In just the past few days, President Trump has blamed immigrants, China, the “fake news” and, of course, “the invisible enemy” of the coronavirus for America’s present troubles. He has opined extemporaneously about his plans to hold a grand Fourth of July celebration on the National Mall and has announced that he planted a tree on the White House lawn in honor of Earth Day. He has offered his opinion on matters small and large, bragged about himself as “the king of ventilators,” and spent much time lamenting the pandemic-inflicted passing of what he invariably (and inaccurately) calls “the greatest economy in the history of the world.”
Despite the flood of words, though, what has struck me the most this week is what Trump does not talk about: the mounting toll of those who have died in this crisis. So voluble that he regularly talks well past dinnertime at his nightly briefings, the President somehow never seems to find time to pay tribute to those who have been lost, aside from reading an occasional scripted line or two at the start of his lengthy press conferences, or a brief mention of a friend in New York who died of the disease soon after calling him at the White House. “He said, ‘I tested positive.’ Four days later he was dead,” the President recounted. “So this is a tough deal.” It was not exactly the prayerful, if often politically expedient, mournfulness Americans generally expect of their elected leaders. Trump, for the most part, dispenses even with the ritualistic clichés that other politicians, regardless of party or creed, have always offered in times of crisis.
But the numbers are the numbers, and, notwithstanding Trump’s relentless happy talk, the coronavirus epidemic has, as of this week, already produced some fifty thousand American dead. This is not, needless to say, a best-case scenario, or anything close to it. Just a few weeks ago, a survey of scientific experts predicted forty-seven thousand U.S. dead by the beginning of May, according to the Web site FiveThirtyEight. Instead, forty-seven thousand deaths were recorded by this Wednesday, April 22nd, well before the experts had anticipated. On April 8th, a leading model at the University of Washington had revised its projections downward to forecast a total of sixty thousand American deaths by the beginning of August. But the nation now looks to hit that number by May 1st, meaning that, just a few days from now, more Americans will have died from COVID-19 than the entire toll from the Vietnam War. Meanwhile, Trump talks of reopening the country, and of the “tremendous strides against this invisible enemy.”
You would think that no amount of Trumpian misdirection could disguise the awful fact that America has more confirmed coronavirus deaths than any country in the world, and that many of them might have been prevented by earlier, more decisive government action when the President was denying that the coronavirus even presented a threat to the United States. But Trump is trying his hardest to ignore the COVID-19 deaths. To the extent that he discusses those who have died, he tends to do so largely in self-justifying, explicitly political terms, framing the pandemic as an externally imposed catastrophe that would have been much, much worse without him. Earlier this deadly spring, Trump was briefly scared into a more sombre public presentation by projections that showed hundreds of thousands or even millions of U.S. deaths if no preventative actions were taken. Now he cites the absence of those worst-case scenarios as proof of his own brilliant handling of the crisis. The numbers of dead citizens he throws about, meanwhile, seem to be abstractions to a President who believes that even the subject of mass death is all about him. “If we didn’t do the moves that we made, you would have had a million, a million and a half, two million people dead,” he said on Monday. “You would have had ten to twenty to twenty-five times more people dead than all of the people that we’ve been watching. That’s not acceptable. The fifty thousand is not acceptable. It’s so horrible. But can you imagine multiplying that out by twenty or more? It’s not acceptable.” Trump did not pause to offer any sort of regret or sorrow, and instead claimed that the entire death toll in the United States would end up around fifty or sixty thousand as a result of his heroic moves. Of course, this was not true; that is, essentially, how many have already passed away.
Honoring the dead has long been one of the tests of American Presidential leadership. Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address was, after all, not just another political speech but a remembrance of those who were killed in the bloodiest single battle of the Civil War, in which some fifty thousand Americans became casualties and about eight thousand died. Twenty-five years ago this week, Bill Clinton’s lip-bitingly empathetic response to the Oklahoma City bombing, in which a white supremacist blew up a federal building and killed a hundred and sixty-eight people, was seen as a key moment of his tenure. He was dubbed the “mourner-in-chief,” at a time when he was languishing politically. That speech is often said to have saved his Presidency. More recently, Barack Obama wept from the White House lectern in speaking about the deaths of schoolchildren in Newtown, Connecticut, and gave arguably the speech of his lifetime in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015, singing “Amazing Grace” as he mourned at a funeral service for nine African-Americans killed by a white supremacist at a church massacre. Even those Presidents who aren’t particularly good at speechifying—think of the two George Bushes—have considered public commiseration amid national tragedy part of the job description. Have we ever had a President just take a pass on human empathy, even of the manufactured, politically clichéd kind?
Trump’s departure from normal behavior is often most painfully evident during his nightly briefings, when his persistent disregard for the dead stands in stark contrast to the manner of others in his Administration. Dr. Deborah Birx, the State Department official who has been named White House coördinator for the pandemic response, often mentions the human toll of the disease and thanks the medical caregivers risking their lives. On Wednesday, Vice-President Mike Pence began his brief remarks with a nod to the “loss of more than forty-seven thousand of our countrymen.” It was just the sort of thing you would expect Pence to say, and yet notable for how different it sounded compared with the President. Trump began that very same briefing by saying, “Our aggressive strategy to battle the virus is working.” It is, he said, “very exciting, even today, watching and seeing what’s happening.” What was happening, though, was another day on which more than two thousand Americans died of the coronavirus, a fact that Trump did not mention. We know what a normal President would do and say at such a time. He would comfort the afflicted, weep tears of sadness, whether real or not; he would rally the country, or at least seek to. It is hard to write about the absence of something but especially necessary in this case, with a President like Trump, who has relentlessly used his public platform to discourage the contemplation of how deadly the disease has proved. His fear of the political consequences to himself that such contemplation might engender is painfully transparent.
On Thursday, I left my house for the first time since my once-a-week, socially distanced trip to the grocery store a couple days earlier, and drove through the empty streets of Washington, D.C., passing the shuttered headquarters of massive federal agencies and the silent white bulk of Trump’s executive mansion. Everywhere I looked, there were flags flying at the top of their flagpoles, and few if any people. Determined as he is to avoid any kind of reckoning, Trump has not even ordered American flags lowered in tribute to the dead, although individual governors have decided to. In New Jersey, Governor Phil Murphy did so in early April, as did Governor Andrew Cuomo in New York. “We recognize those who have been lost to this terrible illness and all those affected by it. Many families cannot hold funerals for their loved ones at this time. By doing this, we remind them that their losses are not forgotten,” Murphy said in a statement announcing the move. Trump, who has in the past personally asked for the flags to be lowered after a shooting or a politician’s death, can’t even bring himself to do this much for victims of the coronavirus.
During my drive home, I turned right on Constitution Avenue, normally crowded with cars headed out to Virginia, and parked for a couple minutes near the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The national parks are closed, too, and no one was there to look at the more than fifty-eight thousand names of the American war dead inscribed on Maya Lin’s V-shaped black granite monument to them. Will the victims of this deadly spring one day have their names recorded on some grand Washington pile? I doubt it. Trump calls himself a wartime President, in his battle against the virus, but, like all politicians, he is more eager to speak of victory over the enemy than of the costs of winning. The Vietnam memorial was not built until 1982, seven years after the last U.S. troops left Saigon. The dead from this war may have to wait even longer.