the national circus

At Least Nero Could Spell

Way, way out of his depth. Photo: Evan Vucci/Shutterstock

Most weeks, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich speaks with contributor Alex Carp about the biggest stories in politics and culture. Today, Trump’s response to the coronavirus, Joe Biden’s chances as a general-election candidate, and the generational divide among voters in the Democratic primaries.

Despite announcing some measures in his television address last night, Donald Trump is reportedly “not comfortable with the optics” of formally declaring a coronavirus emergency — and delivering the resources that declaration would release — as more and more reporting has begun to detail how the crisis has been mismanaged by the federal government. Is this the crisis that will doom the Trump administration?

The most urgent question is not whether the coronavirus is the crisis that will doom the Trump administration. It is whether the Trump administration is the crisis that will doom America. What we saw during that 11-minute Oval Office address last night was an enervated, glassy-eyed, thin-voiced president who had trouble reading a teleprompter. The thin gruel of “policy” in his script — essentially forcing European travelers to fly to the U.S. solely via U.K. airports, perhaps to encourage layovers at his golf resorts en route — is useless, if not counterproductive, in boosting American and international responses to the outbreak. And even so, Trump had the details of his own policy wrong.

Has anyone ever heard of a televised presidential speech that had to be corrected within minutes after it ended by both the president who delivered it and officials in his own government? Apparently not. Markets overseas crashed instantaneously. Meanwhile, Trump did nothing to stem the public’s panic about an existential health menace that is tearing through the very fabric of American life, piling up casualties and tanking the economy. To say that Trump has now topped George W. Bush’s sequential fiascos of the catastrophic Katrina response and the 2008 crash by presiding incompetently over comparable calamities at the same time seriously understates the case. An hour before last night’s address was announced by the White House yesterday afternoon, as the virus was spiraling and markets tumbling, Trump could be found complaining on Twitter about his coverage in Vanity Fair. This morning, after the disastrous fallout of his failed speech metastasized, he could be found tweeting a threat to veto a FISA bill and declaring himself once more the victim of a “coup.” At least Nero could spell.

Unlike Trump, Bush still had some residual 9/11 good will to tap into when Katrina hit (though he ran through it fast). By contrast, we have a president who began his term by lying about the attendance at his inaugural and has piled up daily lies ever since. He long ago exhausted any political capital or credibility that would be valuable in leading the country in a crisis of this magnitude. Trump’s weeks-long insistence that the coronavirus was a seasonal flu whose cases would dwindle to “close to zero,” thanks to either a “miracle” or a nonexistent vaccine, rendered last night’s Oval Office pantomime as meaningless as the Soviet dissembling in Chernobyl. And it raised new questions. Is Trump seriously ill? Why isn’t he being tested for the coronavirus given the dangers posed by those in recent close proximity to him, from quarantined fellow CPAC attendees to his infected Mar-a-Lago dining companion, Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro’s press secretary? Who, if anyone, is functional in a White House so depleted it couldn’t even vet its chief executive’s speech, let alone mobilize against the virus? Is it time to consider removing an incapacitated president under the 25th Amendment? It would take the cowering Vichy Republicans in Congress to make that happen. So for now, we are saddled with a president who seems to have less leadership capacity than Woodrow Wilson, who remained president after suffering a stroke in 1919 but at least had a first lady, Edith Wilson (a direct descendant of Pocahontas, by the way), capable of covering for him.

Of course, if Trump were to vacate the White House, that would leave us with Mike Pence, who has proved an impressive liar in his own right in his new role as virus czar. Pence is giving quite a performance; he knows how to do a furrowed brow. You’ll notice as well that he is now being constantly photographed clutching a sheaf of papers and files, props that are apparently meant to persuade us that he’s doing something. What he’s mainly doing is pulling fictitious numbers out of the air to suggest that coronavirus tests are plentiful and available when they’re not. One million test kits! Four million! Whatever. Almost anything said by Pence, his boss, and the supine secretary of Health and Human Services, Alex Azar, is contradicted by Anthony Fauci and the CDC head, Robert Redfield. Or will be until Trump inevitably fires them.

In the midst of the current crisis, the question of Trump’s reelection prospects seems academic. What’s clear is that the older voters who make up a large segment of his base are particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus — and equally vulnerable to the propaganda that Trump, Fox News, and Rush Limbaugh are putting out, telling them to disregard all Fake News reports of the pandemic’s threat to their lives and livelihoods and to ignore any instructions about how to combat it. One thing is certain: This political strategy is not likely to increase the turnout of the GOP base in November.

With victories in four more states this week, Joe Biden looks to have taken control of the Democratic primary.  Does he have what it takes to beat Trump in the general election?

Biden’s weaknesses are well known by all and were not enough to prevent his unlikely victory over tough competitors like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. If he’s facing a Trump anything like the one we saw on television last night, his gaffes may seem relatively benign and even reassuring. He, unlike the incumbent, does live in the real world. That said, a bigger question for the moment is a possible threat to the election itself. An unchecked coronavirus could seriously disrupt the electoral machinery, providing a further opening for Vladimir Putin and his Facebook and White House allies to undermine the contest’s legitimacy. Trump’s own lawlessness, more unchecked than ever since the Senate’s impeachment acquittal, continues to raise the question of whether he would exploit any means at his disposal, including a national health emergency, to try to either forestall an election or fight a defeat at the polls with further unconstitutional actions.

Some of this week’s exit polls show a stark division among Democratic voters, with a sharp preference swinging from Bernie to Biden at around age 50. Does a Biden nomination risk alienating the next generation of Democratic voters and sacrificing the party’s future?

This week it feels like the next generation of voters may inherit the Earth, let alone the Democratic Party, faster than anyone had thought.

Frank Rich: At Least Nero Could Spell