Alan Zendell, May 15, 2020
In the 1967 film, A Guide For the Married Man, Robert Morse tells his friend Walter Matthau that if his wife ever catches him in a lie he should, “Deny, deny, deny.” In the following scene, (watch it here,) Joey Bishop and his mistress are caught in bed by his wife (Imogene Coca.) As Coca screams her distress, Bishop and the mistress calmly get out of bed and dress, and the mistress leaves. Coca yells, “Who was that woman?” to which Bishop replies, “What woman?” Coca looks dumbfounded, and says, “What would you like for dinner?”
What made the skit funny was the absurd idea that you could convince someone that something she’d just seen and heard never happened. Donald Trump must have taken that movie to heart. He was twenty-one when it was released, a year before he launched his career of flimflamming. Fifty-three years later he’s still at it. He got away with it for most of that time because of his ruthless nature, his money, and his all or nothing, never compromise approach to life. As his bankruptcies demonstrated, he’d rather be in charge of a failing enterprise than cede control. More than five decades of getting off scot free have convinced him there’s no reason to change. His success in mobilizing his populist base has further emboldened him until it seems he knows no bounds. His antics were never amusing; now they’re frightening.
The COVID-19 pandemic presented Trump with the kind of test that makes legacies. He could have chosen to lead the country, using every resource of science and medical technology to minimize Americans’ suffering and save as many lives as possible. The nation’s infectious disease specialists knew how to accomplish that. So did the autocratic Chinese government, who were willing to sacrifice at least a half year of economic activity to shut down the virus.
Like Imogene Coca, we saw and heard everything. China tried the denial game, but actions speak louder than words, and their decision to precipitously shut down a province of more than forty million people made it clear to every observer that they were terrified of loosing a deadly pandemic on the world. Our intelligence services and military leaders understood this as early as last November. So did the president.
If protecting America were his first priority, he had several months to prepare. He could have started by reinstating the pandemic preparedness portion of the national security apparatus he trashed when he took office. He could have immediately declared a national emergency like South Korea did and activated the Defense Production Act before Christmas. While the Chinese were hardly forthcoming, the whole world saw how quickly the virus overwhelmed that country’s medical resources. Before 2019 ended, epidemiologists knew the fourteen day asymptomatic incubation period made it virtually impossible to contain the virus in China. Trump knew it was already too late to keep it from reaching Europe and North America.
As Dr. Rick Bright testified, yesterday, people who understood the threat recognized that we were woefully unprepared in terms of medical equipment and protective gear for front line workers. We could have begun manufacturing those things by January. Chinese President Xi Jinping had essentially the same choice. No one had any illusions that Xi acted out of compassion for the Chinese masses. Xi knew that if the virus got out of control there it could take decades for China to recover its position in the global economy.
Trump claims he had a choice between saving lives and protecting our economy, but Xi’s actions exploded that myth – they’re one and the same. The difference between Xi’s and Trump’s calculus was that Trump had to run for re-election. Trump equates the economy with the financial markets. His greatest fear was a panic that would cause them to crash.
Donald Trump was simply incapable of acting differently. It’s not that he didn’t understand his options. Our president suffers from a severe mental illness. His narcissistic personality disorder is not the kind of illness that gets people dragged off in straight jackets, but it’s equally serious when he has to choose between his self-interest and anything else.
We see it every day as he attempts to muzzle the doctors and scientists who’ve spent their lives preparing for the kind of pandemic we’re fighting. And with Trump trailing Joe Biden in every poll, it’s going to get worse. We’re going to see power grabs, attempts to suppress voter turnout, and the removal of everyone in power who hasn’t pledged fealty to Trump.
The next six months are going to be a nightmare of lies, misdirection, and signs of a president becoming unhinged.