President Trump knew COVID-19 was deadly and highly contagious as far back as Feb. 7 but consistently played it down because, as he told journalist Bob Woodward, “I don’t want to create a panic.”
It’s hard to tell which is the most remarkable aspect of this:
Was it that the president of the United States intentionally did not take the actions necessary to warn people of the virus and slow its spread? This was certainly the opposite of the “go early, go hard” approach taken by New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern that has resulted in one of the lowest virus rates in the world.
Was it that Trump allowed 18 interviews — on tape — with the journalist who made his name bringing down Richard Nixon? This is why it’s always important to know our own history.
Or was it that Trump thinks Americans are weak? Trump didn’t use that word, but that’s what his professed concern about causing a panic implies — that Americans are such quivering children that we can’t handle the truth. This is a rather remarkable admission by a politician who declares he wants to “Make America Great Again.” We are a nation that’s been through a civil war, two world wars, countless other conflicts and social upheaval. Within living memory we have been attacked on our own soil. Have Americans ever panicked — except, perhaps Southerners at the prospect of snow, which sends us to the stores to raid them of milk, bread and toilet paper? We rather stoically muddled through the flu pandemic of 1918-1920, the closest comparison to the current viral contagion we’re facing.
Interestingly, three days before Trump first confided his fears about a panic to Woodward the political news website The Hill wrote about that very thing in a story headlined: “Why are we panicked about coronavirus — and calm about the flu?” Then answer, from both physicians and psychologists interviewed for the article, was that the flu was a familiar threat while COVID-19 was unknown and humans instinctively have a fear of the unknown. Psychologist Robert Bartholomew wrote in Psychology Today: “The antidote to fear and uncertainty is transparency and timely, accurate information from reliable sources.” Trump chose exactly the opposite and history will judge him harshly for that.
This was not how Franklin Roosevelt reacted after Pearl Harbor. In his famous “day of infamy speech,” he was blunt: “There is no blinking at the fact that our people, our territory, and our interests are in grave danger.”
When John Kennedy learned that the Soviets had installed nuclear missiles in Cuba, he went on national television to tell Americans: “My fellow citizens: let no one doubt that this is a difficult and dangerous effort on which we have set out. No one can foresee precisely what course it will take or what costs or casualties will be incurred.”
When terrorists attacked on September 11, 2001, George W. Bush did not minimize the danger. Instead, he told Americans plainly: “Today, our fellow citizens, our way of life, our very freedom came under attack in a series of deliberate and deadly terrorist acts.”
Trump failed an essential test: Presidents need the courage to tell Americans uncomfortable truths.
So do politicians at all levels, for that matter. Trump’s timidity in levelling with Americans about the virus is not the only example of a politician being afraid to tell people unpopular things they need to hear. We in Southwest Virginia are accustomed to hearing politicians — these days, typically Republicans, because Democrats have largely written off the region — tout the virtues of coal. Trump himself came to both Radford and Abingdon in 2016 and vowed to “bring back King Coal.” Maybe Trump actually believed that, but he shouldn’t have. Coal is not coming back. The marketplace is seeing to that. The real “war on coal” isn’t being waged by environmentalists; it’s being waged by corporate America that now sees renewable energy (and, to the chagrin of environmentalists, natural gas) as cheaper alternatives. What the Appalachian coalfields need are politicians — from Trump on down — to tell people this. The past isn’t coming back. Those communities need to build a new economy; what shall it be and what’s involved in building it?
Rural America more broadly needs politicians who have the intestinal fortitude to tell their constituents: Your communities will continue to lose population until you figure out how to become part of the new economy and you’re not going to be able to compete in that economy unless your workers are more educated than they are now. There are probably more uplifting ways to phrase that, but that’s the economic truth — the economy today isn’t creating many jobs for people with just a high school diploma. That’s why former Gov. Gerald Baliles, before his death last year, spent time calling for a modern-day “Marshall Plan” to dramatically raise education levels in Southside and Southwest Virginia, the two parts of the state with the lowest percentage of workers with education past high school. Why haven’t we seen others take up that call?
The whole country needs politicians willing to touch what’s often been called “the third rail” of American politics — Social Security. In 1950, there were 16.5 workers paying into Social Security to support one beneficiary. By 2018, there were just 2.8 workers paying to support one beneficiary. That’s why your Social Security taxes are so high —and why many workers worry they’ll never get any benefits, because each year that worker-to-beneficiary ratio gets smaller. To guarantee those benefits, we need more younger workers paying into the system.
However, we now have one of the lowest fertility rates on record. The number of babies born in the U.S. last year was the lowest since 1985. That’s why Americans —older Americans — who want to see their Social Security benefits actually need more immigration, not less. We need Republicans who are willing to tell their supporters that — but we also need Democrats who are willing to admit that we need an immigration system that puts more emphasis on marketable skills. Democrats like Canada’s health care system but are silent on Canada’s immigration system, which is very strict about wanting high-skilled immigrants.
We understand politicians want to be liked — especially during a campaign. Few politicians get elected telling voters things they don’t want to hear. But we need office-holders who aren’t afraid to do just that.
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