The Roman Empire would have a better reputation if it had enjoyed more leaders like Augustus and Marcus Aurelius and fewer like Caligula and Nero, and someday a couple of thousand years from now there will be some blogger saying the same about America. Bad leadership matters, and George W. Bush and Donald Trump have provided the kind of leadership that leaves an indelible stain.
Sure, we have the Declaration of Independence, the Emancipation Proclamation and the “I Have a Dream” speech, but we also have this incredible interview that President Trump did with Chris Wallace of Fox News over the weekend. It’d be nice if all records of it were lost, much like the chapters of Tacitus’s Annals that no one can seem to find. As things stand, all the history books will say about us is that we were very foolish people led by a certifiable sociopathic moron.
This begins to become apparent in the interview’s first exchange where Mr. Wallace wants to talk about “the surge of the coronavirus across the country” only to be met with “Chris, that’s because we have great testing, because we have the best testing in the world.”
Never mind that is like Trump explaining he has syphilis because he took a very accurate test that told him he had syphilis, it’s not even true that our tests are better than the tests being used in other countries. But, if you’re going to read the transcript of this interview, you’re just going to have to accept that the president combines ignorance, dishonesty, bad faith, cruelty and indifference in ways never before seen in an American leader.
On the ignorance and bad faith fronts, this initial salvo was just a warm-up for a more comprehensive treatment of his Grand Theory of Testing. Despite its childlike simplicity, it’s actually hard to explain. Here’s his synopsis:
We go out and we look and then on the news — look if you go back to the news, all of your — even your wonderful competitors, you’ll see cases are up. Cases are up — many of those cases shouldn’t even be cases. Cases are up because we have the best testing in the world and we have the most testing.
So, here we see that we not only have the best testing but also the most testing, and this latter point is really the key. If, say, your spouse has COVID-19, it’s quite possible that she shouldn’t be counted. If for some reason we didn’t count her then not only would reporters not be able to say she has the virus, but she wouldn’t have it.
Oh, sure, maybe in some technical and meaningless sense she’d be infected, but many people “heal in a day” and “like 99.7 percent, people are going to get better.” The problem is that we shouldn’t be identifying these people and counting them as cases because it looks bad and they’re going to be just fine.
Of course, the fatality rate from COVID-19 is a lot higher than 0.3 percent, and the virus spreads most effectively from people who show few or no symptoms, so it’s absolutely critical that he find them, and testing is the only way to accomplish that.
What Trump is demonstrating here is a refusal to understand the most basic and crucial idea behind containing the spread of the virus. As I wrote in a subscription piece over the weekend, this is precisely why Mitch McConnell is proposing a lot of money for testing and contact tracing in his upcoming COVID-19 spending bill. It’s the model that has worked everywhere that the virus has been contained. But Trump opposes all of this spending, and the reason is that he’s convinced it will just lead to a higher official count of positive cases, without any benefit to himself.
It doesn’t help that Trump is wrong about every other aspect of the pandemic. It’s not just that we don’t have better tests. We haven’t done the most tests on a per capita basis. We certainly haven’t done the most contact tracing. He’s also completely wrong about the mortality rate we’re experiencing here in the United States.
When Wallace pointed out that we have the seventh highest mortality rate in the world, Trump insisted he was wrong and they had to stop the interview while the president tried to prove his case. In the end, he produced a document that excluded some key countries like Russia, but which still showed that American has far from the “number one low mortality rate” that he initially claimed.
Nonetheless, Trump insisted that we are “the envy of the world” and that the death count is down. Wallace became embarrassed for the president at this point and it led to the following exchange:
WALLACE: I’m, I’m going to do you a favor, because I’m sure a lot of people listening right now are going to say, “Trump, he tries to play it down, he tries to make it not being as serious as it is.”
TRUMP: I don’t play it — I’m not playing — no, this is very serious.
WALLACE: 75,000 cases a day.
TRUMP: Show me the death chart.
WALLACE: Well, I don’t have the death chart.
TRUMP: Well, the death chart is much more important.
WALLACE: But I can tell you, the death chart is a thousand cases a day.
TRUMP: Excuse me, it’s all too much, it shouldn’t be one case. It came from China. They should’ve never let it escape. They should’ve never let it out. But it is what it is. Take a look at Europe, take a look at the numbers in Europe. And by the way, they’re having cases.
WALLACE: I can tell you cases are 6,000 in the whole European Union.
TRUMP: They don’t test. They don’t test.
WALLACE: Is it possible that they don’t have the virus as badly as we do?
TRUMP: It’s possible that they don’t test, that’s what’s possible. We find cases and many of those cases heal automatically. We’re finding — in a way, we’re creating trouble. Certainly, we are creating trouble for the fake news to come along and say, “Oh, we have more cases.”
So, that is the totality of Trump’s Grand Theory of Testing. That’s why he says he’ll veto any bill that provides money for testing and tracing.
But the interview did more than display his infinite stupidity and bad faith, it also put on a remarkable display of his racism. It began with Trump asserting that Joe Biden wants to defund the police, to which Chris Wallace replied, “No, sir, he does not.” They then shut down the interview a second time while Trump tried and failed to prove his talking point. In an effort to recover, Trump began a new riff, “when people proudly have their Confederate flags, they’re not talking about racism. They love their flag, it represents the south, they like the south.” When asked if Black people have some justification in being concerned that they’re on the receiving end of a disproportionate number of violent acts by police, Trump’s reply was one for the ages:
TRUMP: I mean, many, many whites are killed. I hate the sad – but this is going on for decades. This is going on for a long time, long before I got here. You know, if you look at what’s gone on in Portland, those are anarchists and we’ve taken a very tough stand. If we didn’t take a stand in Portland, you know we’ve arrested many of these leaders. If we didn’t take that stand, right now you would have a problem like you, you – they were going to lose Portland. So let’s see…
To summarize: Black people have no reason to be protesting and that’s why he sent secret police to Oregon to arrest anarchists.
As for military bases named after Confederate heroes, Trump said “I don’t care what the military says. I do – I’m supposed to make the decision. Fort Bragg is a big deal…We’re going to name it after the Reverend Al Sharpton?”
The rest of answer was par for the course, with him first assuring us that the people agree with him before saying the polls are inaccurate and finally that he was surprised to see a survey where 64 percent of the people disagree with him but that he doesn’t care.
In keeping with his indifference to taking popular positions, he hasn’t changed his position on school reopening one bit. For some reason, this first came up as a word salad non sequitur to a question about why the hell he is so resistant to mask-wearing.
Everybody who is saying don’t wear a mask – all of sudden everybody’s got to wear a mask, and as you know masks cause problems, too. With that being said, I’m a believer in masks. I think masks are good.
But I leave it up to the governors. Many of the governors are changing. They’re more mask into – they like the concept of masks, but some of them don’t agree. I do say this – schools have to open…
…when they don’t open their schools. We’re not going to fund them. We’re not going to give them money if they’re not going to school. If they don’t open.
Wallace objected that it would be a better idea to spend money on making schools safer than to withhold funding that mostly goes to needy students. This led Trump to once again show his unfamiliarity with how viruses spread.
TRUMP: Chris, let the schools open. Do you ever see the statistics on young people below the age of 18? The state of New Jersey had thousands of deaths.
Of all of these thousands, one person below the age of 18 – in the entire state – one person and that was a person that had, I believe he said diabetes.
The actual number is two children, both of whom were under five, but New Jersey has had more than 4,700 documented infections in people under the age of 18. Those 4,700 children have bus drivers and lunch ladies and teachers and parents and grandparents. This matters because a new study from South Korea that finds children “between the ages of 10 and 19 can spread the virus at least as well as adults do.”
For some reason, Trump doesn’t care about this and believes that reopening schools will work out better for him than reopening the nation’s state economies did. But parents care. Teachers care. Voters will care.
I’ve barely scratched the surface of the humiliation contained in this interview. There is also a discussion of how difficult it is to identify a picture of an elephant or count backwards from 100 by seven. There is a debate about Joe Biden’s “senility” and ability to do similarly tough interviews on Fox News. There’s an accusation that the observant Catholic Joe Biden will “end religion.” There are the obligatory riffs on the “the Russia hoax, “the Mueller scam” and the myth that you can cover pre-existing conditions without an individual mandate. There is also another insistence that the election will be rigged against him through vote-by-mail and that he may not accept the results.
Everything Trump said throughout the hour was wrong, and often catastrophically wrong. For whatever combination of reasons, he is opposed to doing all the things that would hold down the COVID-19 death count and help this country get back to normal.
Mitch McConnell now has to fight him on these fronts as he tries to pass a coronavirus bill that he hopes will save his Senate majority. No one can escape this vortex of stupidity and evil. It’s so bad that millennia from now people will look back and be immensely unimpressed with what became of the American experiment.