Donald Trump and the Republican Party are trying to distract you from their catastrophic failure.
Two months ago, as the world knows, Trump was praising China’s government for its handling of the coronavirus outbreak, while downplaying the severity of the threat to the United States. “We have it totally under control,” he said in an interview to CNBC on Jan. 22. “It’s one person coming in from China and we have it under control. It’s going to be just fine.” For good measure, he said it again on Twitter: “China has been working very hard to contain the Coronavirus. The United States greatly appreciates their efforts and transparency. It will all work out well. In particular, on behalf of the American People, I want to thank President Xi!”
Now, of course, Trump simultaneously denies that anyone could have known about the pandemic (“I would view it as something that just surprised the whole world”) and claims to have predicted the extent of the disaster (“This is a pandemic. I felt it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic”). Similarly, he’s moved from praising President Xi Jinping’s government to attacking it. He’s also changed the language he uses to describe the pathogen that causes COVID-19. After weeks of saying “coronavirus,” he now calls it the “Chinese virus.”
The administration says it is simply holding Beijing responsible for spreading the disease. And it is true that the Chinese government suppressed information and punished whistleblowers, hiding the potential danger until it was too late. But given the president’s previous praise for China’s response, that explanation doesn’t hold up.
The likely truth is that Trump is flailing. His change in language came shortly after the stock market collapsed and the president faced harsh criticism for his sluggish response to the outbreak. Rather than face his failures — the United States is far behind its peers in testing, and its hospitals are largely unprepared for a surge of the severely ill — Trump turned to racial demagoguery. He would bounce back not by fixing his mistakes but by fanning fear of foreign threat.
Following the president’s lead, Republican lawmakers, activists and officials have adopted the president’s language about the virus while avoiding any discussion of his response to the outbreak. Sen. John Cornyn of Texas told reporters that “China is to blame because” of “the culture where people eat bats and snakes and dogs and things like that.” Kevin McCarthy, the minority leader of the House, called the disease “Chinese coronavirus.” And on Twitter, Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa wondered what all the commotion was about: “I don’t understand why China gets upset bc we refer to the virus that originated there the ‘Chinese virus’ Spain never got upset when we referred to the Spanish flu in 1918&1919,” he wrote, in his typically hurried style.
None of this is the least bit clever. Trump failed to act when it was most important, and now his allies are flooding the zone with rhetoric meant to move attention away from the president’s poor performance and toward an argument over language.
One might think that Republicans have an interest in pushing the administration into a stronger response, but the truth is that Trump wasn’t the only member of his party to downplay the threat who knew better.
In January, just over two weeks after she was sworn in, Sen. Kelly Loeffler of Georgia was part of a private briefing on the coronavirus provided by administration officials, including Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. That same day, according to The Daily Beast, she and her husband began to sell millions in stock, a process that continued over the next few weeks. They also made a purchase: between $100,000 and $250,000 worth of shares in a company that specializes in technology that helps people work remotely.
Loeffler seems to have sensed danger. But that’s not what she said to the public. “Democrats have dangerously and intentionally misled the American people on #Coronavirus readiness,” she said on Twitter in February. “Here’s the truth: @realDonaldTrump & his administration are doing a great job working to keep Americans healthy & safe.”
(For her part, Loeffler denies any connection between her stock market activity and what she learned as a senator: “This is a ridiculous and baseless attack,” she wrote on Twitter late Thursday. “I do not make investment decisions for my portfolio. Investment decisions are made by multiple third-party advisers without my or my husband’s knowledge or involvement.”)
In February, Richard Burr, the Republican chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, co-wrote an op-ed in which he assured the public that “the United States today is better prepared than ever before to face emerging public health threats, like the coronavirus.” A few days later, however, he sold somewhere between $628,00 and $1.7 million in stock, according to ProPublica. And a few days after that, NPR reported, he warned representatives from select companies and organizations (including donors to this 2016 reelection campaign) that the virus might move local communities to close schools and force the federal government to mobilize the military in response to acute medical need.
“We’re going to send a military hospital there; it’s going to be in tents and going to be set up on the ground somewhere,” Burr said. “It’s going to be a decision the president and DOD make. And we’re going to have medical professionals supplemented by local staff to treat the people that need treatment.”
It’s tempting to say that now is not the time for partisan recrimination. But this is the second consecutive Republican administration to lead the United States to disaster. The difference is that it took George W. Bush most of his two terms to bring the country to the brink of economic collapse — Trump has done it in less than four years. He’s even hit some of the same milestones; Bush let Hurricane Katrina drown New Orleans, Trump let Hurricane Maria destroy Puerto Rico.
In other words, now absolutely is the time for recriminations, because it’s the only way we might avoid another such administration in a country where control of government moves like a pendulum.
The public needs to know that the Republican Party is culpable for the present crisis, just as it was culpable for the Great Recession, even if it did not originate either. It needs to know that in the face of a deadly pandemic, some Republican lawmakers appear to have looked to profit rather than to prepare. It needs to understand that the deadly incompetence of Republican governance is a feature, not a bug.
This won’t happen of its own accord. It is the political task of the Democratic Party to make the public understand the nature of the Republican Party and its leading role in this disaster so that when November comes, Americans hold no illusions about what it would mean for their futures — and their lives — to give Republicans another four years of power in Washington.
Jamelle Bouie is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.