Ross Douthat: The coronavirus is coming for Trump’s presidency

President Donald Trump listens to Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar during a meeting with members of the coronavirus task force and pharmaceutical executives, at the White House in Washington, Monday, March 2, 2020. "Will a nationalist president be undone by his underreaction to a foreign threat," writes Ross Douthat. (Anna Moneymaker/The New York Times)

On Jan. 31, over a month ago, the Trump administration made an excellent decision: In an effort to limit the spread of the coronavirus, it forbade most foreign nationals from entering the United States if they had recently traveled to China.

This move was immediately attacked in the language of cosmopolitan sophistication, which assumes that because travel bans and quarantines are associated with things liberals consider bad — nationalism, hardened borders, migration restrictions — they necessarily must not work as well.

But this supposed sophistication is really just a superstition. It’s certainly true that the travel ban could not, and did not, prevent the coronavirus from reaching the United States. But as with local quarantines and closings — all of which emphatically do work, whether you’re looking at the history of the Spanish flu or Hong Kong’s success combating the coronavirus today — you don’t need 100% effectiveness for travel restrictions to be wise and helpful. What they buy you, above all, is a slower rate of spread, and with it precious time for preparation.

So Trump made the right call, and in so doing he briefly vindicated a case that his supporters have always made for him: He acted like the guy who would make common-sensical choices in the national interest, even when they went against the nostrums of globalization and the supposed wisdom of the do-gooders.

And then his administration took the month that his decision bought the country and completely wasted it.

Obviously the White House isn’t to blame for everything that’s gone wrong with the coronavirus response. Our inability to roll out testing rapidly, even when thousands of cases are probably in circulation, owes a lot to the inherent problems of medical bureaucracy and the regulatory state and to the decadence that afflicts U.S. institutions at almost every level.

But the president can still be reasonably held responsible for the urgency with which the bureaucracy attacks the problem, the speed at which rules get suspended and workarounds enacted, the pressure brought to bear on state and local authorities to take a possible pandemic seriously, and the use of presidential rhetoric to encourage private citizens to do the same.

And on all counts the White House has been failing. There should have been a public face of the anti-coronavirus effort long before Mike Pence was finally elevated with the power to respond quickly to bureaucratic bottlenecks. Weeks ago, private laboratories like Quest Diagnostics should have been encouraged to run their own tests for the virus. Weeks ago, the government should have promised to cover the cost of testing, instead of leaving it to the tangle of insurance. Weeks ago, the White House should have begun working with states and cities to devise a uniform response to outbreaks and with Congress to ready aid packages for regions that need to go into lockdown — and perhaps to prepare a general stimulus as well. Even a specific issue like the production of surgical masks, outsourced like so many things to China, could have been the focus of a Trump-directed mobilization.

Above all, the president’s rhetoric could have been deployed from early February onward to encourage people to take this disease seriously, to focus a political and social response, to prepare the country for the kind of steps that have contained the coronavirus elsewhere.

Instead, Trump fell into the same trap as the cosmopolitan sophisticates — acting as if the specter of panic is worse than the disease itself, focusing on the more reassuring estimates of the virus’s fatality rates instead of recognizing the wide spread of possible scenarios — while mixing in his own short-termist fixation on the stock market. And then when, at last, even the cosmopolitans became alarmed, he took their anxiety as a partisan insult and lapsed into “hoax” accusations, pulling a certain percentage of his co-partisans into irresponsibility along with him.

Now the time his travel ban bought us has expired, and the next few weeks will be decisive. There is still a chance that state and local efforts to contain the virus can succeed, and there are still ways in which the White House could exert strong leadership to help that happen. But right now we are headed for a scenario of rising death rates and overwhelmed hospitals, shuttered schools and empty stadiums and cancellations everywhere.

Combine this scenario’s inevitable economic consequences with the optics of the president’s blundering and solipsistic response, and the coronavirus seems very likely to doom Trump’s reelection effort, no matter where he casts the blame.

And how ironic that would be. In 2016 we elected a China hawk who promised a “complete shutdown” in response to foreign threats, a germaphobic critic of globalization who promised to privilege the national interest above all.

Now he is in danger of losing his presidency because when the great test came, in the form of a virus carried by global trade routes from communist China, he didn’t take the danger seriously enough.

Ross Douthat | The New York Times (CREDIT: Josh Haner/The New York Times)

Ross Douthat is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.