Over the past week, a new narrative has emerged in the mainstream media: President Trump has finally, belatedly gotten serious about combatting the coronavirus, or COVID-19. A few brave correspondents at CNN.com—heretofore the mainstream media headquarters of the Resistance—have penned editorials of cautious praise.
Journalists aren’t the only ones. Minnesota Representative Ilhan Omar, one of Trump’s most implacable archenemies in Congress, openly praised the president’s ‘incredible’ response to the pandemic. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has had nice things to say about President Trump in recent days. In the face of this unprecedented national crisis, the lion and the lamb are lying down together—albeit at a safe social distance of six feet.
But such newfound respect for the president is by no means unalloyed. The other side of the narrative is that Trump should have known better; he should have acted sooner.
There is evidence, after all, that the intelligence community warned the president about the true dangers of coronavirus back in February—even January. And while President Trump did place early restrictions on travel to and from China, the full mobilization of the American homeland didn’t really get underway until around the Ides of March, give or take a few days.
This brings up an obvious question, the one posed by the title of this piece: Should the president have acted sooner?
Let’s not beat around the bush about the answer: Of course the president should have acted sooner. Most of the rest of us should have acted sooner, too. Speaking of the Ides of March: On Sunday, March 15, I exercised at my fitness center in suburban Cincinnati. I was still half-convinced that I was going to be able to continue working out in a public gym, just like I always have.
But I was wrong. The very next day, Ohio Governor Mike DeWine shut down all bars, restaurants, movie theaters…and health clubs.
I failed to take COVID-19 seriously at first for the same reason that President Trump probably failed to take it seriously. We’ve seen this movie multiple times before, and it has always ended fine for Americans.
No, I’m not talking about the 2011 pandemic film, Contagion. I’m referring to events in the real world. How many times since the beginning of this century have we seen a new flu arise out of some distant corner of the world, only to dissipate before it reaches American shores?
There have been global outbreaks of H1N1, the avian flu, SARS. None of them seriously impacted daily life in America.
We all make future predictions based on past events. Why should it have been any different this time?
The experts warned President Trump about COVID-19 in January and February of this year. That seems almost indisputable now. But those same warnings, if more generalized, were out there during the presidencies of Barack Obama and George W. Bush. They did nothing, either…so long as they didn’t absolutely have to.
Yes, Bush and Obama were both warned. Over the past fifteen years, I have heard and read multiple warnings from epidemiologists. They repeatedly said that the emergence of a truly global, society-altering pandemic was a question of when, not if.
If I knew that, as a private citizen, then Presidents Bush and Obama also knew. We should have been stockpiling protective masks, ventilators, and hand sanitizer, in the same way that we stockpile petroleum. Imagine how much more prepared we’d be now, if we’d started such actions in 2012, or 2006?
The coronavirus wasn’t the only existential threat that we might have seen coming. What about sentient human threats, like stateless Islamic terrorism?
At the beginning of this century, the cataclysmic black swan event was 9/11. As most readers will know, Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda were behind that.
The dangers of Osama bin Laden were known to President Bill Clinton. President Clinton had at least one clear chance to take him out with a missile strike. Clinton didn’t act decisively, though, for fear of the political consequences.
And what of Clinton’s successor, George W. Bush? Bush believed that he was going to be a domestic policy president. Shortly after taking office, Bush deprioritized the work of the CIA’s “sisterhood”—a group of mostly female analysts who were then closing in on the Saudi terrorist.
Less than a year into Bush’s first term, 9/11 occurred. How’s that for lack of foresight?
President Reagan, the hero of my Republican youth, played a pivotal role in bankrupting the Soviet Union with an expensive arms race that a Marxist economy simply couldn’t win. During the 1980s, American aid to the Afghan mujahideen helped turn the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan into the USSR’s Vietnam. That effort not only drove the Soviets out of Afghanistan, it also contributed to the collapse of the USSR itself.
What Reagan didn’t foresee, however, was that a decade later, Afghanistan would become the home base of the Taliban. And one of the Arab mujahideen—that same Osama bin Laden—would eventually stop killing commies and start killing everyone else, most of all Americans.
Oh, and President Reagan also didn’t foresee that after the fall of the USSR, Russia was going to turn into something that is arguably worse. Vladimir Putin’s Russia is preferable to Stalin’s USSR; but Mikhail Gorbachev’s USSR might have been preferable to this new incarnation of czarist Russia.
Reagan’s predecessor, Jimmy Carter, also failed to act when he really needed to. Carter should have recognized by 1977 that the Pahlavi regime in Iran was tottering. When the Shah of Iran visited the White House in November of that year, tear gas marred the state visit, as Iranian students studying in the US clashed with riot police. CIA analysts and State Department officials based in Iran (which was then a US ally) warned Carter that something bad was coming over there.
But Carter ignored the warnings. Or at least he didn’t act decisively on them. Fifty-two American hostages spent more than a year of captivity in Iran. And for forty years now, Iran has been not a US ally, but our most persistent and troublesome foe.
I grew up Catholic during the 1970s. In those days, the administration of John F. Kennedy, America’s sainted Roman Catholic commander in chief, was still very much a part of recent memory. Portraits of the fallen president hung in at least one of my primary school homerooms. We memorized passages of Kennedy’s 1961 inaugural address like we memorized passages of Catholic Church catechism. (I can still recite entire paragraphs of it from memory.)
Nevertheless, I can also see where Kennedy failed to heed warnings from his advisors, from history, and from common sense. Kennedy’s Bay of Pigs invasion (1961) was a disaster from the planning stage. Castro’s forces outnumbered the American-backed anti-communist guerrillas by at least 10-to-1.
Kennedy should have known that the Bay of Pigs wasn’t going to be a success. Members of the “deep state”, moreover, advised him not to proceed. But Kennedy went with his gut, and greenlighted the debacle.
The following year, Kennedy narrowly pulled us out of the Cuban Missile Crisis. But every historian will acknowledge that we could have just as easily been incinerated.
Why didn’t Kennedy foresee that the Soviets would put nuclear missiles in Cuba? After all, we had already put nuclear missiles on their doorstep, in Turkey. What the Soviets did was a logical escalation.
What was JFK thinking?
When presidents fail to heed the warnings of advisors and circumstances, the result is often a raft of conspiracy theories. There are Americans who believe that FDR deliberately sacrificed over 2,400 American lives on December 7, 1941, so that the isolationist American public would finally consent to join the war against the Axis powers.
By 1941, after all, FDR had ample evidence that a Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was imminent. Relations between the United States and the Empire of Japan were already near the breaking point. For years, a final exam question at the Imperial Japanese Naval Academy was, “How would you carry out an attack on Pearl Harbor?”
The Japanese had also tipped their hand with their prior actions. Thirty-seven years before Pearl Harbor, Japan carried out a similar surprise attack on a different enemy. The Russo-Japanese War began in February 1904, when Japanese forces suddenly and without provocation bombarded the Russian naval base at Port Arthur, on the Chinese mainland.
Japan made an official declaration of war three hours later.
Did President Roosevelt knowingly immolate 2,403 Americans on the altar of geopolitics on December 7, 1941? If you believe that, then you essentially believe that FDR was a homicidal sociopath. I don’t believe that.
It’s possible, sure. But the far more likely explanation is that FDR, like so many US presidents before and after him, lacked a perfect insight regarding which dangers required an immediate response, and which could simply be monitored. For no president can respond with urgency to every potential danger.
Hindsight, moreover, is always 20-20. This is as true in our private lives as it is in the fates of nations. ICU units throughout the country are filled with terminal patients whose lifestyle diseases were entirely—or almost entirely—avoidable.
They were informed, ad nauseam, about the dangers of smoking. Their physician warned them to lose weight, to get more exercise. Watch that blood sugar, they were told. Your blood pressure is too high.
They had years to turn their situations around, to avoid disaster. And yet they still wound up in those ICU beds.
Why? They probably weren’t suicidal. But something else was always more urgent—more pressing. Who has time to worry about a heart attack that might strike you ten years in the future, when there is so much that demands your attention right now?
And so it goes with presidents. When you’re President of the United States, you’re constantly bombarded with warnings about short-term and long-term dangers to America. The Chinese are expanding their blue-water navy, with the aim of threatening the American heartland with nukes. Iranian and North Korean hackers are trying to take down our electrical grid. There’s also a new disease in Wuhan, China; you really ought to take a look at that.
On occasion, presidents overreact to a threat. (President Bush’s 2003 invasion of Iraq was a recent, textbook example of such an overreaction.) But most of the time, their mistake is to not recognize a potential threat until it becomes an actual, existential threat.
We can certainly make the case that President Trump fell into that trap in January and February of this year. He should have acted sooner and more decisively in a critical moment. He didn’t. But the same can be said of FDR, Clinton, Carter, Bush, and others.
President Trump is a polarizing figure. This statement doesn’t, in itself, mean that he’s objectively good or bad. It means what you already know: You can’t say his name in a group of people without eliciting strong reactions.
Americans tend to either love him or hate him. If you’re on the left, President Trump is horrible, evil—worse than Hitler, even. Worse than anyone or anything imaginable. Orange Satan.
If you’re on the right, meanwhile, President Trump is the nearly mythical figure of his political rallies (which won’t be resuming anytime soon, thanks to coronavirus). He’s The Art of the Deal, the charismatic host of The Apprentice. He’s the man who is going to Make America Great Again.
Perhaps Trump fits neither of those partisan hyperboles. Perhaps he’s simply yet another American president whose crystal ball was imperfect at a critical moment. And now, as a result, both the president and America find themselves behind the eight ball.
Notice how you don’t hear as much about the upcoming election in November in recent days. Oh yeah, that. We’ll certainly get around to it…provided we can all make it to the polls without having to don hazmat suits.
At the moment, most of us would be happy to simply see an America that is free of coronavirus. Let’s hope that President Trump, and our more conscientious leaders in both parties, get us there soon. There will be plenty of time to play Monday morning quarterback afterward, after the present crisis ends.