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Trump's COVID-19 response: America's reality check

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Cartoon by Mark David / @MDavidCartoons

As those on America’s front lines fight to save lives from COVID-19, the President fights to save face. Claire McMullen reports from Washington.

AS THE United States stumbles towards the  November election, national dissatisfaction with President Trump is climbing along with COVID-19 infections. Many Americans are now asking the question: is Trump worth what he is costing the United States? 

Over the past five months, the President has failed to take proactive steps to protect American lives and livelihoods from the coronavirus. Slumping opinion polls indicate that an increasing number of Americans are judging the Trump Administration harshly for deadly delays in executing simple responses to COVID-19, continual denial of hard scientific facts, disbelief of the severity and scale of the threat of the pandemic and, ultimately, for the governmental disarray that has seen the U.S. surpass five million confirmed cases and constitute more than a quarter of the world’s death toll

The self-declared "Wartime President" chose to pick a fight with reality in a war he cannot win. 

According to the White House, however, Trump is winning. 

During a recent coronavirus task force briefing, Vice President Mike Pence claimed the Administration had made “truly remarkable progress". He insisted they had “slowed the spread” and “flattened the curve” as infections explode across the nation and many states rapidly backpedal their reopening plans.

White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany presented a similar image of nonchalance and disavowal, clarifying that the administration is “aware that there are embers that need to be put out". 

This week, the President stood by his February forecast that the coronavirus will simply “disappear”. It is as if the Hollywood movie reel playing out in Trump’s mind has a quintessential happy ending. The pandemic will fade in the warm rays of summer and a vaccine will arrive in time for his re-election in November.

The facts stand in stark contrast to the White House script.

The message from the health experts is clear: Americans must urgently take the coronavirus far more seriously.

The U.S. continues to break daily records, this week surpassing 50,000 new cases in a single day. Leading U.S. infectious disease expert and White House advisor, Dr Anthony Fauci said that he “would not be surprised” if the United States reaches 100,000 new coronavirus cases per day. More deaths, Fauci warned, are on their way. 

With similar urgency, Dr Anne Schuchat, the Principal Deputy Director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention called on people to renew efforts to social distance, wear face coverings, wash hands and quarantine.“This is really the beginning,” she said

Even Trump’s Health and Human Services Secretary, Alex Azar, told CNN that the current situation is “very, very serious” as “the window is closing” for the U.S. to “take action” and control the virus.

There has, however, been little revision to Trump’s own script. Instead, the daily COVID-19 forecast continues to be subject to a cut and retake by the White House. 

Such mixed messages have forced states and citizens to choose between two strikingly different projections of reality. Some have aligned with Trump’s projected reality, resorting to business as usual and dispensing with the need for precaution. Others stare at the grim warnings and mounting casualties on the screen and follow the science to help prevent more deaths.

Without a societal approach to addressing the pandemic, however, Trump’s “Lone Warrior” vision of the U.S. is costing American lives, the economy and the U.S. global standing

This week, New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo lambasted the Trump Administration’s mixed messages and alternate reality.

Cuomo called on the President to “tell the truth” about the coronavirus threat:

“You don’t defeat reality. Denying reality does not defeat reality, and [the President] has lived in denial and he has been denying the scientific facts from day one... Next time you’re smiling at the camera, put a mask on it, Mr President.” 

Republican leaders including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and former Vice President Richard B Cheney have recently increased pressure on the President to change his dismissive attitude towards masks and other precautionary measures.

In response to these new voices and his cascading ratings, Trump has reluctantly revised his refusal to wear a mask. In doing so he came up with another Hollywood image.

Trump told Fox Business Network:

“I had a mask on. I sort of liked the way I looked. It was a dark black mask and I thought I looked okay. It looked like the Lone Ranger… If people feel good about it, they should do it.”

The "Lone Ranger" once more put his emphasis on how the mask appears and "feels" rather than its potential life and economy saving function. 

Trump’s fixation on appearance emerged on centre stage at his campaign rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The President reassured his loyal cluster of unmasked supporters that testing was a “double-edged sword” and that he had directed his Administration to slow the testing down because the numbers make the United States look bad.

In performance after performance Trump repurposes old script lines used previously against political opponents, disloyal appointees and even friends who are now on the outer. 

In the Trump playbook, first, sneer and dismiss it:  “It’s just a flu”, “it’s a hoax”, “it’s Fake News". 

Second, tack on an inflammatory slogan or label: “Kung Flu”, “Law and Order”

Third, be sure to bury the facts by blaming the usual suspects. Take your pick: Democrat governors, Barack Obama, "Sleepy" Joe Biden or the "Fake News" media. Over the past five months, Trump has also blamed the spread of the virus on China, the World Health Organisation, the "radical" Left, Black Lives Matter protestors and, of late, "too much testing". 

Finally, play the Trump card: self-congratulation.  

On the eve of the Fourth of July, America’s Independence Day, Trump used the backdrop of Mount Rushmore, standing in front of the towering stone sculptures of four of the most celebrated American presidents, to argue that he was the man for the moment.

With red, white and blue flags flying, Trump used the rhetoric of the culture wars to take aim provocatively at the protesters on America’s streets, who he termed "left-wing fascists".

The President said.

“Make no mistake: this left-wing cultural revolution is designed to overthrow the American Revolution. In so doing, they would destroy the very civilisation that rescued billions from poverty, disease, violence, and hunger, and that lifted humanity to new heights of achievement, discovery, and progress.”

In conjuring up this self-important role as the defender of historic statues and perception of white culture under threat, Trump fails once again to acknowledge the pervasive racism and inequality that disproportionately subjects American minorities to police violence, alarming levels of unemployment, housing insecurity and COVID-19 fatalities.

Despite more than seven million Americans of diverse ethnicities taking part in the history-making Black Lives Matter demonstrations in response to the brutal murder of George Floyd, President Trump disparages these calls for change. Instead, he has inflamed racial divisions and launched a forceful attempt to preserve White entitlement represented in confederate statues. The President retweeted a video showing one of his supporters yelling,"White power”. While the White House later removed the post, claiming the President did not hear the audio, no apology was offered.

Trump will certainly deepen American inequality and vulnerability in the midst of this pandemic if he succeeds in stripping more than 20 million of the poorest people from access to health insurance.

The Administration has filed a legal brief in the United States Supreme Court in an attempt to invalidate the Affordable Care Act

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) described this in a statement as: 

“An act of unfathomable cruelty.” 

Pelosi said:

'If President Trump gets his way, 130 million Americans with pre-existing conditions will lose the ACA’s lifesaving protections and 23 million Americans will lose their health coverage entirely. There is no legal justification and no moral excuse for the Trump Administration’s disastrous efforts to take away Americans’ health care.'

Beyond America’s borders, the Trump Administration’s actions and failures to protect lives are also having deadly consequences. Since March, the President has been using COVID-19 as a cover to shut down the U.S. asylum system.

In dangerous defiance of its international responsibilities, the Trump Administration reportedly chartered 350 deportation flights between February and late June. It is alleged that these flights transported deportees and COVID-19 to more than 15 Latin American countries that have far inferior health systems, shortages of protective equipment and little capacity to prevent the spread of the virus. 

The United States has historically set the global standard for the protection of its citizens and inspired global commitment to the protection of others fleeing persecution. Under President Trump, the U.S. has abandoned this role.

Lost in his own reality show, Trump recasts America in a vision that services only his politics and protects only those lives that he sees fit to save.

Claire McMullen is a lawyer and writer who recently completed a Masters in International Legal Studies at Georgetown University Law School in Washington DC.

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