Have you ever accidentally smashed the back of your head onto the edge of something? Maybe you crouched down to retrieve an object from under a table, and when you were getting back up, you misjudged how much room you had and propelled the base of your skull directly into the two-by-four that runs underneath the edge of the table—which is called the apron, to be technical, according to Google? Thus creating an apron-edge-shaped slice-hole in your head-skin, getting blood everywhere?
If you’ve done this, and someone has been around to clean it up and put a Band-Aid on for you, which meant you had no practical reason to look at the wound, you probably still wanted to find a mirror to look at it, right? How gnarly is it? Is it gnarly? Awwww, nasty! Take a picture. I’m going to send this to some people.
This is what reading the news is like during the viral pandemic phase of the Trump administration.
Consider this week’s whistleblower accounts of internal executive branch mega-incompetence—one regarding Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner’s ventilator/PPE procurement task force, one regarding the drug approval process at the Department of Health and Human Services. The details of negligence in each account are appalling, as whistleblower reports tend to be: Kushner’s team was tiny—about a dozen people—and made up of very young financial services professionals who had no experience in logistics, government administration, or public health. This miniature team with no resources or expertise was in charge of finding medical supplies for the entire United States, and it didn’t start working until March 20, at which point more than 2,300 COVID-19 patients had already been hospitalized in New York City. HHS official Rick Bright, meanwhile, alleges that top Trump officials ordered the department to help “flood” the U.S. market with chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine pills—the drugs that Fox News hosts were touting as a coronavirus miracle cure—despite warnings from the actual medical professionals involved that they hadn’t been shown to be effective or safe in treating COVID-19 and, in one prominent case, had been manufactured in foreign facilities that weren’t approved by the Food and Drug Administration.
Our political-media language is inadequate to these stories. The words that would typically describe them, like shocking and exposé, imply that something surprising has been exposed. But it was already clear that the Trump administration had failed at providing health professionals and the public with supplies; if it hadn’t been, we would all have the supplies we need and would be at the stage of reopening that countries like Germany and South Korea are at. (Those countries have sports again already, while in the U.S. it’s considered a matter of Kennedy-esque optimism to imagine that the NFL might play games in September.) The history of the last four years also strongly suggested that what was happening behind the scenes in the White House was not going to resemble anything like a typical bureaucratic process that one would find in either the public or private sector. In 2016, when the Trump campaign made a big show of announcing its foreign policy advisers, it turned out that one of them still listed participation in the Model United Nations program—which is, literally, pretend United Nations for high school and college students—on his résumé. (He was probably lying about it, too.) When the Trumps took office, they appointed Eric Trump’s wedding planner to a senior position at the Department of Housing and Urban Development. It would have been a major upset if the coronavirus response had not involved overconfident “disruption” and quack TV doctors. Those things were practically guaranteed!
Despite in some sense not being news, the stories detailing each new instance of this phenomenon are nonetheless widely read—the Times’ Kushner piece is still on its most-emailed list two days after publication—and alarming. They’ve been published and read consistently for the past three years and will be published and read consistently until this November and/or until an asteroid previously described by Kellyanne Conway as an “low-status loser asteroid” crashes into Kansas and destroys the Earth. (Kushner has now been appointed to lead the development of a coronavirus vaccine.) The temptation to look at the wound is still inescapable, even though you already know what you are going to see because you can feel your head bleeding; the feeling of incredulity that Veep plotlines are happening IRL is inexhaustible. Apparently you can’t stop looking at the car crash even when you’re the car.