John Barry, author of The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History, was on the phone from New Orleans. His book on what came to be known as the Spanish flu has suddenly become relevant for obvious reasons.
In the U.S., about 28 per cent of the population became infected with the Spanish flu and 500,000 to 675,000 died from that disease between 1918 and 1920. The death rate was similar to the 2-per-cent estimates on the new coronavirus. The Woodrow Wilson government was in power. It tried to hide the impact of the virus.
Asked what lesson the Trump administration should learn from what happened back then, Mr. Barry said in a phone interview, “Be truthful. They certainly haven’t learned that yet and they may never learn it and it will end up killing people.” He thinks Donald Trump has been making a mistake, as Mr. Wilson did, in trying to play down the threat.
In the critical midterm elections of 1918, Mr. Wilson was hit hard. Republicans emerged with a two-seat majority in the Senate after picking up a net six seats, and they also gained 25 seats in the House. Taking control of the Senate enabled the Republicans to deny entry of the United States into the League of Nations. The League was a dream not just cherished by Mr. Wilson, but by others too.
Mr. Barry, who is in contact with officials dealing with the coronavirus epidemic, says the White House has badly erred in not following the advice of public health officials. The Trump team has reportedly been in turmoil with some officials advocating a remain calm approach, others pushing for dramatic measures to contain the epidemic. Vice-President Mike Pence, who is in charge of the file, has not inspired confidence. Mr. Trump has put out word that the situation is under control only to be contradicted by much evidence to the contrary.
In 1918, it was believed that Mr. Wilson himself contracted the Spanish flu and that it badly weakened him in postwar negotiations. Mr. Trump’s new chief of staff Mark Meadows is in self-imposed quarantine after coming into contact with an infected person at a political event. Even though Mr. Trump was on Air Force One with a coronavirus-exposed Republican, Mr. Trump has not been tested for the virus.
All that Mr. Trump seems to care about, as Mr. Barry says, is his self-interest, which is re-election. His mood cannot be good. He’s still in his first term and a poll of nearly 200 top political scientists has come out ranking him as the worst president in history. It’s the type of thing that drives him mad.
His blossoming economy, the key to his re-election, is suddenly tanking. The health crisis is one for which he cannot rely on old methods to make go away. He can’t pin the blame on the Democrats this time. (Although Mr. Trump certainly tried: “The Obama administration made a decision on testing that turned out to be very detrimental to what we’re doing," he said last week.) The virus wasn’t developed in Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s laboratory. Insults won’t work either. The virus does not have a low IQ. As for the deep state, the federal bureaucracy that he alleges has been out to get him, he needs it now, the health agencies and others, to bring the virus under some kind of control.
Having been slow to respond to it, having put out wrong information, this crisis risks becoming Mr. Trump’s Katrina.
“I don’t think we can ignore how disastrous their performance has been,” said the Democratic Senator Chris Murphy. “In many ways this was the moment we feared: a true security threat to the nation and a president who can’t tell the truth, who can’t organize a consistent response and doesn’t have enough experienced people on the job.”
There is still time for Mr. Trump to reverse course and gain some control of the situation. National crises provide presidents with enhanced emergency powers. In many ways, COVID-19 plays to Mr. Trump’s nationalist agenda of stricter border controls. For the economy he will take extraordinary measures of stimulus for those most affected. He had been talking about another tax cut before the fall election. With so many businesses taking a hit from the virus, he will now likely be able to get one passed.
Such measures may be called for. But given his penchant for overrunning democratic norms, he will now be even more inclined to exercise authoritarian levers.
The self-proclaimed very stable genius is someone who ignores realities, preferring to create his own. The extent to which he may go now to create an alternative reality is a frightening thought.
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