Trump and the Pandemic

The virus can’t be bluffed or bullied and will soon become his greatest adversary.

The coronavirus pandemic is the greatest challenge Donald Trump has ever faced. As stock markets fall and patient numbers rise, the epidemic threatens the lives of some Americans and the prosperity of all—and it has already begun to disrupt the political methods that brought Mr. Trump to the White House.

As he has done in other crises, the president is stalling for time as he processes the nature of the threat and tests rhetorical and policy responses to it. But unlike human political adversaries, the coronavirus isn’t something he can bluff, threaten or placate. If the epidemic follows the course medical experts believe to be largely inevitable, both the disease and its economic consequences will be immune to Mr. Trump’s standard tactics. He can’t

  • spin them away,
  • divert public attention by creating another drama, or
  • blame them on President Obama.

In the near future the mass rallies that have been critical to Mr. Trump’s political success may be banned on public-health grounds. If he is especially unlucky, one of his rallies could be implicated in a major outbreak.

Many of the key points in Mr. Trump’s case for re-election are also at risk. A recession would deprive him of the argument that, whatever you think of his character, he puts money in your pocket. A pandemic also undercuts his contention that a “wrecking ball” presidency is needed to destroy a rotten establishment. That reasoning works better when it comes to university administrators overreaching on Title IX and ultraliberal journalists than with the medical establishment and public-health professionals. Voters tend to like stability in a crisis.

Meanwhile, the media multitudes who loathe Mr. Trump will do everything they can to turn the epidemic into a Hurricane Katrina event. That would be easy to do even if the government’s response is near-flawless; epidemics are messy. There will almost certainly be heartbreaking tragedies that can plausibly be blamed on administration policies. There will be shortages of medical supplies. Some hospitals will be stretched past the breaking point. The bureaucracy and its leadership will inevitably fall short in many ways. In an election year when health care is a major political issue, every failure and problem in the coronavirus response will be politicized and publicized, putting the administration on the defensive as the economy falters and the virus spreads.

The administration’s response, one may confidently assume, won’t be flawless. This isn’t only because the epidemic is a challenge that would test any president. Mr. Trump’s improvisational and chaotic approach to governance, rooted in his reliance on intuition and impulse as well as his use of conflict as a management method, will combine with the deep lack of trust between political and career officials across the government to produce highly public missteps and policy errors. Critics will have an abundance of ammunition.

The president’s basic political method is theatrical. Many Americans have come to believe that what happens in Washington is mostly fake news, more like professional wrestling than a serious ideological and political struggle with major consequences for their lives. Mr. Trump, from the vantage point of a long career in casinos and reality television, understands this better than his rivals. He approaches politics as entertainment and has repeatedly foiled opponents by turning potentially disastrous developments—impeachment, for example—into thrilling new episodes of “The Trump Show.” But a pandemic will affect voters more than scandals and pratfalls in the faraway capital. If a recession comes as well, will voters lose patience with Mr. Trump’s sizzle and spin?

None of this means that the coronavirus will necessarily succeed where Russiagate failed in bringing the Trump Show to an inglorious end. The president is an extraordinary political talent and has some advantages that shouldn’t be discounted. Unconstrained as he is by worries about debt and deficits, he can propose massive relief packages. The incompetence of China’s early responses to the disease gives Mr. Trump a convenient scapegoat and will reinforce public doubts about globalization. The shortcomings of national health systems in Italy, France, Britain and elsewhere will at least partly blunt attempts to blame a U.S. epidemic on the absence of such a system here. The impact of the disease on Iran, China and North Korea could help Mr. Trump score foreign-policy wins.

And then there are his critics. Their loathing of the 45th president is so intense that their rhetoric can turn voters off. Mr. Trump is a master at exploiting these sorts of missteps, and he will be looking for targets of opportunity.

Despite all that, the coronavirus, if it continues on its present course, will soon become the most powerful adversary the Trump administration has yet faced. Mr. Trump’s other opponents, from Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer to the Iranian mullahs and Kim Jong Un, have nothing on a disease that can threaten the lives of Americans and bring the economy to a grinding halt.