Is it a meaningful coincidence that the Covid-19 pandemic is one of the deadliest natural disasters in American history and that it happened under President Trump’s watch?
To substantiate, let’s observe that the deadliest natural disaster in the US prior to Covid-19, in terms of isolated events, was the Galveston hurricane from 1900, which had a death toll of 6,000 to 12,000 people.
The deadliest pandemic was the Spanish flu which killed around 675,000 people in the US in 1918–1919. There was also the Asian flu in 1957–1958, killing between 70,000 to 116,000 people in the US, and the Hong Kong flu in 1968–1969, killing around 100,000 people in the US.
Currently, the American death toll from Covid-19 is over 90,000, and the number will likely pass 100,000. [As of Jan 20, 2021, the American death toll from Covid-19 has surpassed 400,000.]
To be sure, President Trump didn’t cause Covid-19 and he can’t be fairly blamed even for the entirety of the substandard American response to this pandemic. He’s partly to blame, though, as has been ably documented by the ghoulish mainstream news. See, for example, this Vox report: Trump ignored warnings, dismantled the team in charge of pandemic response, didn’t coordinate the abundance of testing needed to slow the pandemic, gave ludicrous advice and misled the public at every turn, and is encouraging the opening of states too early for purely political reasons because of the upcoming election.
Still, most of that incompetence is only what you’d expect from the average Republican administration whose job it is to act as what Thomas Frank calls a “wrecking crew,” since Republicans believe government only stands in the way of business.
However, Trump’s “administration” is no ordinary Republican, American, or even civilized democratic one.
Epic Criteria for Supervillains
My question, then, isn’t about rational assessments. Even if we stipulated that Trump had nothing whatever to do with the American response to the Covid-19 disaster, the question would stand: is it nevertheless a meaningful coincidence? The reason this question is worth asking is precisely because Trump is no ordinary president. Leaving aside the euphemism, Trump obviously isn’t a real president; he’s a monster masquerading as a leader and as a full-fledged person.
No one who speaks in good faith would deny that Trump is literally a monster, not even Trump’s most ardent supporters, since they support him because he’s heinous enough to tear down the “establishment” and the “deep state,” that is, American civilization. The ensuing state of chaos is what those resentful, down-and-out working-class folks and the blinkered libertarians and evangelical “Christians” want.
To evaluate the American Covid-19 situation, therefore, we have to think in almost mythic terms. For a moment, at least, we have to set aside statistics and causality and fair-minded ethical considerations. Blaming Trump for the fact that 100,000 Americans will likely die from the pandemic would be monumentally unfair. Then again, the existence of Donald Trump is equally unfair. If Covid-19 has been a blight on America, so has Trump’s presidency.
What we need to reckon with is the long view of history. Unless the United States loses its democratic values entirely, Trump will easily be remembered as the country’s worst modern president and possibly as the worst of all time. More specifically, Americans will have to learn to suffer the humiliation of having been led for a time by an anti-president.
George W. Bush is close behind Trump in those terms, but Bush could boast 9/11 and the Iraq War fiasco as being parts of his record (in addition to the 2008 market crash). Bush ignored warnings that terrorists were seeking to attack the United States, and when the attack happened he pummeled Afghanistan and went on to attack the wrong country, in Iraq. His naivety and Texan swagger made him prey to the naïve, overeducated neoconservatives who prefer war to peace. Around 3,000 people died from the 9/11 attacks and some 4,400 American soldiers died in the Iraq War.
Trump’s character and management style are orders of magnitude worse than George W’s. But to be remembered as America’s very worst president, as a stain on America’s honour as black as the depths of a black hole — for that condemnation to be seared into historical memory for centuries, Trump will have needed for a comparable disaster to have befallen the country under his watch. Others had slavery or the Great Depression, so what does Trump have?
Will Covid-19 Seal Trump’s Fate?
The fact that Trump’s a Russian asset (not an agent but a useful idiot) or that Russia meddled in the 2016 election to elect him should suffice but doesn’t, because the Democrats don’t know how to sell anything, and because the Mueller Report and the attorney general succeeded in muddying the waters and obscuring the scandal.
For Trump to be remembered objectively, on a bipartisan basis as the very worst president in modern American history or as its first anti-president, you need something like an unearthly, unheard-of catastrophe to have happened during his time in office. As it turned out, Trump’s egregiousness did exacerbate the Covid-19 disaster for Americans, but that’s irrelevant to the question at issue. It could have been a meteorite strike or an alien invasion or something that Trump couldn’t even conceivably be blamed for.
The issue here isn’t blame, but timing. Perhaps the worst natural disaster in living memory had to happen to Americans while Trump was in office. Otherwise, in future history the universal condemnation of Trump as a fake leader and person would lack gravitas. But that 100,000 figure should do the trick, as should the pandemic’s Great-Depression level of economic fallout.
As unfair or oversimplified as it will be, that titanic death toll and the generational memory of the economic catastrophe will stand for the horror and inhumanity of Trump’s presidency, proving that Trump’s loathsomeness was of epic proportions. For all time, the records will show that a plague perhaps unlike anything Americans had ever seen since the Spanish flu, a plague that shut down the entire human world bubbled up from Hell along with Donald Trump’s “presidency.”
The two happened at the same time, you see. That pairing is an objective fact, as is their comparable inhumanity. Covid-19, the mindless virus that spreads in underhanded fashion, lying in wait for well over a week before attacking the host and producing symptoms mirrors Trump’s psychopathic narcissism, bullshitting, and con artistry. The two are equally single-minded in seeking to undermine humanity.
The fact that they afflicted the country together seems like a synchronicity — not the kind that tells us everything’s connected and it’s all going to work out in the end. No, the meaning of this coincidence is just that it will lend enormous weight to the contempt for Trump’s time in office.
In literary terms, Covid-19 is the environment’s way of matching the inner state of the main character, as when a lightning storm breaks out to reflect the protagonist’s anger. If Americans felt internally afflicted, having had to endure Trump’s desecration of their values and traditions, now they’ve been devastated on the outside too.
Call it poetic injustice. But at least Americans will have an easier time remembering the odiousness of all that happened to them in those years.