The coronavirus pandemic is first and foremost a global public health crisis. But here in the United States — as is likely true in other countries — the response to it is heavily overlaid with political calculations. It is both obvious and inevitable. The crisis is unfolding in the lead-up to the election.
Viewed strictly in a political light, the consequences and rewards of responses to this virus — good responses as well as bad ones — suggest a new political dynamic that has few predecessors.
There was an election in the midst of the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918, but that was a midterm election year, not a presidential one.
I would submit that in general, a national crisis benefits the incumbent, if the nation is perceived to be at war against an outside actor. In such cases, there is a predictable nationalistic rallying. Fear becomes an adhesive; heroism becomes an antidepressant. And the president’s bully pulpit is amplified, as networks carry his news conferences and announcements live and the American public tunes in.
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People need reassurance, stability and leadership, and changing the person in command in the middle of the process might not appeal to many.
As such, Donald Trump has tried in every way to make fighting the pandemic feel like fighting a war. As he tried to frame it: “We’re at war, in a true sense we’re at war, and we are fighting an invisible enemy.” But an invisible enemy doesn’t work as well as a visible one, so Trump now regularly refers to the virus as the “Chinese virus.”
The problem for Trump is that this actually isn’t a war. It’s a health crisis. The government may attempt to mobilize in some of the same ways it would if the country were actually at war, but a health crisis carries a different psychological freight than a combat war.
A virus is invisible, as Trump originally phrased it, so there isn’t a person or a people to vilify. An invisible army of submicroscopic infectious agents with no mind and no capacity for malice isn’t an enemy that calls up patriotic defensive cohesion.
Calling the virus “the Chinese virus” is the closest Trump can get to a target, to racist, cultural scapegoating. Regardless of where the first case of this virus was identified, the United States now has more confirmed cases than any country in the world.
Furthermore, the theater of battle is out of sight, due to patient privacy concerns and HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) regulations. This war is being waged in hospitals, and the closest most of us will truly get to understanding the gravity and human cost of the situation is from personal testimonials from health care providers.
Here again, the battle differs. In a traditional war, or even a terrorist attack, the front line combatants are public servants, extensions of the government: soldiers, police officers, firefighters.
In the case of a health care emergency, many of those on the front lines are private citizens in a for-profit industry. They may rise, and they have in this case, to true honor, nobility and service, but it is hard for a politician to take credit for their effort and sacrifice.
That is a thing that leaders like to do: Find a moment when they can declare a victory, even if the war still rages — George W. Bush on an aircraft carrier standing in front of a “Mission Accomplished” banner, or Barack Obama announcing the killing of Osama bin Laden. There is not likely to be such a dramatic moment with this virus unless a vaccine or treatment is quickly developed.
Still, Trump forecasts a victory moment, saying earlier this month, “Americans from every walk of life are coming together and thanks to the spirit of our people, we will win this war and we are, we’re winning and we’re going to win this war.”
Furthermore, it is nearly impossible to grasp the scope of the lethality of the crisis. We see numbers climb, but we rarely see the human representation of those numbers.
There is no battlefield to visit. There is no pile of rubble to climb. There is no communal gathering place. Even if there was a place to gather, gatherings are strictly discouraged during this crisis. There is no collective action, and therefore collective conscience, because we are isolated from one another.
The most we see is online concerts and convening, and people clapping or singing from balconies. There are no candlelight vigils. There are no massive quilts.
Trump needs America to view the fight against the virus as a war against an army unleashed by a foreign power — one over which we will emerge victorious. Only in that light can he emerge as a valiant leader.
Seen the other way, the way it truly is — as a national health emergency during which he has failed by downplaying its significance and lying about his response — it would be a disaster.
Charles M. Blow is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.