President Trump, having stopped dismissing the threat of the coronavirus and calling criticism of his laggard response “their new hoax,” has begun insisting everybody was shocked. “It’s something that nobody expected,” he has said. Conservative pundits have picked up this revisionist history. “Armchair Quarterbacks Try to Rewrite History on Coronavirus,” argues National Review’s David Harsanyi. “Generalized ‘Trump didn’t take this seriously enough!’ stuff is ignoring the timeline, wherein every major Democrat didn’t take it very seriously until early March either,” insists Ben Shapiro.
One example of a major Democrat who took this seriously would be Joe Biden, who, as the party’s presumptive presidential nominee, is arguably the major Democrat. Biden wrote an op-ed on January 27 warning that Trump had left the country unprepared to handle the coronavirus outbreak, and proposing steps to counter it. One of his main advisers, Ron Klain, wrote an op-ed making similar points five days before that.
The primary defense made of Trump is to compare his laggard response against the straw-man alternative in which the only alternative was to close down everything three months ago. “Now we’re going to act as if politicians were negligent for failing to try to lock down the entire economy in early January?” writes Harsanyi mockingly. Obviously, there were numerous steps available short of a total lockdown. Indeed, the massive lockdown was only necessary because Trump failed to take any advance steps, like mobilizing an effective testing system, stockpiling masks and ventilators, and reconstituting some kind of structure to replace the pandemic response team he dismantled in 2018.
The “nobody could have known” defense memory-holes the fact that Democrats and Republicans were fiercely debating whether the government should be doing more in the very recent history. Trump’s stance, which he repeated constantly, was that the coronavirus had been contained, was likely to fizzle out, and would not be very harmful. The whole Republican position for weeks was that Democrats and the media were “doing everything they can to instill fear in people,” as Trump put it.
The Conservative Political Action Conference featured Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s chief of staff, assuring everybody the virus was being overhyped to scare people into blaming Trump. (Trump probably suspected this because Republicans had used this exact strategy to whip up hysteria against President Obama before the 2014 midterms.) “This is not Ebola. It’s not SARS. It’s not MERS. It’s not a death sentence; it’s not the same as the Ebola crisis,” Mulvaney declared. “The reason you’re seeing so much attention to it today is that they think this is going to be the thing that brings down the president,” Mulvaney said. “That’s what this is all about.”
The Democrats’ position was that the coronavirus was a real threat and the government should actually prepare for it. “For Mick Mulvaney to suggest that Americans turn off their TVs and bury their heads in the sand when they’re worried about a global health pandemic is Orwellian, counterproductive, dangerous and would be repeating China’s mistake,” said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer in February. (Presumably Schumer would also qualify as a “major Democrat.”)
Some Trump defenders have focused their ire on Joe Scarborough, who mocked Trump for failing to respond until it was too late. Scarborough “set off much controversy by claiming, ‘Everybody saw this [the coronavirus crisis] coming in early January.’ Would have been stronger argument if he had said or tweeted something about the virus threat back then, but he did not,” argued Byron York. “As far as I can tell, in the entire month of January, Morning Joe didn’t reference the coronavirus once to his 2.6 million followers on Twitter,” complains Harsanyi. “Imagine the thousands of lives Scarborough could have saved if he had only shared his insight.”
Well, okay. We can agree that neither the president of the United States nor the cast of Morning Joe took the necessary measures to protect the country from a deadly pandemic. If the election turns on the theme “Scarborough failed to keep us safe,” then perhaps Trump’s record won’t look so terrible. However, I would strongly urge American voters to look for an alternative to both Trump and Scarborough. Because the person who is running against Trump at the moment very much did see the coronavirus disaster coming.