The word “nemesis” is too often misused. We tend to think of it as meaning a powerful, nefarious but ultimately conquerable enemy: Vader; Voldemort; the Wicked Witch of the West. But the original Nemesis was not a villain. She was a goddess — an implacable agent of justice who gives the arrogant, insolent and wicked what they deserve.
As a matter of public health, nobody should ever suggest that the novel coronavirus represents any form of justice, divine or otherwise. It’s a virus that must be stopped.
As a matter of politics, however, it’s hard to think of a mechanism so uniquely well-suited for exposing the hubris, ignorance, prejudice, mendacity and catastrophic self-regard of the president who is supposed to lead us through this crisis.
A few points to mention.
Alternative facts. In recent days, conservative pundits appear to have been scandalized by the suggestion that the coronavirus is Donald Trump’s Chernobyl. They miss the point, which is not that the virus is a nuclear furnace. It’s that the same absence of trust that pervaded the relationship between the Soviet regime and its people also pervades the relationship between much of America and its president.
A leader who cannot be believed will not be followed, even, or especially, in periods of emergency. If Trump’s supporters now wonder why Americans won’t rally around the president as they did around George W. Bush after 9/11, there’s the answer.
America First. Trump didn’t fail to insert his favorite catchphrase into his speech Wednesday. As usual, it managed to combine jingoism with bad policy. Instead of boasting, he could have learned from South Korea how to test better. Instead of trying to talk down the threat, he could have learned from Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu to speak about it far more honestly. Instead of offering rosy guesses of what the ultimate case fatality rate might be, he could have learned from Germany’s Angela Merkel to teach Americans some sobering math.
Putting America First — a slogan — first, means putting Americans — real ones — last.
Build the wall. “The virus remains low-risk domestically because of the containment actions taken by this administration since the first of the year.” So said a White House spokesman late last month, following the president’s monomaniacal belief that there’s hardly a problem in America that can’t be fixed by building a wall, shutting a port, booting a migrant, imposing a tariff or blaming a foreigner — right down to a “foreign virus.”
Except that containment turned out to have dwindling returns once the virus moved beyond China, squandering time and resources while creating a false sense of geographic immunity. Had the White House abandoned its ideological obsession a month ago and instead urged or mandated social distancing from the start, we’d be in a better place now.
Drain the swamp. The administration’s other core belief is that America is in the evil grip of the “administrative state.” But while it’s one thing to pare federal bloat and curb bureaucratic overreach, what we have now is a White House that can’t distinguish between muscle and fat, essential government and excess.
Hence the disconnect between the president’s airy promise that the coronavirus test is available to all who need it and the sobering reality that kits are in critically low supply. Hence also the astonishing congressional testimony this week by the White House’s acting budget director that he’s sticking to his proposal to slash the budget of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as part of broader cuts to the Department of Health and Human Services.
Very stable genius. Millions of Trump’s supporters aren’t blind to the president’s clownishness and ignorance. But they’ve been relatively indifferent to both because they find the first entertaining and the second irrelevant to his overall performance. Who cares what a president knows about epidemiology so long as the markets are up?
They care now. The coronavirus has exposed the falsehood of so many notions Trump’s base holds about the presidency: that experts are unnecessary; that hunches are a substitute for knowledge; that competence in an administration is overrated; that every criticism is a hoax; and that everything that happens in Washington is BS. Above all, it has devastated the conceit that having an epic narcissist in the White House is a riskless proposition at a time of extreme risk.
Will Trump’s declaration of a national emergency change this?
Maybe, and the president has a belated opportunity to demonstrate seriousness he has lacked so far. But nobody should forget that such seriousness would only be a function of political expediency. Should coronavirus recede in warmer weather, you can depend on Trump to declare his premature victory — not warn that winter is coming.
It should not have had to take a deadly virus to expose this presidency for what it is. But it’s fitting that it has. A man who thinks he can twist every truth to suit his needs has at last discovered that he cannot twist the truths of nature and of one of nature’s gods. Her name remains Nemesis.
Bret Stephens is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.