Donald Dossier: Viral Moment
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because the president's reelection chances are at least catching a cold.
During his “all is calm” coronavirus news conference on Wednesday, President Donald Trump was asked about his aggressive criticism of the Obama administration during the 2014 Ebola outbreak. “This is a much different problem than Ebola,” Trump replied. “Ebola, you disintegrated.”
Epidemiologically speaking, he’s right. The average Ebola death rate is 50 percent for people who contract it. For this new strain of coronavirus, early research from China shows a death rate of 2.3 percent (up to around 15 percent for seniors). “This is like a flu,” Trump said, even though it’s 20 times deadlier than the flu.
But watching the stock market disintegrate this week — as Trump laughably tried to blame it in part on the Democratic presidential debate — the president could see his reelection chances at least catching a cold. And the Ebola panic bears lessons.
The timing, at least, is better for Trump. Ebola panic came in September and October of 2014, just before the midterm elections, while Trump has another eight months of campaigning to go. President Barack Obama, too, tried to project calm. He appointed Ron Klain, a Joe Biden lieutenant and longtime Democratic political operative, as Ebola “czar” to coordinate the response. That role this time goes to Vice President Mike Pence.
As the Ebola outbreak started to spread in West Africa, Obama coordinated a global response utilizing the U.S. military. He resisted calls from both parties in Congress — and a reality TV show host named Donald Trump — to shut off travel to West Africa, which he said would simply make the problem worse. When a handful of Americans were diagnosed with Ebola, pandemonium struck. Local pizza joints wouldn’t even deliver to the Atlanta hospital where one patient was getting treated in a top-notch isolation unit.
Health workers in hazmat suits started popping up in campaign advertisements. In fact, the panic had a demonstrable effect on the outcome of the midterms: Research showed a correlation between spikes in Ebola web searches and Republican electoral success. (Because Republicans took over the Senate that year, you could argue Merrick Garland would be a Supreme Court justice if not for Ebola.)
Thing is, the Obama approach turned out to be effective in halting the outbreak, but the politics were incredibly messy.
Democrats are already jumping on Trump for not showing enough urgency in fighting this coronavirus and for proposing to slash funding for the agencies that will attack it. He started out more subdued than his government’s own Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but the stock market correction — the worst since 2008 — has his full attention. Now all public communications about the virus are meant to run through Pence’s office — raising questions about whether politics will trump science.
Meanwhile, at a rally in South Carolina on Friday, Trump falsely blamed the hysteria on Democrats and the media, calling it “their new hoax,” following the Russia and Ukraine scandals.
But the news gets more serious by the day; Pence on Saturday announced additional travel restrictions on people coming in from Italy, South Korea and Iran, where cases have spiked. And we had our first U.S. coronavirus death, a man in his 50s in Washington state, as “community transmission” — i.e., people who did not come back carrying the virus from overseas or have contact with someone who did — accelerates on the West Coast.
The CDC is warning of potentially large disruptions ahead to American life. We might not be far away from big event cancellations and school and workplace closures. That would only compound the economic, and thus political, pain.
Responding to public fear without sounding panicked, articulating a clear plan and keeping the GOP together will be crucial for Trump to keep his political footing amid the crisis.
On Wednesday, his key advice to the public, in keeping with CDC recommendations, is something he preaches in his own life: Wash your hands frequently, “don’t touch every handrail” and avoid close contact with the sick. Trump then veered into an anecdote about his revulsion when a sick person recently hugged him.
The president’s germophobia has long been a source of mockery for his foes. He might well have just been ahead of the curve.