightly—that the data will tell for all time the story of his utter failure as a leader.
Trump has declared himself a wartime president in the midst of this crisis. But he has been clear from the beginning that his war has been the one he has fought all his life: against truth, against facts, against anything that might offer glimpses into the reality of his warped character and serial failures.
Most recently, we have heard the president say, during an Oval Office meeting this Wednesday with Iowa Governor Kimberly Reynolds, “The media likes to say we have the most cases, but we do by far the most testing. If we did very little testing, we wouldn’t have the most cases. So in a way, by doing all of this testing, we make ourselves look bad.” In this one statement, Trump confirmed yet again that he doesn’t care about the progress of the disease or the fate of its victims, he only cares about how he looks and, by extension, his political fortunes.
His comment was classically Trumpian, an unwitting confession wrapped in a warped viewpoint inside a fabric of lies. The lie is, of course, that we “do by far the most testing.” Because what matters with testing is not the raw number but the per capita rate of tests per million people. And while the U.S. has made some progress in recent weeks, according to Worldometer’s testing data, the U.S. still has not cracked the top 40 countries and territories by that crucial metric.
The warped viewpoint is of course that doing the testing makes us “look bad” when in fact, of course, testing, in the view of every expert, is essential to combating the pandemic, and therefore not doing it impedes our ability to fight the virus and actually produces worse outcomes in human terms. And the confession is that this is what’s on Trump’s mind and guiding his thinking.
But we knew that. We knew that as far back as March 4, when during a visit to the Centers for Disease Control, Trump said in response to a question about whether passengers on the Grand Princess cruise ship should be allowed to disembark, “They would like to have the people come off. I’d rather have the people stay (on the ship.) … I would rather because I like the numbers being where they are. I don’t need to have the numbers double because of one ship that was not our fault.” With him it is always about him, about credit and blame and how it reflects on Donald J. Trump.
That impulse is what led to foot-dragging on testing, and it is what now may lead to opening a new front in the president’s war against truth by attacking the statistics themselves. According to Axios, “A senior administration official said he expects the president to begin publicly questioning the death toll as it closes in on his predictions or the final death count and damages him politically.”
This too should come as no surprise. Last month, Fox television personalities Tucker Carlson and Brit Hume started to poke at CDC numbers, with Carlson saying, “It’s entirely possible that doctors are classifying conventional pneumonia deaths as COVID-19 deaths. That would mean this epidemic is being credited for thousands of deaths that would have occurred if the virus had never appeared.” Deborah Birx and Anthony Fauci quickly stepped into quash this effort at distortion.
Now, of course, the number of new cases and deaths, whiles falling in New York state, is still rising elsewhere in the country. Governors prematurely opening states up to stimulate the economy is likely to accelerate those increases. So the numbers are likely to tick (or maybe explode) upward throughout the summer. Even Trump has reluctantly acknowledged this by steadily adjust his prediction of total deaths upward from 0 to 50,000 to where it stands now at between 100,000 and 200,000.
But again, the White House is trying to play games with these numbers. New White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany said this week that some estimates had as many as 2.2 million dying from the disease, and “we’re at a point where we are far lower than that, and it’s thanks to the great work of the Task Force and the leadership of President Trump.” The 2.2 million number was based on what the toll might have been had the government done nothing at all. And it sidesteps McEnany’s comments when she was just another Fox talking head, when she said, “We will not see diseases like the coronavirus come here.”
Trump himself has tried to soften the numbers through the use of ham-fisted and insensitive euphemisms. For example, on Tuesday of this week he said, referring to his push to reopen the economy, “Will some people be affected? Yes. Will some people be affected badly? Yes. But we have to get our country open.” There’s no disputing that those who will lose family members or friends will be “affected badly.” Nor will looking for the weasel words to mute the consequences of his own bad policies help them one bit.
Perhaps the most heartbreaking of all those deaths are the ones that did not have to happen. These are the ones caused by Trump failing to act sooner in response to news of the disease. Epidemiologists have estimated that had Trump acted just two weeks sooner between 60 and 90 percent fewer people would have died. This has led filmmaker Eugene Jarecki to create TrumpDeathClock.com, a site that uses the most conservative estimates of the impact of Trump’s inaction to tally in real time those whose deaths are at least in part Trump’s fault.
The total is rapidly approaching 50,000.
The bitter irony is that had Trump been willing to embrace the truth, fewer lives would be lost and the legacy about which he cares so deeply would be improved. But he has always been allergic to the truth, whether lying to the press or misleading investors, spinning failed deals or demanding non-disclosure agreements from all who worked with him. The goal has always been the same, to advance his self-interest.
Today, that means Trump cares about one number and one number only: 270, the number of electoral votes that will ensure his re-election. The only thing that matters to him regarding this crisis is whether he can manipulate enough people into believing his version of events so he can get to that number. That is why, because the truth is so damning, that rather than waging a war on the disease that is killing so many of us, he is attacking the truth-tellers and the data about the toll the disease is taking. Because Trump knows that one number, 270, is the one that stands between him and whole lot of other numbers he cannot control—such as the ones involved in federal and state sentencing guidelines.