To hear the Republican National Convention tell it, U.S. President Donald Trump was swift to act on COVID-19, the pandemic is nearly a thing of the past, and the economy is primed for a major recovery.
In reality, Mr. Trump has played down the threat of the virus, told states the federal government is “not a shipping clerk” when asked to send medical supplies and touted unproven treatments. The United States has marked 178,000 deaths, more than any other country. While the rate of new coronavirus cases is slowing, 1,200 Americans died of the virus on Tuesday alone, and the economy shrank at an annualized rate of nearly 33 per cent in the second quarter, the largest contraction on record.
As the pandemic has defined every aspect of 2020, it is also dominating the presidential election campaign, which will kick into high gear Thursday evening when Mr. Trump formally accepts the Republican nomination. So a President known for his frequent falsehoods is working to craft an alternate reality.
“Really, the job that we’ve done is incredible,” he told the convention’s opening day. “None of us get any credit.”
In northeast Pennsylvania, an electoral battleground that played a key role in Mr. Trump’s narrow 2016 victory, it was clear that the facts of a public-health crisis had morphed into an ideological divide. Republican voters said the ravages of the pandemic were either not that bad, not Mr. Trump’s fault, or unavoidable in a country that prizes individual liberty.
“We’re a free society; we’re not going to shut down and tell people what to do,” said Bill Kelly, a 59-year-old HVAC salesman. “That’s communism.”
Wayne Fruchey, a retired welder, said Mr. Trump was not to blame for COVID-19 spiralling out of control. “It wasn’t him. It was the governors of the liberal states,” said Mr. Fruchey, 76.
Joe Hearity, 68, reached for conspiracy theories. “I don’t think COVID’s real,” he said as he sat in the office of a construction company in Hazleton, Pa. “People are dying, but it’s nowhere what the left has propagandized it to be. They’re doing it to stop the world’s economy, to ruin Donald Trump.”
Outside a speech by Mr. Trump last week at a kitchen renovation business in Old Forge, Pa., every protester who showed up wore a mask, while nearly none of the President’s supporters did.
“The best way to deal with the coronavirus is to follow the experts,” said Karl Besteder, an 82-year-old retired airline customer service representative, who wore a bandanna across his nose and mouth as he stood across the street with an anti-Trump sign.
Melissa Hady, a school counsellor, said she had extended a visit home to Pennsylvania after South Carolina, the Republican-dominated state where she lives, lifted COVID-19 containment measures swiftly and faced a surge of infections. She said she felt safer with the more cautious approach taken by Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf, a Democrat. “States that have mask mandates are pushing cases down,” said Ms. Hady, 46, who planned to vote for Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden.
Such divisions on the ground reflect those at the political level. In February, Mr. Trump insisted concerns over the virus were a “hoax” and the number of cases in the U.S. would soon be “close to zero.” In April, he encouraged states to end physical distancing to restart the economy.
Governors, meanwhile, complained the President was failing to co-ordinate a national response and not using his authority to get enough testing supplies, medical equipment and protective gear. Maryland’s Larry Hogan, a Republican, even turned to South Korea for test kits after he could not get them from the White House.
But at the convention, the President has been instead portrayed as an active chief executive. Mr. Trump “marshalled the full resources of our federal government from the outset,” Vice President Mike Pence declared Wednesday night. “One leader took decisive action to save lives,” a narrator intoned in one segment. Larry Kudlow, the President’s economic adviser, suggested the pandemic was as good as over with: “Get ready for a big third and fourth quarter, folks,” he said.
The RNC also showed the President and his advisers taking few steps to physically distance. The speech by Mr. Pence, head of the White House’s coronavirus task force, unfolded in front of a crowd at Fort McHenry in Baltimore, with few people wearing masks. It was a similar scene for First Lady Melania Trump’s address in the White House Rose Garden. In a meeting between the President and front-line COVID-19 responders at the White House, everyone stood close together, maskless, and Mr. Trump touted taking hydroxychloroquine to fight the virus, a risky and unproven treatment.
Leana Wen, a former public-health official who teaches at George Washington University, said the Trump administration deserves some credit for expanding access to telehealth services and fast-tracking the development of a vaccine. But the picture painted at the convention leaves out Mr. Trump’s missteps, while his disregard for physical distancing sends a potentially dangerous message to the public.
“They are implying that the coronavirus is no longer a problem that we have to think about in our everyday actions,” she said. “No country is looking at the U.S. and saying, this is what we should do. We are leading the world, but in infections and deaths.”
A Monmouth University poll this month found that 57 per cent of respondents felt Mr. Trump was doing a bad job with COVID-19, up 12 percentage points since March. But Patrick Murray, director of Monmouth’s polling centre, said Mr. Trump is so polarizing that roughly 90 per cent of voters had their minds made up years ago how they would vote in 2020.
“The pandemic has only caused the vast majority of the electorate to hunker down into their positions, and solidified them,” he said.
Barbara Perry, a presidential scholar at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center, said Mr. Trump has been both uniquely unprepared to handle the major crisis of his presidency and uniquely willing to deflect blame because of his disregard for the truth.
“He’s the worst President to have had for this kind of catastrophe, that required belief in science, belief in medicine and the co-ordination of state and local power,” Prof. Perry said. “But we’ve never had a president like this, who lies all the time.”
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