We’re not self-quarantining. We went supermarket-shopping last weekend. My wife and I will venture out for a half-hour walk once I finish writing this piece online. But we’re pretty much hunkering down.
Even before the coronavirus pandemic, we spent parts of weekday mornings, after exercising at our Easton Club East clubhouse (now closed) or in YMCA’s pools, watching the news. Speaking for myself, I could only take so much. Most days I’d get so worked up about the president’s inane, often hateful tweets or egregious decisions that I’d have to restrain myself from throwing objects at the TV. At those times, I’d retreat to my man-cave and watch sports. It didn’t matter. Whatever was in season. Whatever I recorded the night before. But now, because of the pandemic, there are no sports to watch. (Kudos to commissioners who made those decisions, as much as I’m disappointed.) Now I bide my time writing, reading or watching movies ancient enough that every actor on screen is deceased.
The pandemic can’t touch them.
But inevitably, we get back to news because it affects us all. What are the latest restrictions? What can we expect next? Then, there he is on TV spreading more misinformation—if not outright lies—babbling excuses, spreading blame to Democrats, journalists, presidential predecessors or anyone who utters a syllable of criticism.
In a Rose Garden press conference, reporters gathered on the lawn, side-by-side in rows of folding chairs, while a gaggle of scientists and politicians were arrayed, standing virtually shoulder-to-shoulder behind the president who, after declaring a state of emergency proceeded to undermine it with false assurances, then invited everyone behind him to speak. Each one adjusted by hand the microphone Trump had just released, each gripping the podium he’d clutched with both hands. Though one speaker awkwardly bumped elbows with the president, most shook his hand before returning to their places, reflexively touching their faces.
Everyone present knew the president had been exposed, briefly, to at least two people at a Mar-a-Lago party who tested positive for COVID-19.
Two reporters asked if the president accepted responsibility for the months-long delay in delivering testing kits to determine who does or does not have the virus. “No, I don’t take responsibility at all,” the president declared shamelessly, deflecting blame on the Obama administration, out of office more than three years. He dismissed a follow-up question as “nasty.” In 2018, the president and national security adviser John Bolton fired the pandemic team from the White House staff—appointed by President Obama. Trump has made it his mission to undue everything Obama did. Again, Trump refused to take responsibility. He turned to those behind him, asking if anyone knew who made that decision. “It wasn’t me,” he said, admitting twice in the same press conference that the buck stops anywhere but on his desk.
Before his national emergency declaration, the president all but dismissed the pandemic as a “hoax” blown out of proportion by Democrats and the news media, even Fox at times. The sad and dangerous side-effect is that Trump devotees believe him, literally repeating to reporters who ask them that the pandemic is a hoax created by Democratic “fake news”—as if live video feeds of empty streets in Italy, across Europe and now New York City, were staged to frighten us, to spook stock markets and undermine the president’s re-election. Trump has espoused all these “hoax” motives, each recorded for posterity on video. Somehow his most loyal supporters find space for denial.
While we’re entertaining preposterous conspiracy theories, how about this one? Trump refused the offer of the World Health Organization—he despises global organizations dominated by “experts”—to supply the United States with testing kits in January. Two months later, we’re still behind in delivering our own brand. Why might the president want to foster a delay? How about suppressing the number of Americans infected so the economy wouldn’t plunge into recession? I don’t actually believe the president is capable of sustaining such conspiratorial deception. But it’s no more implausible than a partisan pandemic hoax. Trump practically confessed his darkest wishes when he said he didn’t want Americans onboard a virus-infected cruise ship to disembark because it would add to bad USA numbers. Off-shore, they don’t count. And dead Americans can’t vote.
In case you haven’t noticed, Donald Trump lacks the empathy gene. He mocks widows of American heroes, Democratic and Republican. He doesn’t care about your suffering. He shuns leadership because he thinks leaving tough calls to others—such as a national lockdown—gives him room to scapegoat. It’s long been his modus-operandi, dating back to serial Atlantic City casino bankruptcies.
As I watched the news on Sunday, before switching to a 1941 film noir and later the Democratic debate, I was enraged to see what transpired at international airports across the U.S. Trump had announced cancellation of flights from Europe—without notifying Europeans. Americans returning from the continent were to be screened for the virus. To my horror, as it should be to anyone viewing these pictures, thousands of American citizens were packed like cattle, waiting hours to be screened, touching and breathing on each other all the while. Exponential viral exposure is inevitable. Meanwhile, at Disney World Sunday, thousands more spent hundreds of dollars to be COVID-19-exposed on the last night before the theme park closed for months. Donald said not to worry. So, they didn’t.
We once believed our presidents. We do so now at our peril.
“I don’t take responsibility at all.” Besides the empathy gene, Donald also lacks the leadership gene.
NOTE: As I finished this commentary Monday afternoon, President Trump suddenly got serious at a press conference, though he later tweeted snarky complaints about two governors and the New York Times. Trump has not yet earned the benefit of our doubt. But let’s hope he rises to the occasion, however belatedly.
Steve Parks is a retired New York journalist now living in Easton.