“We were very prepared,” the president said Thursday, during the daily coronavirus press briefing. He was replying to—if not responding to—a question about why the United States had been completely unprepared to test for the disease, even as other countries launched large-scale programs to track it and to try to control its spread. “The only thing we were not prepared for was the media,” he added. “The media has not treated it fairly.”
The president was, fitting the seriousness of the occasion, so far opposite the truth that he accidentally came around to accuracy again. If the media were treating the outbreak fairly, Donald Trump would not be able to stand at the presidential lectern and talk about how prepared he’d made sure America was without someone shoving him aside to hold up a picture of a dying nursing home patient, or to read a plea from doctors who don’t have enough masks. The only questions to ask him are: Why are you still here? And how many more people are going to be dead before you leave?
But for now, the president is still allowed to keep kidding himself. His only purpose is to be the most important person in the world, and since he couldn’t stop the virus from becoming the most important story in the world, he has to present himself as the person who’s in charge of it. It doesn’t matter how contrary that is to the facts, or even to his posture of a week ago. He now gets to stand up and tell us the problem is serious, but it’s getting better, and also, it was never really that serious, believe him.
There was a moment—hard to remember now, but real—when it seemed that Hurricane Katrina had not been so bad. It really did happen that way. The forecasts before the storm made landfall had been so apocalyptic as to be unbelievable, promising that Category 5 winds would demolish the entire city of New Orleans where it stood. And then the storm hit, and the first word about it was that the city’s buildings were in fact still standing. The predictions had been scary, but it had come out OK. Only then the water kept rising and the levees failed and everything fell apart.
This is the way the greatest disasters unfold: slightly more slowly than the news can properly perceive. The news looks for self-contained events, which begin and end and fit into a newscast or a front-page story. But the worst kind of devastation is often too big to process. The wind and rain come and go and then things break and keep breaking. The armed forces sweep into Baghdad with barely a fight, toppling statues in triumph, and then they’re still in Baghdad and nothing’s holding the country together and the liberated people don’t want them there.
Plenty of people had known in advance what was really going to happen in Iraq. But it still had to happen. There was still that strange, false calm between when the worst became inevitable and when it arrived.
We are in that calm now. As I write this, it’s still possible for many Americans to expect physical, bodily security. If you were to get injured or seriously ill—if you were to slip with a kitchen knife and lay open your hand, or suffer a sudden heart attack, or encounter any of the many other random but routine misfortunes out there—you could still go to an emergency room and get medical care. You’d even get there fast, because there’s so much less traffic on the streets, though it would probably, already now, be busy when you arrived.
In Italy or Iran, you cannot expect that care. They are further up the curve than the United States is, and though it may feel as if the distance is a matter of geographical space, the experts say it’s only time. The virus is multiplying and our medical capacity is being patched together by addition, at best. The government and the experts and the people who listen to the experts have known the basic outlines of this for months, and the worst details for weeks, and for most of that time the federal government has simply failed to respond.
Most people still don’t know the first thing about the coronavirus outbreak in the United States. There are things we do know, but largely not what is genuinely, actually the first thing there is to know about a disease: Who has it? Do I have it? We have gone from imagining ourselves living at the available pinnacle of medical science to the darkest of dark ages. We live with a pre-modern fear and ignorance; we know germ theory but beyond washing our hands we don’t know what to do with the knowledge, because we can’t locate the germs where they matter, in people.
Both children in my household have had brief fevers in the past two weeks. Only the first of them even went to the doctor—the office said he should come in and get a flu test. The flu swab was negative, and this was far enough back that it was unimaginable to press for a coronavirus test. The fever went away on its own. The second kid got his fever not long after three of his classmates went home sick in one day. Maybe the whole family has had it already. Maybe it’s been through the whole school. No one knows.
The failure of testing is at the heart of the American experience of the virus. Yes, our whole system of government and public health is self-evidently broken, but just as self-evidently this part came straight from the top. This was the guiding principle: If you don’t know the numbers, you don’t have to be responsible for what the numbers mean. If other people don’t know the numbers, they can’t hold you accountable. Donald Trump has been playing this game for a long time. When someone finally got his attention about the oncoming pandemic, he reflexively decided to treat the infection rate as if it were the rate of unsold units in a condominium development—something to falsify and spin, to say the numbers you wish you had, to make people stop asking questions. Technically, with the condos, it’s criminal fraud when you lie about the numbers, but nobody is really going to prosecute you for that.
The bluff was meant to prop the stock market up, until it couldn’t. People were shut inside a nursing home in Washington and dying, with their family members helpless outside, but somehow that didn’t count. The president, wandering through CDC headquarters with a thick smear of stray makeup inside his open shirt collar, declared with cameras rolling that “The tests are all perfect.” He praised his own aptitude for understanding science and medicine. The dying people kept dying. There were still no tests. No one was ordering masks or ventilators. But that was OK because there weren’t that many dead people, officially, yet.
The media has not figured out how to convey the enormity of what is happening to its viewers and readers. Trying to make this event match some event that had come before, to give it a shape that would fit in a news report, people speculated about whether the outbreak could be Donald Trump’s Katrina. But Trump already had his Katrina: A hurricane already killed countless people on his watch, while his administration responded sluggishly and uselessly, thanks to a generalized contempt for the work of governing and a specific disregard for the kind of people whose lives were at stake. From the president’s point of view, Hurricane Maria confirmed that lying about what was happening and ignoring the numbers could make the problem go away—that is, make it go away as far as the effects on him were concerned. People continued to die in Puerto Rico, from pure neglect, but they were dying too gradually and out of view for the news to register, and the relationship between their deaths and the government’s indifference and incompetence could only ever become a matter of well-informed speculation.
We have slid clear out of the information age into an apocalypse where a greedy ignorance swallows up knowledge. Trump’s Katrina has come and gone; the pandemic is Trump’s 9/11—an even stupider 9/11 than the original stupid one, 9/11 if the president’s security briefing on Sept. 10 had been titled “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S. by Hijacking Commercial Airliners Out of Washington and Boston and Crashing Them Into Major Buildings in September,” and people had just read it out on TV for the public to hear, and also camera crews had followed Mohamed Atta to the Portland, Maine, airport but the government had not bothered to keep track of him when he entered the terminal. And the security checkpoints had been shut down as a gesture of spite toward the previous administration.
The country has already failed, and the cascade of failures still to come would be unimaginable if so many people hadn’t already very clearly imagined it. The economy has come to a halt; the businesses that haven’t already been forced to shut their doors are busy slashing people’s hours or salaries. There are clusters in more nursing homes, or around a family’s dinner table. Sloan Kettering is within a week of running out of masks, and four to eight weeks away from getting more.
The president has no answer to any of this. Asked on Thursday about the nationwide shortage of masks and ventilators, he simply said that as far as he’s concerned, there are masks and ventilators. “I am hearing good things on the ground,” he said.
There is only one story the president can tell, and that is a story of his own inevitable success. “The system is working well,” he said. “But we had to break the system … because the system did not work. It is something we inherited, and now it is working good, and it will be great for the future, too.”
Whatever goes wrong, it cannot be his fault. He bragged again, as always, about his announcement restricting travel from China, the only identifiable response the administration offered to the outbreak for weeks until it was visibly out of control. He had not even done anything to check travelers for actual illness; that didn’t happen until this past weekend, when Customs and Border Patrol began screening the inbound surge of passengers trying to get back into the country because the president had said he was shutting down European travel, even though he wasn’t (he misread his speech). This produced horrific pictures of people gathered in from all over and packed into airports, forced to stand together breathing each other’s air in confined spaces. It was like watching people sent into a burning building.
The president still thinks he exists in a world without consequences, where no one else is quite real. On Friday, after he’d declared “America will triumph” and had pushed beyond his own experts’ statements to put forth his own speculation that a safe miracle drug was probably already in hand, a reporter tried to bring his attention back to the actual numbers: “What do you say to the Americans who are scared though—I guess, nearly 200 dead, 14,000 who are sick, millions, as you witnessed, who are scared right now. What do you say to Americans who are watching you right now, who are scared?”
Another president, in another time, had something to say about fear itself. For this one, there was only his own resentment at being confronted with something objectively measurable. “I say that you’re a terrible reporter,” Trump snapped. “That’s what I say. I think it’s a very nasty question, and I think it’s a very bad signal that you’re putting out to the American people. The American people are looking for answers and they’re looking for hope.” He was right about what people wanted. But he only ever has one thing to give them.