What if Trump Had Flipped the Script?

by Neil H. Buchanan

On March 18, Republican anti-Trump activist George Conway wrote: "There Is No New Trump."  Here is the first paragraph:
"If you think you’ve been hearing a different President Trump this week — more accepting of the reality of the coronavirus pandemic — don’t be fooled. The new Trump is the same as the old Trump. He can’t help it. He’s incapable of taking responsibility for his role in this crisis — and thus incapable of leading us out of it."
Much of what we have seen in the past three-plus years has a "Groundhog Day" feel about it, which makes it not actually surprising that we need to be reminded of Conway's warning barely two weeks later.  Still, gullible media types quickly took to praising Trump's latest attempt this week to sound serious, commenting on how different he sounded and suggesting that there is indeed now a new Trump.

Meanwhile, Trump's Republican enablers are already falsely claiming that the impeachment trial (and thus the Democrats) are at fault, so claims to seriousness in Trump World are pretty hard to take ... er ... seriously.

Moreover, the new faux-serious Trump is still trying to downplay the situation.  True, he now is talking about a possible U.S. death toll of at least 100,000 people, but even when he spoke at a press conference about the range of that forecast -- 100,000 to 240,000 -- he rounded down the upper end to 200,000.  Forty thousand extra dead Americans?  Rounding error.

Here, I want to discuss two genuinely serious questions.  First, why is Trump even now downplaying the seriousness of the situation, simply from a strategic, political point of view?  And much more interestingly, what if Trump had actually jumped ahead of this crisis from the very beginning?  Would he have gotten any credit if he -- for the first time -- had done the most responsible and self-sacrificing things possible?

On the first question, Trump's turn toward faux-seriousness is at least welcome in the sense that he stopped his insane ramblings about an Easter target date, with churches teeming with people and everyone going back to work.  His early claim that April's seasonal warming would simply kill off the coronavirus is gone, of course, and he now admits that things will become worse -- much worse.

But at this point, why is he sticking with the most minimalist approach?  And I am not only talking about rounding down from 240,000 deaths.  In at least one of his reality-show-like press briefings, he contrasted the White House task force's death toll with higher numbers from non-Trump-influenced experts.  According to one reporter:
"Trump pointed no fewer than 16 times to the most dire projections of 2 million or more U.S. deaths in the Sunday briefing. This was most prominently projected in an Imperial College London study that spurred a more aggressive response in the United States and Britain two weeks ago.
"'So you’re talking about 2.2 million deaths, 2.2 million people from this,' Trump said. 'And so if we could hold that down, as we’re saying, to 100,000 — it’s a horrible number, maybe even less — but to 100,000. So we have between 100 and 200,000, and we altogether have done a very good job.'"
Notice how he actually thinks about negotiating the number down even as he speaks -- "maybe even less -- but to 100,000."  He cannot stop the con job, even when he is claiming to be taking it all seriously.

But once we are looking at possible carnage at this level, purely as a political matter a clever candidate would now be trying to go high, not low.  Why say in advance that rather than 2.2 million we will reduce that to 100,000, and "we altogether have done a very good job"?

Purely as a matter of negotiation, the person whose name is on the ghost-written book The Art of the Deal is still saying that everything is going to be so, soooo much better than those other negative Nellies are saying.  What if the number ends up at 350,000 -- still much better than our worst fears, but every death a tragedy?  Why over-promise?

Even more ridiculously, the 100,000-240,000 estimate assumes mitigation measures that the U.S. has been slow to put in place and that might not work as well at this late date as the models predict.  The very best-case situation has been forecast for the U.K. under the following mitigation measures:
"Britain would have to enforce social distancing for the entire population, isolate all cases, demand quarantines of entire households where anyone is sick, and close all schools and universities — and do this not for weeks but for 12 to 18 months, until a vaccine is available."
Directly translating that study's conclusions to the U.S. on a proportional basis to the population checks us in at a total of 85,000 deaths.  But is that really what we should expect under any reasonable scenario?  To be clear, Trump is saying that "we altogether have done a very good job" before anyone has done anything other than to say how much less bad things might be if we start doing everything right -- and stick to it for a year or a year and a half.  Maybe he will even stop beefing with governors or saying that hospital workers are stealing supplies?  Just a thought.

So it seems likely that Trump is once again selling Trump Wine or scamming gullible Trump University students who will quickly find that his assurances are worth nothing.  At that point, he will simply have to do what comes naturally to him: claim that he never said what he said, attack the motives of reporters and his political opponents, and congratulate himself for doing a great job.  "Only 768,000 deaths.  I said all along that we'd never hit 2 million, and we kept it under one mil!!"

Despite all of that, I want to take a moment to be almost sympathetic -- almost -- to Trump's situation.  What if he had flipped the script from the beginning?  That is, imagine a fantasy world in which he had taken seriously all of the warnings that he in reality ignored, mobilizing the federal government's resources to head off the worst crisis.

And what if this had actually succeeded in making the crisis a relatively manageable blip in the public health statistics of the U.S. -- again, with each death a tragedy, but following a path something like South Korea's, which moved quickly and as of Tuesday had 165 deaths from COVID-19 (in a population of 51 million people who are very densely packed onto a small peninsula) and seems clearly to have "flattened the curve"?

In other words, what if Trump had actually done the right thing for the right reasons, getting ahead of a crisis so well that it never even became a crisis?

Various spy movies have shown characters saving the world heroically and, in the afterglow, sorrowfully but stoically reminding themselves that "the world will never know" how close it came to disaster or who saved millions of lives.  That is the fate of such heroes.  Is saving lives worth it, even if credit can never be given?  They seem to think so.

Or consider a specific, non-secret example.  Even twenty years later, no one knows with certainty what to think about the Y2K problem.  For those readers who might be too young to remember, the years immediately before January 1, 2000 including a great deal of discussion and debate about whether the then-existing computer technology could handle a millennium change, because the relatively weak processing power available in computing's early years had caused programmers to use two-digit years (based on the assumption that everything was a twentieth-century date).

What would happen when the year flipped from 99 to 00?  The plausible worst-case concern was that computers would read the date as "1900," which would then create havoc with even more modern computers that relied on some embedded legacy programs.  Visions of airliners falling from the skies, elevators stopping and locking themselves, and other problems filled the public discourse.

None of that happened, thankfully.  But is that because the time and money devoted to avert a crisis was well spent, or was there never really a problem?  Both before and after, skeptics claimed that it was all a scheme to get the government to waste money.  Honestly, there is no way to prove it one way or the other, although I am comfortable believing that it was not a hoax.  At the very least, not seeing a tragedy unfold is certainly not proof that it never could have happened.

Does it take actual damage to convince people to change or to accept that a situation is dangerous?  Just as on example, road and highway safety measures seem to follow, rather than precede, tragedies.  "That intersection looks dangerous?  Well, nobody has died!  Oh wait, now someone's dead?  Let's fix that intersection!!"  But on the other hand, we do not know how many intersections were redesigned specifically because engineers' warnings were heeded.  The people who did not die have no idea how lucky they are.

What if Trump had tried to act in time?  One way to think about this is to ask what would have happened to Barack Obama if he had tried to do anything like what needed to be done in January and February of this year.  Or if Hillary Clinton had won in 2016, and she had to respond to the coronavirus, what would have happened?

Regarding Obama, we know what happened when the Ebola virus emerged, and citizen Trump and the rightwing universe accused Obama of everything under the sun, calling him "stupid" and worse.  Imagine their response if President Hillary Clinton had felt that the weight of the evidence and her responsibilities as a leader (and a human being) required actions that some people found inconvenient or economically disruptive.  They would have impeached and convicted her on the spot (which would have been especially easy, because they would have been holding impeachment hearings nonstop from January 2017 onward).

Trump, however, had a Nixon-in-China opportunity.  The guy who disparages science and expertise could have said: "I normally take these guys with a grain of salt, but they're not always wrong.  And this is too serious and important for us to ignore."  The guy who hung his entire reelection strategy on the economy could have said: "Some things are more important than short-term stock market swings or even temporary losses of profits and jobs."  And the guy who always acts as if it is all about himself could have said: "I am going to step out of the spotlight to allow this important business to be done by the experts, and I will limit my public appearances to providing solace and hope to people who need it."

That would not even have required the self-sacrifice of the spies who can never receive the credit they deserve.  It simply would require believing that shouting about one's own greatness is not the best long-term strategy, as a matter of humanity or politics.  But this man is nothing but short-term in his thinking.

Would he have taken a beating in the public square?  Absolutely.  I surely would have written columns skeptically picking apart everything he said.  The late-night comedians would have been gleeful about the material that Trump provided.  Democrats definitely would have claimed that he was overreacting.

A big part of that, however, is because Trump has never even tried to gain people's trust.  He is stuck in a credibility gap of his own making, and now we have no one to trust -- even in the still-highly-unlikely event that Trump finally flips the script and starts being a real leader.  And that is to everyone's detriment, starting with the tens of thousands -- if not hundreds of thousands or even millions -- of Americans who will needlessly die because Trump could not take his job seriously.