Opinion: Reminder: Trump’s last year in office was a national nightmare

FILE Then President Donald Trump participates in a roundtable in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington, June, 15, 2020. "One of the amazing political achievements of Republicans in this election cycle has been their ability, at least so far, to send Donald Trump's last year in office down the memory hole," writes New York Times columnist Paul Krugman. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)

One of the amazing political achievements of Republicans in this election cycle has been their ability, at least so far, to send Donald Trump’s last year in office down the memory hole. Voters are supposed to remember the good economy of January 2020, with its combination of low unemployment and low inflation, while forgetting about the plague year that followed.

Since Trump’s romp in the Super Tuesday primaries, however, the ex-president and his surrogates have begun trying to pull off an even more impressive act of revisionism: portraying his entire presidency — even 2020, that awful first pandemic year — as pure magnificence. On Wednesday, Rep. Elise Stefanik, the chair of the House Republican Conference, tried echoing Ronald Reagan: “Are you better off today than you were four years ago?”

And Trump himself, in his Tuesday night victory speech, reflected wistfully on his time in office as one in which “our country was coming together.”

So let’s set the record straight: 2020 — the fourth quarter, if you will, of Trump’s presidency — was a nightmare. And part of what made it a nightmare was the fact that America was led by a man who responded to a deadly crisis with denial, magical thinking and, above all, total selfishness — focused at every stage not on the needs of the nation but on what he thought would make him look good.

Before I get there, a quick note to Stefanik: When Reagan delivered his famous line, America was suffering from a nasty combination of high unemployment and high inflation. March 2024 looks very different. While we, like other major economies, experienced a bout of inflation during the postpandemic recovery, most workers have experienced wage gains considerably larger than the price increase. And President Joe Biden is currently presiding over a remarkable episode of “immaculate disinflation”: rapidly falling inflation with unemployment near a 50-year low.

But while even a focus on early 2020 doesn’t tell the story Republicans think it does, what we really should be discussing is what happened to America when the coronavirus arrived.

Once we knew that a deadly virus was on the loose — and we now know that several officials warned Trump about the threat in January 2020 — the appropriate policy response was clear: do whatever we could to slow the rate at which the virus was spreading.

Even though large numbers of Americans would inevitably suffer from COVID-19 at some point, “flattening the curve” had two huge advantages. First, it would help avoid the very real possibility that a tsunami of infections would overwhelm our health care system. Second, it bought time for the development of effective vaccines: Since vaccines could greatly reduce mortality from COVID-19, deaths delayed by public health measures would, in many cases, be deaths avoided.

What kind of public action was needed? In the early stages of the pandemic, as scientists raced to figure out exactly how the virus spread, blunt measures were required: engaging in social distancing, blocking high-risk interactions as much as possible. These measures were costly: In April 2020, unemployment shot up to 14.8%. But America is a rich country that could and for the most part did mitigate the economic pain with financial aid to hard-hit workers and businesses. And once researchers and medical officials keyed in on the virus’s airborne character, it became possible to limit its spread by getting people to wear masks, which was annoying but by no means a severe hardship.

And the logic of flattening the curve said that speed was of the essence. Every day spent dithering about whether to take strong action to protect public health meant more Americans dying unnecessarily.

Unfortunately, at the time, the man in charge denied, dithered and delayed at nearly every step of the way.

It’s well worth reading a timeline of Trump’s statements amid the growing pandemic, which some estimates suggest had already caused around half a million excess deaths by the time he left office.

On Jan. 22, Trump said: “We have it totally under control. It’s one person coming in from China.”

On Feb. 27, he said: “It’s going to disappear. One day — it’s like a miracle — it will disappear.”

On April 3, he said: “With the masks, it’s going to be really a voluntary thing. You can do it. You don’t have to do it. I’m choosing not to do it.” At that point, the main purpose of masks was not to protect the wearer but to protect those around him; why should exposing others to the risk of deadly disease be a voluntary choice? And why wouldn’t the president lead by example, by masking up?

On May 21, he answered that question, admitting he had worn a mask while visiting a Ford plant, but took it off when he went outside because “I didn’t want to give the press the pleasure of seeing it.”

And there’s much, much more. There’s no real question that thousands of Americans died unnecessarily because of Trump’s dereliction of duty in the face of COVID-19.

He responded to the only major crisis of his presidency with self-serving fantasies — with utter indifference to other Americans’ lives in an effort to boost his image.

Are we really supposed to feel nostalgic about 2020?

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.